The Collections Analysis Collaborative (CAC) was formed by Art History alumnus John Hopkins (M.A., 2004; Ph.D, 2010), formerly of Rice University and now associate professor at NYU; Paul R. Davis, curator of collections at The Menil Collection, and Sarah Kielt Costello, University of Houston - Clear Lake; to generate a rich, historical understanding of nearly 600 objects from the ancient Mediterranean, housed in the Menil Collection. This collaboration between key Houston cultural and educational institutions, brings together affiliated students, art historians, archaeologists, and museum professionals to identify innovative approaches that address contemporary issues of cultural heritage, provenance, object-based research, collecting practices, and public display that shape the efficacy of museums’ permanent collections and prospective acquisitions.
The initiative and its resulting conversations and conference in 2016, has culminated in the recent publication of Object Biographies: Collaborative Approaches to Ancient Mediterranean Art from Yale University Press and the Menil Collection (Houston 2021). Associate Professor Nassos Papalexandrou contributed two essays to this collection, the first centering early Greek votive bronzes (“Geometric” period or ca 900-700 BCE) from the sanctuary of Athena Itonia in Thessaly, Greece, which was brutally pillaged by looters and the local community in the early sixties. The looted materials ended up in the Menil Collection, also in two other collections in Europe. The second essay focuses on a group of architectural terracottas (6th c. BCE) illegally unearthed and exported from Turkey (Düver, Burdur region) in the early sixties. This is now widely dispersed in various museums in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. In addition to archaeological issues, Papalexandrou explores the ethical implications of this situation for the Menil and other collections that own fragments of what was originally an integrated artifact or artwork. In both cases, the illegal processes that resulted in collecting largely involved the irreversible destruction of both the archaeological context and the artifacts themselves. How should museums deal responsibly with the ambivalent and often dark histories of some of their holdings—such as the bronzes or the architectural terracottas in the Menil Collection? The CAC initiative and this publication were under The Menil’s aegis, the museum collection and staff facilitating research by providing access to sensitive records in its archive and including the volume in its publication program.