Thursday, 19 March 2009

"Give us the stuff in the museums and storerooms and we will stop the looting of archaeological sites"

On his blog, Nathan Elkins ("Commodification of Antiquities as a Means of Protection?" ) discusses the portable antiquity collectors’ fantasy that state-employed archaeologists and governments ought to facilitate the commodification of collectable which they consistently present as “the only way to stop looting” while ensuring “the preservation of antiquities” in a way they claim public institutions are not doing. The persistence and frequency with which this argument is trundled out by the pro-collecting lobby is profoundly irritating. I've discussed a couple of cases here and here, but the whole "give every nation a PAS and it'll stop the looting" claptrap is another irritating and equally flawed variant.

The phenomenon really does raise questions about the awareness of the proponents of such arguments of what it is we are trying to conserve and how, what kind of material modern excavations of archaeological sites produce, and the function of museums and excavation archive storerooms. They also fail to take into account that most objects passing through private collections very soon lose any kind of documentation of provenance (I know of material in museums in England which has the provenance and associations recorded for finds of the 1850s and 1860s, while it seems US private collectors cannot find any documentation for objects they claim were “bought in Maceys” in the 1950s and 1960s or even later). That is no guarantee that anything going from a museum into such private collections will not almost immediately lose even the information that it had been in a museum and is not another looted and smuggled find. So what is the point? There is also the matter which Nathan raises of conservation and archiving facilities in domestic contexts.

Clemency C. Coggins (1995, ‘A Licit International Traffic in Ancient Art: Let there be Light’ International Journal of Cultural Property 4, 61-80) writes “one must conclude that talk of ‘duplicates’ which will supply, even satiate, the market is a smoke screen for inaction”. Personally, until collectors and dealers can sort out their problems with documenting the origins of the collectables as they move from hand to hand, from home to home, I think that is basically all we need to hear about these arguments.

Also since collectors strongly deny that there is any link between their no-questions-asked buying of artefacts of totally undocumentable origins and the clandestine movement of illegally excavated items to feed the commercial market... who spots the inconsistency in their other "argument" that IF public museum collections were split up to feed the antquities market, the looting would somehow stop? The only way that could be a logical argument would be to admit that it is the demand for looted objects that is the motor for creating the supply - which is of course what most people are not portable antiquity collectors can see at a glance is likely to be the case.

Anyway, please read what Nathan has to say.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.