Robert N. Shapiro

“Reflections on Art, Culture and Law”

Address delivered by Robert N. Shapiro at the Museum of Islamic Art – Doha, Qatar

Opening the Qatar Law Forum

29 May 2009

Excellencies and distinguished guests: We are gathered in a house of treasures. In the galleries around us, we travel across decades and distance – from the 12th century to the 19th, from Iran to Egypt to Syria to Spain. Our guides are the objects collected and displayed within these walls – the mesmerizing 13th century blue-glass Syrian vase, the dazzling 17th century India flask of jade, gold and rubies, the exquisite 16th century Turkish ceramic bottle. As artistic expressions, these works fill us with wonder. And they open windows for us on the cultures that inspired them. The range of objects also reminds us that the interaction of great works, and the commerce involved in collecting and sharing them, forge links across boundaries of time and space. It is the juncture of art, culture and commerce that I want to discuss tonight.

To begin, join me please on a trip to my home and the institution where I spend time as board president, the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. PEM is a museum of international art and culture. Established in 1799, it is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States; its collections are among the largest of any art museum in North America. PEM is dedicated to connecting art to the world in which it is made.

It was originally the museum of the East India Marine Society. Its founders were America’s first global entrepreneurs, captains who sailed from a port north of Boston. They opened trade routes around the Capes, and turned Salem into the wealthiest city in the young country. They also made it among the most cosmopolitan. The merchants of Salem had close connections with colleagues as far as India, Mauritius, China, the islands of the Pacific and other ports around the world. These were practical men: they wanted voyages to be successful. At the same time, they resolved “To form a museum of natural and artificial curiosities, particularly such as are to be found beyond the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.” The founders created a museum in the tradition of “cabinets of curiosities” – collections of both natural and human-made objects that sparked a sense of wonder – for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the public.

In the same spirit as this evening’s grand dinner, the founders of the Peabody Essex Museum celebrated their global connections and the collections they were building. Before their annual meetings, they held proud processions through the city. In the words of the Salem Gazette in 1807, they displayed “the dresses and instruments which have been brought from the distant regions they have visited, and which in some measure inform us of the customs, manners and arts of their inhabitants…” Following the processions and the meetings, they settled in for feasts with numerous toasts. At one of these occasions, the toasts were so inspiring that a salute of 16 guns was fired from the brass cannons on a model of a full-rigged ship in the museum’s collection. That is not part of the program tonight!

Amid the festivity, the toasts expressed the institution’s central goals. Listen to these, from the annual dinner in 1804, and reflect on their timeliness for us:

- May each mariner record, so that Enterprise may discover.

- Commerce without violence, and no war upon the sea.

- Natural History. May commerce never forget its obligations.

- A Cabinet. That every mariner may posses the history of the world.

The animating spirit of the Peabody Essex Museum has always been a curiosity about wonderful things – literally, objects full of wonder. Works of art have a direct power and authenticity reflecting their origins, their context, and their makers.

The global reach of these works mattered to those who established the museum. Ships’ logs and diaries in our library attest that mercantile relationships became friendships, that commercial interchange led naturally to cultural interchange.

Carrying on this legacy, the mission of PEM today is to celebrate artistic and cultural creativity, in order to trigger experiences that change people’s lives. Over two hundred years, the museum’s collections have grown and span the globe. Both historical and contemporary works come from all across Asia, plus Oceanic and African works, Native American, Maritime Art, and the architecture and arts of our New England region.

The promise of the museum where we convene tonight grows from similar perceptions. As the Museum of Islamic Art instructs about its collections: “The aim of the artist in the Islamic world is to make ordinary objects beautiful by means of design, decoration and exquisite craftsmanship… Art takes many forms and is not restricted to any particular kind of object.”

Our two museums, founded two centuries apart, nurture and prize a sense of wonder and curiosity. They connect art to the larger world of which it is a part. They feel remarkably similar, with galleries of ceramics, jewelry and decorative arts, objects that have intrinsic richness of design and also give us insights about our world and ourselves. Through these masterworks, we encounter other people and experiences, times and contexts. These encounters broaden our horizons and our thinking. This is why the fusion of art and culture is so powerful.

Museums make this chemistry happen, bringing together art and audiences. In this elegant atrium, we convene from many lands in the company of great works of art. At PEM, as you will see when you visit, the entrance way leads to a large glass-roofed space that has the same welcoming effect. The architecture creates a “town common” in New England terms, a gathering place for the community; expressed in the vocabulary of our meeting this evening, we have – here – a global forum.

