Righting Historic Wrongs

News from GSAS: Mireille Lee, M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’99, establishes a foundation to help identify looted artifacts

Mireille Lee was a master’s student studying Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology in 1993 when her professor, James Wright, tipped authorities off about a collection of Mycenaean gold and jewelry that he believed to have been looted from Aidonia, Greece.

Mireille Lee
Mireille Lee

For Lee, the headline-making case of the Aidonia treasure underscored what she was learning at Bryn Mawr about the ethics of archaeology and “the dangers of the antiquities market.” Even after a 1970 UNESCO agreement meant to limit the movement of cultural property across borders without the express permission of the source country, a black market of stolen artifacts persisted.

It wasn’t the last time Lee would encounter these issues as a young academic and researcher. “I got to a point in my own research where I had to deal with provenance issues and realized that I didn’t really know how to go about doing it,” she says. “I realized what a tremendous need there was for creating some mechanism whereby students could be trained to do this kind of work.”

In 2022, Lee established the Foundation for Ethical Stewardship of Cultural Heritage (FESCH). The foundation's inaugural project is to create a protocol for cataloging items in museum and academic collections and make that data available in an open-source database where items and their origins can be easily researched.

“I realized what a tremendous need there was for creating some mechanism whereby students could be trained to do this kind of work.”

Provenance has been a growing concern at major museums in recent years. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution have all discovered looted items in their collections. Sometimes, source countries have demanded the return of their artifacts. It’s created a “snowball effect,” Lee says, helping to draw attention to cultural heritage.

“Where they are creating jobs in museums right now is within the realm of provenance research,” she says.

However, researching provenance can be difficult. There are few online resources. Travel is frequently required. “Everyone I know who does this work has had to learn on the job, and there really is no umbrella organization to help them navigate this whole process,” Lee says. “People have been sharing information via Twitter.”

In January, FESCH received a $349,315 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to officially launch the Mediterranean Antiquities Provenance Research Alliance, or MAPRA, a pilot program with four universities to establish standard nomenclature and protocols for provenance research and begin creating a database.

Sarah Kielt Costello, M.A. ’97 serves on the advisory council for MAPRA. Because of her experience in Bryn Mawr’s archaeology program and its long-standing commitment to ethics, Costello says, it was especially gratifying to work on the project with another alum.

“The stories of objects don’t only reside in the distant past,” Costello says. “Our recent and current interactions with them, how they changed hands, how they have been displayed—these are all part of the fascinating story that objects can tell. Creating resources to help students learn how to do provenance research opens up the pathway to learning those stories.”

Learn more at fescheritage.org