Directly across from the ROM’s main entrance, you’ll find the Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art, a quiet battleground in a new war for cultural patrimony. The modest space is the namesake of William Charles White, an Anglican bishop, museum curator, U of T professor, and accused smuggler of cultural relics.
Credited with building much of the ROM’s superb Chinese collection, White exported antiquities from the Henan province from 1924 to 1934. China, however, banned exports of cultural artifacts in 1930.
Linfu Dong’s book Cross Culture and Faith, recently published by the University of Toronto Press, casts aspersions on White’s legacy. The bishop, said Dong, illegally trafficked the treasures out of China, skirting inspections by traveling through small railway stations or by packing them in other missionaries’ bags.
“He actively sought to evade [China’s] restrictions and continued to procure objects that he knew had been obtained illegally and to ship them to Toronto,” says Dong’s book.
White’s story is only a part of the book, which is primarily a biography of White’s fellow missionary James Mellon Menzies, who worked to stop relics like those in the ROM from leaving China. Virtually unknown until recent years, Menzies refused to sell to the ROM and paid for his archeological prospecting work with his salary.
But White grew rich from his activities, amassing a private collection and getting a handsome $35,000 by selling parts of it to the ROM after 1934, Dong found. White’s sales to the ROM formed the basis of the Chinese antiquities collection that now bears his name. That same year, upon his return to Canada, White became curator of the ROM’s first Far Eastern collection and started teaching at U of T, heading the first School of Chinese Studies.
Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research at the ROM, acknowledged that White was aware of the ban. “He didn’t know how it would take effect,” said Engstrom, who denied that the ROM artifacts were smuggled.
“They were declared and exported through Shanghai customs. We don’t have the customs forms, but I have his statements.”
Engstrom said he could not give an estimate of the size of the Bishop White collection or how much White was paid, citing spotty or unavailable records. He said that the missionary was never officially under contract with the ROM. “[White] was an individual selling to the ROM.”
Dong is not the first to unearth allegations of plundering against White. The former missionary was called “a robber of graves and a robber of souls” by a Chinese bishop as early as 1953. A 1974 biography of White notes his fl aunting of Chinese law on exporting cultural objects. The Museum Makers, Horatio Henry Lovat Dickson’s history of the ROM, says White and the ROM’s then-director Charles Currelly plotted to take advantage of China’s civil unrest and ship out as many artifacts as possible.
Engstrom downplayed the value of the ROM’s Chinese antiquities. “Frankly, although the ROM has very good collections from China, anything we have here would be minor compared to what’s available and what’s on display in China,” he said.
For its part, the Chinese government has never formally demanded the return of the artifacts, but the dispute over the Bishop White collection is part of a wave of repatriation claims that is rocking the museum world.
“It’s an issue of great concern to the profession,” said Lynne Teather, a professor at U of T’s museum studies program. “There are still all kinds of cultural groups who have or will have claims against many major collections in the world.”
Some relics are making their way back to their homeland. Engstrom said the ROM has not received repatriation claims from any country, but that the museum does have a policy for returning objects to Aboriginal groups within Canada. “Recently, we sent back two beaver bundles and two headdresses to a Blackfoot group in Alberta,” he said.
But across international borders, different laws and tangled provenance records slow the resolution of disputes. Last week, Italy celebrated the return of the Euphronios krater, an ancient vase, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—after a three-decade tussle.
The British Museum—home of the infamous Elgin marbles from the Parthenon and other buildings in the Acropolis—has become the most vocal supporter of a manifesto defending the “universal museum,” published by the directors of 40 major museums calling themselves the Bizot group. “Objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, refl ective of that earlier era,” reads the statement.
Museums in 102 countries now operate under the 1970 UNESCO convention that governs the transfer of cultural property. As the website of the International Council of Museums notes, “The UNESCO Convention of 1970 has no retroactive effect; it only enters into effect on the day of its official ratification.” Canada ratified the convention in 1978.
Engstrom expressed similar sentiments. “The times in the 1930s were different than they are now,” he said. “Today, the museum is very tight about the provenance of objects. Certainly in the past, we would have hoped everything was sent in legally.”