Ostensibly, the new Barnes will provide greater access to the masterpieces. But they were all just across City Line Avenue if you really wanted to see them. And we know who visits art museums from surveys, and it's not the working-class folks the boosters keep talking about.
No, the new Barnes is a trophy that the city's cultural elite can use as a backdrop for their parties and events. Corporate logos will soon adorn its walls, and folks with money will be able to demonstrate their sensitivities by becoming "upper-level" supporters.
Cultural piracy is not new, of course. Visit any good museum and you will be looking at the looted patrimony of many societies. All those ancient Greek and Roman statues were carried away from their homelands not only by thieves and Indiana Jones types, but also by well-meaning, civic-minded collectors and curators — much like the folks who grabbed Dr. Barnes' treasure for their own purposes.
Saint and sinners
An even more spectacular cultural hijacking from another millennium reminds us that there's nothing new under the sun. In the year 828, the movers and shakers of Venice felt their nascent city would benefit from a tourist attraction. In those days, though, it wasn't blockbuster art that drew crowds; it was the sublime beauty of the heavens, as represented by religious relics. The city fathers began casting about for remains of early Christian martyrs significant enough to attract the devout and bring prestige to their hometown.
The doge of Venice had to look a little farther than Mayor Nutter. But just across the Mediterranean, in Alexandria, were the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist — the author of the second Gospel, for Pete's sake. Mark could transform the entire lagoon into a destination for Europe's faithful. He could fill hotel rooms, to use contemporary parlance, just like the Barnes collection.
However, St. Mark's remains, like the Renoirs and Cézannes in Merion, weren't easily had. The Coptic Christians of Alexandria, where Mark had been martyred, had over the centuries built a substantial shrine to keep and venerate the man who founded the church in Egypt.
Undeterred, the Venetians sent two representatives to see what could be done. The historical record gets a bit murky here, but most agree they stole the remains, hid them in baskets, covered them with pork to repel the Muslim port authorities, and sailed home to Venice, miraculously surviving storms along the way.
Lost in translation
They didn't get away with the entire "collection," however. It seems Mark's enemies had dragged him through the streets of Alexandria by a rope around his neck, eventually decapitating him. Converts recovered his head and body and placed them in separate reliquaries. The Venetians had carried away the body but, for unknown reasons, left the head with the Alexandrians.
Like the Barnes' supposed saviors, the Venetians justified the theft by alleging that the institution they stole from was inadequate. The remains were not safe in Alexandria, they argued, and more people would have access to them in Christian Europe than in increasingly Muslim and hostile North Africa, so the smash-and-grab was what Mark really would have wanted.
The remains were initially housed in the doge's private chapel, but over the centuries, the astonishing basilica in the Piazza San Marco was built to accommodate them. As was hoped, the relics attracted the devout and the curious. The city in the lagoon prospered.
But the soul of St. Mark, with his bodily remains on separate continents, was not at rest. The church in Egypt was not at rest, either, having never accepted the theft of its patriarch. In 1968, Pope Paul VI ceremoniously returned all or some (depending on whom you ask) of the apostle's remains to Alexandria. Such repatriation has become a trend as cultures around the world demand the return of their looted material history.
The Catholic Church refers to the movement of relics from place to place as "translation." The Barnes has been translated, too, from a unique curriculum into a museum open, for a fee, to anyone. But the Barnes' translation was done legally, of course, so a return to Merion is not a possibility. The collection's splendid new home on the Parkway is not as jaw-droppingly spectacular as St. Mark's Basilica, but then, how could it be?
Donald Eckard teaches sociology as an adjunct at Temple. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.