Things Some Might Consider
Editorial comment by Wayne G. Sayles regarding the latest in a series of attacks against public and private collecting.
Wayne G. Sayles |
November 20, 2005
When Italian prosecutor Paolo Georgio Ferri proclaimed in a Rome court this month that "Museums have to stop plundering our cultural heritage" the message was unambiguous. Boston and Paris must certainly be proud of this "Indiana Jones" mouthpiece for carrying the crusade of cultural property prohibitionists to a new height. With their "one size fits all" attitude, any malfeasance—either real or imagined—will most certainly be a basis for condemnation of all collectors, everywhere, public and private alike. Some might consider this guilt by association.
In 2002, New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz was found guilty in a Federal court of conspiring to receive, conceal, and sell stolen antiquities from Egypt in violation of the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA). This conviction rocked the antiquities community because it set a precedent for U.S. prosecution, against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, for alleged violations of foreign laws. The community of cultural property prohibitionists (UNESCO's advocates, particularly in the U.S.) widely publicized this trial and did everything possible to advertise Mr. Schultz and his activities as the norm for the antiquities trade. Prominent archaeologists were widely quoted in the press with such statements as: "Reputable dealer is an oxymoron", "It's a dirty business, the antiquities trade" and "Looting, smuggling and fraud have always been the stock-in-trade of the antiquities market." Last year, German archaeologist Dr. Michael Müller-Karpe summed up the position of these radicals when, at an academic workshop, he said "We must call for a complete and irreversible end to any kind of trade in antiquities....money paid for excavated "unprovenienced objects" – regardless whether illegal or legal – directly sponsors and fosters further looting, further destruction." Some might consider this a false conclusion.
These same zealous opponents of private collecting used intense media focus on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a platform of opportunity for their ideological views. During the liberation of Baghdad, unconscionable charges of a hostile and vicious nature were levied by them against the U.S. armed forces. During the subsequent occupation, these charges have been focussed more intently against the antiquities market. In 2004, their blatant lies and distortions led to the passage of provisions in HR-1047 of 2004 that authorize import restrictions on "cultural property" of Iraqi origin. Once again, the U.S. government acted against the interests of U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil, in response to the interests of an foreign agency. A similar effort to legislate import restrictions on cultural property from Afghanistan is currently under consideration in the Trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. Some might consider this a rush to judgment.
The angst of cultural property prohibitionists over private collecting is well known and long standing, but the more recent attacks against the museum community are surprising to some. After all, aren't museum's where we preserve cultural property for future generations? This is where the veneer of cultural property protection wears thin and a more base motivation reveals itself. The cultural property war is not really over where cultural objects are stored, it is over who controls and gains from them. The vast majority of objects in public and private museums worldwide, even in countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey have come from private donations. With some notable exceptions, the finds from professional archaeological excavations are typically of lesser interest for museum display because of their relatively poor state of preservation and because most are poorly documented in a historical or art historical sense. Site context, which is of overriding significance to the archaeologist, means much less to the museum curator or to the visitor browsing through a museum exhibition. Since collectors tend to appreciate the same aspects of an artifact that museum professionals do, there is a natural affinity between the two groups. Archaeologists, much to their chagrin, find themselves outside of this symbiosis and increasing estranged from funding for major projects. Their response? One group closely aligned with the Archaeological Institute of America has organized public "tours" of major museums in which they highlight objects that they allege to be illegally obtained from some foreign country. Some might consider this intimidation.
Funding is not the only difficulty facing archaeologists today. Many countries have become aware of the publicity and propaganda value of archaeological reports. In the past, foreign archaeologists arrogantly dismissed local scholars and claimed recognition and credit for themselves. That is no longer possible. Some countries, like Egypt, have become clearly disdainful of foreign archaeologists. It would appear that among some archaeologists the support of repatriation claims against museums in North America and Europe is calculated to restore favor within those "cradles of civilization" where they wish to continue excavating. Of course, it would be fruitless and counter productive to criticize these host nations for their restrictiveness, but ingratiating themselves through public attacks against collectors and museums may open certain doors. Some might consider this pandering.
At one time, not that long ago, archaeologists were openly and unashamedly allies of private collectors. Collectors shared a great deal of information and expertise with professional archaeologists. If there was actually a numismatist assigned to a dig, it was invariably a private collector working as a volunteer. Archaeologists and museum curators were also allies. What classical archaeologist has not put the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum to good use? Today, many rank and file archaeologists still think of private collectors and museums as friends, often as colleagues. The leadership of the archaeological community is however firmly in the camp of cultural property prohibitionists and they rule the discipline with an iron fist. Today, these leaders see government as their ally. But, if the past is any indicator of the future, they may turn their back on government as well. In a paper for the Society of American Archaeology, Jon L. Gibson and Joe Sanders wrote: "...archaeologists must be the ones to choose which sites are to be protected. We can not entrust this selection to a governmental board or legislated process, which would give land owners the final word on whether a site will be protected.....Archaeologists must be more than just stewards of the past. They must serve as the public conscience. They must act on society's behalf even when society is insensitive or objects." Some might consider this duplicitous.
So, where is archaeological community leadership today? They are anti-trade, anti-museum, distrustful of government and facing stiff restrictions in their traditional workplace. They are openly critical of any scholarship that does not have their imprimatur, and they ostracize any member of their own fraternity who dares to publish in a non-approved journal or argue from evidence obtained through non-approved sources. They claim that they are the only ones qualified to study and preserve not only significant cultural artifacts, but literally everything over 100 years old that comes out of the ground. Some might consider this professional arrogance.
Where will this path ultimately lead? Certainly not toward scholarly enlightenment, preservation of the past nor improved cultural awareness. Some might consider this a sad but inevitable conclusion.