Public museums are declarations of a cosmopolitan world. In museum galleries, art works from different times and places have a dialogue with one another, and they include us in it as well. The philosopher Anthony Appiah, in his recent book “Cosmopolitanism,” observes that works of art can link people together on a common meeting ground of the imagination. Through art there can be “conversation,” an engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. Conversations across boundaries of identity – whether national, religious or otherwise – help people become acquainted with one another. Works of art enable a sharing that is not always possible in verbal conversation. The experiences of all individuals in encountering works of art will not be the same, because they are creative and individual for each person. But we know when we contemplate a great work of art that we are all experiencing something important *together*. Art thus becomes a shared meeting ground.

Conversations across cultural boundaries depend on stability, a structure of global relationships ordered by legal systems and a respect for the legal systems of one another. Everything we shall discuss in the next two days about the rule of law in a global context is relevant to the interchange of art and culture. I want to emphasize that art, museums and cultural conversations are not disconnected from analyses of legal issues involved in globalization. Each area of inquiry informs the other. Take one important example – consider the current legal and cultural discussions about art and “cultural patrimony.” Do works of art belong to the culture that produced them? What is the role of museums around the world in exhibiting works of art, created in many locations and at different times? In this debate, positions have become polarized.

Countries from which art originated declare that the works should come home, even if the countries in their current national form did not exist when the objects were created. They claim these works have the power to shape the culture, and should be gathered in the place where the culture is defined.

On the other side, encyclopedic museums – those with collections representing the world’s diverse artistic production – point to the benefits of making those collections accessible to visitors and scholars from all countries, and exhibiting the works of different cultures in proximity to one another. In the resulting standoff, everyone is saying, “This is mine and mine alone!”

With passions running high, it seems that both sides can’t be right. But they are. Art works *are* invested with special meaning in a particular place and cultural context; and they are *also* meaningful to people in other milieus whose understanding is broadened by encountering these cultural ambassadors.

Artists take inspiration and models from every direction. So do those who seek and enjoy art. Everyone should have access to public collections in all parts of the world. Many encyclopedic museums are located in major Western cities, but that is not a fixed rule. One of the first encyclopedic collections was to be found at the Topkapi Palace in fifteenth-century Istanbul. The Museum of Islamic Art establishes an important new presence of art and culture.

The great lessons of these inspiring institutions is this: Art wants to move and to be experienced. And it should be. In markets of free-acting sellers and purchasers, art should flow to all locations where it can be cared for and offered to the public. Loans for exhibitions around the world should further increase the global experience of art, ideas and cultural understanding. Audiences should be able to encounter broad-ranging international collections everywhere, in New York and London, in Salem and here in Doha.

Today's ownership claims concerning iconic objects, and debates concerning antiquities between archaeologists and museums, reflect serious views and sincere convictions. But addressing the claims of ownership only begins to answer the real question: how works of art and culture, however owned and wherever located, can become accessible to all.

If we focus on the power of works of art and culture to interpret human experience; on the layers of meaning to be gained from cultural conversation and connection; on the foundation provided by legal systems for free-flowing commerce and interchange; and on the potential of museums to realize the best of these aspirations; then we will nurture the spark of curiosity that can enrich all people’s lives. So, following the tradition of my PEM predecessors, I offer this tribute to the hopes that have brought us all to Doha:

- To this glorious museum and to its brethren in all lands, in the spirit of art and culture, curiosity and wonder, connection and understanding, in a global community.

Thank you.

About the Peabody Essex Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum presents art and culture from New England and around the world. The museum's collections are among the finest of their kind, showcasing an unrivaled spectrum of American art and architecture (including four National Historic Landmark buildings) and outstanding Asian, Asian Export, Native American, African, Oceanic, Maritime and Photography collections. In addition to its vast collections, the museum offers a vibrant schedule of changing exhibitions and a hands-on education center. The museum campus features numerous parks, period gardens and 24 historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

HOURS: Open Tuesday-Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 am-5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

ADMISSION: Adults $15; seniors $13; students $11.* Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $5. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.
*Does not apply to children in school/tour groups

INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit our Web site at


PR Contacts:

Whitney Van Dyke  -  Director of Communications  -  978-542-1828  -

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