Thursday, 23 September 2010

Cultural Property Concern: a "Cancer"?

US Antiquities dealer Wayne Sayles claims that what he calls "cultural property nationalism" is like a cancer - "abnormal and malignant". That does not prevent him from making money selling ancient artefacts though. He likens the idea of people wanting the cultural property of their country being available in that country for study and appreciation in being a "cult-like fanaticism" to "the Spanish Inquisition, Bolshevism and the National Socialist movements". I think Mr Sayles has not quite grasped the issue - seeing it only from his own purely commercial viewpoint as a dealer in the cultural property taken, perforce, from other countries. For him there is something perverse in the idea that modern states have some form of control and responsibilities towards expressions of culture within their territory, including "all of the tangible elements of the land's cultural history—even when it has no demonstrable link to the present". His prose gets even more colourful, at the expense of clarity:
Like the nationalist movements of earlier ages, Cultural Property Nationalism relies on government oppression to achieve its aim of domination and control. Consequently, a process of infiltration and manipulation lies at the heart of its agenda. This oppression, as historically has been the case, is masterfully couched in egalitarian terms — even though the objectives are anything but. It is often accompanied by historical revisionism. The actions of nationalist government, when they inevitably run counter to the will and interests of the majority, are typically defended by a non-government group that is perceived as trustworthy and benevolent. These surrogates are often brought into the nationalist fold as "stewards" of the associated tangible property. [...] The proponents of this [cultural property nationalist] view have, with great skill and cunning, chipped away at age-old private property rights and have graduated from a subtle ideology to a controlling force. The process that has worked throughout time is working for Cultural Property Nationalists today.
But how can the dealer portray protecting and restoring the cultural heritage as "counter to the will and interests of the majority"? In what modern country is that the case? On the contrary it is the will of the people of countries deprived of important parts of their cultural heritage (Greece with its Parthenon Marbles, Nigeria with the Benin Bronzes, Egypt and Iraq robbed of thousands of antiquities) to get them back, and it is "enlightened countries" like Britain and the USA which are refusing to acknowledge those claims. From where do we need to excise the "cancer"?
The cases of nationalist excess that history preserves for us have all been reversed by a cataclysmic event. While the domination of nationalism comes slowly and insidiously, it is typically expunged in rapid fashion when the masses refuse to accept it. Cultural Property Nationalism is doomed to the same fate...
only when culture and cultural identity cease to exist, Mr Sayles, but then nobody will need dealers and the antiquities they sell, or museums that house them. I suspect that for a good while dealers like Mr Sayles seeing little in cultural property than how much they can make on selling it, reducing it to a mere commodity, like potatoes, will be a sad anachronism, a throwback to the world of colonialism and disregard for the inhabitants of other lands and regions. Before insultingly labelling those concerned about the future of a region's cultural heritage as a "cancer", perhaps Mr Sayles and others who treat it in a purely exploitive - trophy-hunting - fashion need to place themselves in the position of those their deeds deprive of their cultural heritage and the means to understand it in their own lands.

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