Thursday 3 February 2011

Radicals in our Midst

I too was shocked by the three questions in the SAFE poll, the reaction was predictable. To reiterate: Question: “Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt until order is restored?” there are three possible answers: No/ Yes/ Yes. Antiquities trade should stop, period. I voted for the second. Interestingly the 106 responses so far are fairly evenly spread. New York coin dealer Alfredo De La Fe sees something sinister in the third question ('Need proof that the radical archaeology movement wants to end the antiquities market?')
Quite often you hear from apologists and members [of] the radical archaeology movement that they do not want to bring an end to the antiquities trade, they just want a “licit” market that is properly regulated. My argument has been that this is nothing but a lie so that they do not appear to be taking an extreme position. Want proof?
I do not know whether the creator of the poll really had in mind when formulating this question. Whether it means the whole trade in Egyptian antiquities or other ones too. Whether they had in mind the whole antiquities market, or just the no-questions-asked bit where freshly looted stuff snuggles down among the decontextualised stuff the origins of which nobody cares to enquire about. Or did they really did mean every single documentable Grand Tour and turn of the twentieth century tourist trophy antiquity still in private hands. Neither do I know who are the forty-odd members of the public who so far have voted for this option, or what they think the question means. What I think it does show is that there is a certain degree of public disquiet about the way the antiquities market handles the issues of the sales of archaeological material, and the damaging lack of transparency.

I would say the collectors are caught up in their own rhetoric. I personally would say that those who voted "yes, stop the entire antiquities trade, period" (if they mean it as such) are indeed somewhat radical in their outlook. The problem is that in antiquity-collector-speak a "radical" is anyone at all who looks askance at the current form of the global antiquities trade and would like to see it clean up its act. That is not (should not be) tantamount to saying it should be stopped. As should be clear from this blog, I am among the group that want to see it being done in a more open (less secretive) manner and with full transparency about where the individual items involved have actually come from (as full as possible documented provenance and collecting history). I want to see caring collectors acting responsibly and with full awareness of the consequences of handling material in the manner in which is currently the case. That may be idealistic, but it certainly is not "radical". That's the way we trade meat and used cars. By using the umbrella term "radical" however dealers like De La Fe wish to persuade the onlooker that any calls for restraint and transparency within the antiquities market are in some way tainted by radicalism, and he has his "proof" that among the group he labels as a whole "radicals" there are indeed some that express a radical view. But there are also those with more moderate views, I'd draw his attention to the fact that twice as many voters so far express support for a more limited approach.

But what is the problem? A group of people have expressed the opinion on a web-based forum that the "antiquities trade as a whole should be stopped, period". That's free speech for you, people have alternative views. These people however are entitled to have these views, express them, and the rest of us have the right to agree or disagree with them and debate the issues. There are two ways to deal with the problem, Mr De La Fe can call on all his collector mates to vote "no" in their thousands as if it was a CPAC "public consultation" to try and drown out the voice of those they disagree with (which is just another way of ignoring the problem and pretending it has gone away - a common antiquitist tactic). OR they can address the issue, find out why some people think this and address their issues with the current form of the trade in dugup antiquities. That of course they do not want to do, and in fact appear - for one reason or another - wholly incapable of doing.


Jakob said...

Frankly it's not like another poll right beside it when I visited the website was much clearer. Question: "Should museums sell objects to cover operating costs?"
Answers: 1. Yes, 2. It doesn't matter to me, 3. Museums should sell objects for acquisitions only or 4. Only if there is a publicly disclosed policy.

So simply "no", the standard policy for the last 100 years in Denmark, is not an option?

Paul Barford said...

I think designing polls is not easy. I can see that in the poll you mention some might think "no" is the answer - but I guess many of them do not work in museums...

There is stuff in my local (county museum) like a whole load of real and fake Egyptian artefacts brought back by early 20th century tourists and donated to the museum, which by local bylaw cannot ever leave the museum collection. They do not fit the profile of the collection (devoted to local archaeology and history) and sit in a dark corner of a storeroom taking up space and needing looking after as much as any other object in the store. I can see a case for deaccessioning things like that.

Alfredo De La Fe said...

No Paul, the poll was skewed from the start. Ask a multiple choice question to YOUR OWN audience and they are going to pick the option that they think you want them to.

Regardless, the fact that such a worded option was posted on SAFE's official website speaks volumes.

Paul Barford said...

"and they are going to pick the option that they think you want them to."

Are they? Is that what ancient coin collectors do?

Alfredo De La Fe said...

Last time I checked, no coin collectors have put together a silly poll.

Let's see- an archaeology website that is generally anti-collecting asking a loaded question with two answers that support their views. Which of the two do you think will be selected?

Paul Barford said...

"Last time I checked, no coin collectors have put together a silly poll."

indeed, a poll is for asking people what they think. Ancient dugup coin collectors are told by the dealers and their lobbyists (using emotive labels such as "radical") what to say. Generally they follow like a thousand sheep and do so. Nobody in the US dugup ancient dealers' lobby asks the moderate collectors what they think about illegal exports (smuggling) and looting and the transparency of the coin trade.

I think we should guard against calling SAFE an "archaeology website", it is not. Rather than "anti-collecting" is anti looting and amoral and illegal exploitation of the cultural heritage. I do not think the two need necessarily be the same thing - do you?

"ask a multiple choice question to YOUR OWN audience"
The audience of SAFE is people who care about the destruction of the past by looting etc. Would you not think any of your clients falls into that category?

I thought the official mantra was that they do what they do because they "care about the past". Is that "care about", or care about "having"?

Some people answered "no" who do you think they were?

David Ian said...

I think one can argue that results from any poll on a blog of an organization that states its positions and beliefs quite clearly is in and of itself skewed. To my eye, SAFE is using a free and simple online tool to ask a question (and using the opportunity to explore the issue a tad further with that third "radical" option.) Now if the organization uses the results as serious data that'd be a different story. It'd be irresponsible. But I see no evidence of that, in fact I have not seen them using these poll results to make a point anywhere on the blog. It would be interesting to see what SAFE intends to do with these question results.

As for the poll question and answer choices, I have no problem with them. If I don't like a question or the way it's asked or the answer choices I'm given, it's takes me less time to click off the site and go somewhere else than to participate in the polling itself. Why would I want to endorse seomthing I don't believe in, and taking part in a problematic activity is endorsing it. Plain and simple.

What I find sinister, is not the SAFE poll in this instance, but folks who criticize it but take part anyway. And not only that, tell their friends who are on their side to "outvote" those who don't agree with them.

Finally, if the poll is skewed, and aimed at only those who agree to one viewpoint, the results wouldn't be as evenly split as they are.

Paul Barford said...

Hi David,
my understanding is that the polls on the blog function as a means of getting audience participation, nothing else.

If you have to choose an answer, the reader is no longer a passive recipient and has to actually consider for a moment what they do actually think and why.

David Ian said...

Exactly, people who criticize the poll while using it at the same time are just intellectually dishonest and hypocritical. That's my point.

Paul Barford said...

Well, as you can see from this blog, I do not think there is much intellectual honesty among most collectors (still less dealers) of dug up ancient coins. As far as I am concerned they are riddled with hypocrisy too.

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