Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happah New Year

The end of a year and the beginning of a new one are traditionally a time to reflect on the past and look to the future, and I’d like to present a few of the personal highlights of the ongoing discussions that come to mind on a cold January morning. For me a number of events stand out.

One of the most obvious series of events of the past year involved the continuing effects on the museum world of the spreading ripples of the Medici-Hecht-associated affair nicely documented in the past year in David Gill’s Looting matters blog. The discovery of a dealer’s polaroid photos and records a few years ago has led this year to the identification of more objects in US museums which it seems had been looted from archaeological sites in several countries like Italy. Several of them have been persuaded to return these artefacts to the countries whose archaeological record has been thus damaged. These included the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Unlike the majority of the decontextualised archaeological objects moving through the shady no-questions-asked antiquity market there was documentary evidence of the illicit origin of these finds.

The original owners of another cause celebre, the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask now in St Louis, USA have not been so lucky. At the moment the St Louis Art Museum is stubbornly hanging on to it, claiming that it has not been proven that the object was stolen from a Sakkara museum storeroom. Neither has it been proven that in buying such an object from the Aboutaams, SLAM actually did its homework to determine where the object had come from. The appointment of the SLAM director as one of the US president’s advisors on antiquities policy last year really rubbed salt into the wounds.

It was in such an atmosphere that we saw the publication in June of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? which attracted an enormous number of reviews. As Renfrew observed in his extremely balanced review, Cuno "sets out what might, ten years ago, have been described as the art museum director’s case on the proprieties of ownership and acquisition”. As the Medici-Hecht-Schultz/Tokely-Marion True affairs are bringing to public attention the abuses hiding just below the surface of the no-questions-asked antiquities market, the museum world has moved on slightly from the days when it was fashionable to proclaim “universalism” as the answer to any problems raised about the ethics of their acquisitions.

This places the private collector (and the dealers that in recent years has come increasingly to rely on the market they create) in a difficult position. A fact they acknowledge by the desperate campaigns emerging from some quarters to get public opinion on their side. Groups like the ACCG have not been inactive this year, from postulating some kind of conspiracy behind the US Department of State's acceptance that ancient coins were archaeological finds (duh!) to launching a series of personal attacks on those that question their mantras. Cuno’s book, however, found a ready market here. While many museum staff and archaeologists distanced themselves from the more extreme implications of Cuno’s arguments, collectors were delighted to embrace the series of arguments it placed in their hands. These reverberated with those that they had adopted over the past decade or so. Private collectors were, they said, the new universalists, collecting portable antiquities to make a better world, free of “nationalist” impositions. Thes claims disregard two things, firstly their collecting is itself an expression of neo-colonialist values and secondly that Cuno was arguing that if the Universal Museums were not allowed to buy the items they want there was a danger that they would disappear into private collections. Antiquity collectors do not seem to have read that far into the contents of Cuno’s book.

Another field of debate was Iraq. Shocking photos of archaeological sites riddled with looters’ holes (apparently as the side-effects of an increasingly unpopular unilateral military intervention) were useful ammunition in bringing home to public opinion the significance of the problem of looting of the world's archaeological sites as a major source of the collectables being offered for sale by dealers. This made it an uncomfortable issue for both the arts trade and private collectors. They were delighted by and made much of reports (published primarily in the Art Newspaper) that the stories about the looting were exaggerated. In any case, the collectors argued that the markets in their own countries were uninvolved. The attempts to seize on these stories would be comical were it not for the true scale of the destruction to Iraq’s archaeological heritage caused since the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s while we all stood by and did noting about the flood of antiquities which appeared on the market, and continue to do so.

As is clear from reading the texts they produce, portable antiquity collectors all over the world regard England’s Portable Antiquities Scheme to be their darling and pet. If only, they say, all other source countries would have such liberal laws as England and Wales and pump millions of pounds/dollars/Euros into creating similar schemes, there "would be no looting”. This is treated as so “obvious” a solution (so obvious, let the USA adopt it for the archaeological sites on federal land , eh?) that we are asked to believe that any nation that does not adopt such a solution and does not mount a 24-hour armed guard on every archaeological site deserves to have its archaeological heritage destroyed by “free-enterprise” looters. In other words, its not the collectors who buy looted stuff no-questions-asked who are the cause of looting, but – the twisted argument goes – the “archaeologists” who do not persuade governments that they “must” accommodate the collectors.

To add insult to injury, an “independent” review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme was published last year which actually pronounced British archaeology to be in partnership (sic) with portable antiquity hunters and collectors. A partnership is characterized by two or more sides working together to common aims. We all know the aims of the accumulators of personal collections of portable antiquities, it is disturbing to be informed that British archaeologists are now working to the same aims. Incredible though it may seem, as far as I can see, not a single archaeologist in Britain (and I am told there are 7400 of them now) seems to have raised a peep of protest about this unilateral declaration !

