Sunday, 22 August 2010

No Power of Place for the Americans

In the ICE press release about the repatriation to Cambodia of items seized in "Operation Antiquity" it is perhaps telling that when searching for an analogy to bring home to US readers what such culture-crime involves, the best ICE/HSI Special Agent Michael Scott Crabb, who led 'Operation Antiquity', could come up with was:
"How would we, as U.S. citizens, feel if someone were to steal an original copy of the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence and sell to it to someone across the globe?" Another analogous hypothetical might be, 'How would Americans feel if someone sliced the head off of George Washington from Mount Rushmore and sold it to the highest bidder?'
A state whose own view of valued cultural property is exemplified by two curated late eighteenth century documents and a 1930s tourist attraction carved out of the Black Hills of South Dakota really is going to have difficulties actually understanding the issues involving dugup antiquities and the destruction of archaeological sites in the same way as the inhabitants of the Old World. How notable that he did not mention looting of Anasazi villages as the analogy.

This goes some way to explaining the gap which divides US collectors and dealers from those of us who live in the "source countries" which is noticeable when the issue of the looting of archaeological sites is being discussed. Not actually seeing the past of their own land in the way we do, they apparently simply do not understand the problem in the way which is obvious to the rest of us.

Vignette: Invented heritage: 1930s construction at Mount Rushmore - echos of other monuments from the ancient world, but not quite making it really...


Damien Huffer said...

good point. In the end, most of the big cases trace back to America, not to mention the tragedy of local looting.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is entirely fair though. What's the measure of a "sense of place"-- only remoteness in time ? At any rate, a lot of v. good US work on the power of place-- Lucy Lippard or Dolores Hayden.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for the comments, I guess I am guilty here of a certain mental shortcut, (I know what I had in mind even if its not so clear when you take one isolated post, I should take time to do more cross-linking of posts).

So in answer to your question, not so much "remoteness of time" but a time depth, yes.

What I wrote has to be seen in the context of those discussions with the North American (and other) dealers/collectors who say "modern nations" [as territorial units] cannot claim as the cultural property of the region that which belongs to 'vanished cultures' (Greek in Turkey, Roman in Britain/Italy/wherever, Ancient Egyptian by the modern Egyptians etc.). In this denial, they depict "culture" as genetic rather than a landscape issue. They see it as related to the "ownership" of isolated objects rather than involving items taken out of spatial relationships in the ground and landscape. It is that however that gives the people living in those areas their "roots" in their "little homeland", a sense of belonging and all that.

Obviously that is an idea difficult for a Missouri coin dealer difficult to grasp if he sees his own "little homeland" beginning its history with the Louisiana Purchase. Even in the examples you cite are the US authors not primarily discussing the built-by-the-white-man landscape as having 'power of place'?

I am just trying to get to grips with why the US antiquities dealers have some ideas which seem to me to be utterly crazy, totally illogical and unreasonable. Maybe we are simply speaking different languages when it comes to what we mean by "the past"?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think it's mostly about urban history (e.g. downtown LA) and the way place is produced by historical forces. Not to be sneezed at, of course.

The power of place argument is strong, of course, and does show up a problem with the chaps you pursue, the small fry as well as the bigger fish who want to "own a bit of the past" without a sense of how the past of a place is rooted there (for instance, who would say that the modern Swiss 'are the same' as the Roman or Gallo-Roman inhabitants of the villas and farmsteads in the Swiss plateau ? No reason, still, to plunder the soil and sell everything off to US collectors).

But the strongest argument is (surely) that this sort of activity destroys a finite resource, knowledge about the past.

Paul Barford said...

Indeed, but those chaps protest they "care [passionately] about the past", and they are"protecting" the ARTEFACTS.

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