Friday 11 May 2012

Dealer's Dream: "The Collapse of Cultural Property Preservation"

Dealer Dave has an apocalyptic view of the future of Yurope, looking across from his home on a crowded Californian housing estate, he appears to think we are headed for the Stone Age:
in the ranks of anticollecting zealotry, there are many who are so ideologically committed that they are so far [d]etached from reality as to be unable to see what is coming.To such blind zealots, I would recommend Mesozoic vertebrate palaeontology as a subject to read up on, for in the foreseeable future they may themselves experience events recalling what happened to the reptiles who constitute its subject.
"What is coming" according to his vision is the end of state involvement in cultural property preservation issues (for some reason he calls it "cultural property nationalism"). His prediction is based on reading apocalyptic predictions in the US media of an imminent economic implosion of the whole European Union and the approaching retirement age of a Department of State individual (in "Welthaupstadt Washington" you understand) which is going to rid the world of interest in protecting cultural property. He refers his readers to the "61-page article" he helped Wayne Sayles cut-and-past (some of it from Wikipedia). In that amateurish text, they claim that the notion that cultural property is inherently national property,
...originated in Latin America in the 1950s and at first, was exploited by the Soviet Union in its Cold War struggle for political influence in Latin America.[...] The only significant political constituency this concept ever had was the Cold War, which ended with events culminating in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Since then, cultural property nationalism has been a political orphan championed by ideological zealots...
Here we see the pernicious influence of folksy Wikipedia-"scholarship". Anyone who'd actually read one of those papery-things called books on cultural heritage management would know several things which Dealer Dave quite clearly does not. The notions of state stewardship of cultural property (ignoring beginnings in the Vatican in the late Renaissance) originated in nineteenth century central Europe, and had nothing to do with the "Cold War". 

Before writing such nonsense about archaeological "ideologies", the coineys might like to look at a few books (yes, I know it's difficult) on archaeological thought. It might help to prevent them looking like utter fools to those who have actually opened a few. When it comes to "nationalism" in archaeological ideology, they seem quite unaware that there is a huge discussion in the literature. It is related to the complex issue of identity and the place perceptions of a shared past play in the process of identity creation. Though perhaps not the first, the term was used by Bruce Trigger (1984) as one of his three categories of archaeology in his examination of its social and political context (and of course post-processual discussion shows more clearly than anything else it has one, and this is something I've written on elsewhere).

Interestingly in the present context, Trigger suggests that “nationalist archaeology” seems to have gained prominence “most often in times of social and political crises and when new regimes are trying to legitimate themselves”. Most notably he uses “parts of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union” in the 1990s as a prime example - so AFTER the "Cold War" in the shifting socio-economic conditions of central and eastern Europe. Furthermore he notes that in the opposite situation, when there is no such crisis or state of transition, case studies reveal that archaeologists have failed to elicit the desired levels of state support.

Now of course if Greece, Italy, Spain and the whole of the rest of Europe are going to come crashing down like a house of cards (which is what Dealer Dave predicts), then would that mean an increase or a decrease in so-called "nationalistic" sentiments, and an increase or decrease in a romantic, or nostalgic appeal to the past and its glories to unite a fragmenting nation? And is that (socially) a good thing or a bad thing in the eyes of Dealer Dave and the ACCG? So what evidence (apart from a US dealer's wild fantasies and wishful thinking unsupported by real facts) is there that an interest in protecting the relics of the past will suddenly disappear?

Incidentally, Trigger's text re-read throws light on something that I admit had not really impinged on my consciousness until recently. This is, that while superficially there are wide similarities in the way that archaeology is perceived and conceptualised in the US and where I was educated, the UK, there is one substantial significance in its social context between US and European archaeology. The more I think about it, the more I realise it is goes a long way to explain the problems we have with discussing archaeology with the antiquity-collecting blokes over the Atlantic who claim to know what archaeology is. It's a different archaeology. In developing his argument, Trigger points out that the main difference in social context between what we over here see as archaeology, and what they over there do is that a nation which sees its beginning with European settlement at the very beginning of the sixteenth century and its nationhood from July 4, 1776 falls into the category of state where archaeology has failed to elicit substantial state support because “textual data are deemed sufficient to support the social order” (Trigger 2008, 189). 

Frankly from the Heart of Yurope, I do not see it at all in the way Dealer Dave presents it.  He's trying to make ACCG-favourable Amerocentric myths with no basis in fact and no intention of informing himself how things really are outside his own blinkered world.

This is typical of the sort of things dealers and their lobbyists do, by presenting a false picture of reality, trying to convince collectors and others that it really "does not matter' (in this case because - allegedly - the world will suddenly lose interest in cultural property issues) they try to stave off the calls to clean up their market. This text shows how clearly the dealers peddling, no-questions-asked, artefacts removed by various means from other countries have very little concept of how important they really are to the "Others" they selfishly take them from to make a few dollars profit.

Trigger, B. 1984. “Alternative archaeologies: nationalist, colonialist, imperialist.” Man 19: 355-70.

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