Anyway readers of this blog will know that I think there is a lot of evidence that the PAS is not actually coping with the issues of portable antiquity collecting in England and Wales anywhere near as well as the pro-collecting propaganda makes out. In fact, in several areas it is distinctly lacking. It would be nice to think that in 2009 we will see some discussion and improvement in this area.

Looking to the future, I think we need more stock taking and discussion of the current status quo. In Britain for example I have argued that there is an urgent and inescapable need to carry out a proper survey of the effects of current policies on artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting on the archaeological record. I have tried to show in these pages through a number of cases occurring in 2008 the need for such questioning of the glib statements in favour of maintaining the status quo. Perhaps 2009 will be the year when moves are made to organize such a stock-taking?

Another task for the future is proper public outreach. It is clear that the public is relatively uninformed (or unconcerned) about these issues. For many, “archaeology” is synonymous with “discovery of treasures”, and that, after all, is what artefact hunters and looters are doing, “finding more treasures”. It seems to me that for many people the only problem is whether these artefacts are ending up in museums (and in which country). The whole issue of the destruction of the archaeological record to create these “commodities” is less visible to them. Archaeologists are doing too little to promote a picture of the discipline which says otherwise. In fact in Britain, most public outreach (through the PAS) is having the opposite effect. We need better public information about these issues. It is good to see that, while government and official agencies are loathe to attack this problem face on, organizations such as SAFE, Heritage Action and HAPPAH are trying to fill the gap. Let us wish them success in the coming year. It would be nice to see the official organizations showing more recognition of and supporting their efforts.

Reflections on the events of 2008 confirm my belief that the ultimate aim of all this should be suspension of social approval for no-questions-asked collecting of archaeological artefacts (and yes, I include coins in that) by a properly informed public. Making the public of both “source” and “market” countries fully aware of the deleterious effects of artefact hunting and collecting on the finite resource places the discussion firmly in the realm of conservation (and not “personal rights”). It is my hope that this will make private collecting of “fresh” and undocumented archaeological artefacts as socially reprehensible as the picking of scarce flora.

Above all I would like to see collectors themselves taking more responsibility for the effects of their pastime on the survival of the archaeological record, not only in their own country, but seen in a global perspective. We have seen in 2008 that dealers are unwilling to face the consequences of a more transparent market - unless they are forced to it by ranks of responsible collectors refusing to buy goods the legitimacy of which is tested by the quality of documentation of provenance rather than "reputation" of a dealer. A widely-accepted collectors' code of ethics expressing a firm stance against the no-questions-asked approach which fosters the illegal trade in antiquities would be a great step in the right direction. A beginning was made on one on an antiquity collectors’ discussion list in 2008, a cacophony of protest was heard from the dealers and the will to take the project forward seems to have faltered. Let us hope that those involved in the initiative pick up the ball again and run with it.

In 2008 there was some discussion in collecting circles about creating registers of finds to allow their movement from a documented provenance through various scattered and ephemeral collections. Let us hope that these discussions will continue in 2009. If collectors wish scattered and ephemeral personal collections to be seen as a normal and beneficial means of curating the archaeological record, then we need to see the will to actually provide the best possible means of curation of the information associated with legitimately-obtained artefacts.

Many advocates of portable antiquity present it as a way individuals can gain (their own personal) “window on the past” and the way the man in the street can challenge the elitism they allege is inherent it the existence of specialist disciplines involved in the creation of the communal past. I’d like to see more discussion in archaeology of ways to create new opportunities for public involvement in (proper) archaeology in preference to erosive relic collection. Let us see if archaeology cannot find another way to deal with this social need. First though it has to discover why a “passionate interest in the past” takes precisely the form it does. So far it has not really asked that question. Another question they have not addressed (or rather, refused to address) is “when is portable antiquity collecting archaeology for all, and when is it not?”. Perhaps we will hear an answer in 2009?

An obvious desideratum is that we need to get our governments to take immediate, active and effective measures to stamp out the trade in illicit antiquities in our respective countries. It is not enough to have laws which protect only those archaeological artefacts dug up within the frontiers of that country leaving dealers apparently free to sell openly objects dug up illegally in other countries. Britain for example has a law which pretends to prevent this, it is flouted every day on a certain internet auction site, and not an archaeological eyelid is batted. While the archaeologists of Britain stay silent, its not surprising that the public and politicians do not appreciate the scale and seriousness of the problem.


Twoflies said...

Happy New Year Mr Barford !

And thank you for the good joke in the title (happah new year).
I hope it will bode well for the preservation of archaeological heritage in 2009!
Thank you also for the vast quantity of documents that you give us in your blog, so that we can forge an opinion and use your arguments. These documents and your analysis are to-weight against the misinformation of the public.
Hope our efforts can have a favorable echo among policymakers and citizens.

Frédéric Demouche, HAPPAH-Corse.

Paul Barford said...

Frédéric, thanks for your comments, it's nice to know that somewhere my comments are appreciated. I'll try and insert the huyperlinks tomorrow. Happy New Year to you and all your supporters.

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