Wednesday 22 December 2010


Bernard Frischer, a Virginia professor of archaeology and classics has an op-ed piece in the New York Times with a suggestion to resolve a problem:
Even when museums have the best of intentions, some of the works they buy have passed through the hands of underground suppliers. It’s hard for museums to avoid the black market partly because there is so little legitimate excavation going on that can yield new finds. Illicit trade in antiquities, therefore, drives prices up and encourages looters to raid unprotected sites [...] even authentic works, in the absence of the context of their discovery, become mute witnesses to our irresponsible acquisitiveness.
Frischer suggests that museums could "put looters and smugglers out of business while uncovering more of the world’s cultural treasures at far lower cost" by excavating foreign archaeological sites themselves. Museums could, he argues, "create partnerships with the states where we know these promising archaeological sites exist to sponsor excavations and to help provide proper scientific oversight when artefacts are unearthed".
If only ownership could be separated from possession, then museums might strike a deal with countries like Greece and Italy. Here’s how it would work: The countries of origin would own anything that was excavated there and keep most of the finds on display in local partnering museums. But the museum that sponsored the dig would be allowed to borrow a percentage of the finds and exhibit them in America. Eventually, all the finds from a site would be exchanged on a rotating basis between the country of origin and the museum, which would pay the expenses and insurance.
I find it notable that he mentions the two countries whose bilateral MOUs about cultural property imports are under discussion right now. When the next round of talks about their renewal comes round, will this suggestion be placed on the negotiating table by the US as a "logical" demand?

Now in principle this is a fine idea. How it would work in practice is less clear. Frischer sees American museums "helping" to provide "provide proper scientific oversight when artefacts are unearthed", what does that actually mean? Running a modern excavation involves more costs than hiring a few dozen blokes with shovels and telling them to dig down until they hit something hard, when the white man will come and watch over them as they brush it clean. If, as Frischer admits, American (art) museums are not currently involved in excavation, then where is the technical equipment and expertise needed to do the job properly to come from? Who - in the staff of an arts museum - is going to analyse the organic remains, the coarse pottery, the metalworking debris, the roof tile fragments? How will the publication be fnanced and the storage of the excavation archive - including thousands of kilogrammes on undisplayable archaeological material? Frischer's idea concentrates on the spectacular goodies dug out of sites, what about the bread and butter bulk finds which contain the basic data which the archaeologist uses? To what extent does Frischer see US "help" extending to the proper handling of this material which will never be needed for display in a US gallery? Or will he suggest leaving it for the host country to deal with while the US funding body "borrows" the arty stuff for triumphant display?

How about the US museums dealing first with all the stuff they dug up in these countries in the golden years of partage? What about, for example, the boxes and boxes of unprocessed stuff the New York Metropolitan left in Luxor from Winlock's excavations? Much of what I was fortunate to have seen with my own eyes last year seems to be poorly labelled and a huge storage headache for the Egyptian authorities. Should it have been dug up if the foreign Museum did not have the resources to FULLY process and publish it and ensure it permanent safe and properly archived storage of all the material, and not just the displayable statues and grave goods they shipped off to the States? Further work on this material is now severely hampered by the fact that part of the excavation archive is in one country, while the other (including the original field notes) is in another. This even includes fragments of the same object now being separated between the two collections. To finish the job Winlock started would involve a lot more effort now than it would if the archive had not been split. But does this mean that the excavator has no obligation to finish the job? The same goes for all those Machu Picchu finds that Yale carted off to work on, but in all that time seem to have only managed (and only when the Peruvians started asking for their loan back) two monographs on a two small groups of these finds.

It is also debatable whether, if such deals were to be negotiated, archaeologically the most helpful thing to do would be to cherry-pick the best unthreatened sites in search of more spectacular arty geegaws (Frischer suggests excavating the massive tumulus at Mount Nemrut, Turkey [ a World Heritage Site], the Temple of the Divine Augustus in Rome, Pataliputra in India and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor [another World Heritage Site]). These would all be massive and highly expensive projects to do properly, tying the funding museum up in post-excavation study for a decade or more, all for the ability to display a few loaned sculptures and frescoes? Surely a far more tempting offer would be to persuade foreign governments to provide opportunities for western museums to participate in the funding of rescue archaeology projects (like the Afghan copper mine which apparently so concerns Peter Tompa) on the understanding that the financing institution will be able to borrow some of the dugup artworks among the objects and information it has helped save from destruction.

Frischer, suggesting that if museums stopped buying looted stuff the looting would stop, fails to note that what museums will not buy, there are always private collectors who will - no-questions-asked. He is not blind however to the needs of these collectors, and suggests that:
Even individual collectors could invest and participate in the exchanges, if they were trained to care for the finds on temporary loan to them. Someday, investors or their heirs could sell these shares at auctions and galleries, just like works of art.
The question arises that if this is such a jolly spiffing idea, why US museums have not loaned out objects from their collections to private collectors who could then sell those shares at auction?

Bernard Frischer, 'Museums Should Dig In' New York Times, December 22, 2010.
Vignette: Nemrut Dag World Heritage Site

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