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Book Review: Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It

Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It
Author: Christine Sylvester

Reviewed By Ruth Ballester, Graduate Student, M.A. Program in Museum Professions, Seton Hall University

Professor of International Relations and Development at Lancaster University, Christine Sylvester, does a wonderful job analyzing how international relations and the art/museum world collide in her book, Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It. Published in 2009 by Paradigm Publishers, the book engages many well-known complex current events within the art world which Sylvester interprets with fresh insight. To view art/museum issues through the eyes of IR, and vice versa, is the consistent purpose throughout the book.

Sylvester begins ironically by challenging the notion, as suggested by various theorists and critics, that the art museum is now in decline. She points to the rich relationships among international relations, art, and art museums to refute such terminating theories. Prior to reading the book one may consider brushing up on what exactly international relations is. IR is defined as a branch of political science dealing with the relations between nations. Sylvester identifies the various camps within IR such as feminists, post-structuralists, as well as those related to schools such as the Paris school.1 International relations becomes very complex when sorted through and understood through the lens of art and museum politics.

Each chapter exemplifies the presence of international relations truly where we least expect it. Case studies are discussed through the framework of the following chapters; “Cultures, Nations, and the British Museum”, “The International Relations of Saving Art”, “MOMA Saves the West?”, “The Globalizing Guggenheim Saves the Basques?”, “Twin Towers of International Relations: The Museum”. Within each chapter Sylvester provides multiple perspectives to show the complexity of each example, as well as to establish and support her greater point.

The second chapter, “Cultures, Nations, and the British Museum,” focuses on the British Museum and the legendary controversy over its possession of the Elgin Marbles. By focusing on the relationship between Greece and the UK, she sheds new light on the issue of the Parthenon Marbles as cultural property. Cultural property issues are understood in new ways through IR by allowing us to consider the problematic negotiations between nations over the greater value of ownership.

Chapter Three examines the “rescue and save” justification commonly cited by the British Museum and other institutions.2 She explores how the 2003 battle between the National Gallery, London, and the Getty Villa over Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks became tangled in nationalist sentiment. “A number of issues of art, nation, and the international relations of museums enter into one little painting” Sylvester explains.3 She also identifies the ethical problems in the “rescue and save” efforts towards the collections at the National Museum in Iraq; “the war for art…” was found embedded “…inside the war for Iraq”.4 According to Sylvester, the act of ‘search and rescue’ forces the “rescuers” to be selective, choosing the past over the present, and implies curatorship. She questions this role by asking “which art is to be saved?”5

Sylvester does not limit her discussion of museums and international relations to antiquities and Renaissance art; her study also encompasses examples and issues in modern and contemporary art. In Chapter Four she unveils MoMA’s anti-communist agenda in the mid 20th century via a discussion of its ties to the Rockefeller family and exhibitions including the Family of Man which opened at MoMa in 1955 and then toured the world for eight years. Chapter Five examines the Guggenheim and its satellites within the context of globalism as it grows to be an “overseas empire”.6 For instance, she discusses the conflicts between Guggenheim Bilbao (Spain) and Basque culture. Sylvester shows, by quoting various critics, that the expanded Guggenheim is both much like “an imperial palace on colonized land” while simultaneously also functioning as “a cosmopolitan boost to an area.”7

“Museumifying” Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center, becomes the focal point of the sixth chapter.8 Sylvester sorts through the various politics involved in the creation of the new 9-11 museum including the needs of landlords, architects, and survivor groups. She presents the site as “a new museum of early twenty-first century international relations” by considering the historical events that have occurred at Ground Zero and all of the varying constituents involved.9

The final chapter in the book, titled “Art/Museums/International Relations: Collaging Afterlife” is a little confusing. In an attempt to clarify the relationship between art/museums and international relations and unify the other chapters, Sylvester uses the collage as a metaphor and methodology. However she becomes overly preoccupied interpreting artistic meaning of collage, providing several artworks as examples, which distracts more than illuminates.

Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It is a refreshing book which presents a new dialogue between two very different academic fields. I suggest this book to others interested in the related fields of IR, art, and art/museums and look forward to Christine Sylvester’s subsequent volume considering “the challenges to western museums raised by critics and institutions located elsewhere”.10

1 Christine Sylvester, Art/ Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009), 5.
2 Sylvester, 23.
3 Ibid., 69.
4 Ibid., 75.
5 Ibid,., 85.
6 Ibid., 24.
7 Ibid., 113-114.
8 Ibid., 24.
9 Ibid., 24.
10 Ibid., 23.


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