Monday 18 February 2013

UNESCO Desk Jockeys and the Archaeological Heritage

There is some ongoing discussion of a recent Washington Post article (Taylor Luck, 'Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad', Washington Post Wednesday, February 13) and whether or not it is merely repeating pro-Assad propaganda (see here and here). Some of the information used in the article come from the Jordan office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Dorothy King is rather sceptical about the actual use of UNESCO in situations like this:
My experience is that UNESCO refused to help save a site in Syria, and that they are better desk-jockeys, writing reports rather than actually getting off their arses to do something to help.
That may seem rather harsh, until you look them up and find that there is a Syrian National Commission for UNESCO in Damascus, so I am left wondering why we are having to rely on speculating about the truth behind stories written by reporters in far off lands and not able to find a monthly report posted on the UNESCO website from its National Committee actually on the spot.

I'd also like to ask why when we have this going on, and the Director General wringing her hands about looting and destruction of the cultural heritage "in Mali and Syria" (as she did in her recent visit to Warsaw), they've not looked at the 1970 Convention to consider what they need to change in that aged document - the only one they've produced to deal with the antiquities trade - to fit this kind of situation. If the Assad regime decided to empty the museums onto the market to buy guns, tanks and missiles to attack its own people, as long as the objects going to America and Dubai etc. have export licences, they are well within the use of cultural property envisaged by that Convention. That surely cannot be right (and conflicts with the 1954 Hague "Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict ...." Cf 1970 convention Art. 11 and 12). But UNESCO in effect stopped thinking about the antiquities trade in 1970, and what it established then refers to the market as it existed in the 1960s, a totally different world from the antiquities market today. 

UNESCO is indeed, as Dr King is not alone in thinking, basically focussed largely on an elite group of  getting together, talking glibly about how they are creating 'world peace' and 'dialogue', issuing lofty Recommendations, making a seemingly interminable number of "Lists" (to what aim is less clear), heaping honours on their pals ('Collector Named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador') etc etc. In the end, however, one has to ask what the actual effects of all this talk, all those meetings, all these "lists" actually are on the ground.

In particular, what place does the study of the past actually have in this "educational, scientific and cultural" activity?

There is a Memory of the World programme, which is about historical documents. For well over 90% of human history over 90% of the earth's surface, written documents are by no means not the primary source of information about the past. For many regions, until the advent of colonial record- keeping, in indigenous societies oral tradition fulfillled and still fulfils this role. The sole acknowledgement of that is UNESCO's highly selective Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. (Another "list"). There is now a pretentious nonsense-document about the "intangible heritage" (2003  'Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage'  - aiming of course to produce more "lists").  Poland has sheepishly ratified it and is now wondering what to do with it, Great Britain - home of Morris Dancing and "Druids" -  mercifully has not. Despite this, oral tradition as local and regional history in lieu of European-style historiography is not (and cannot be in its present form) properly covered by the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) convention. Quite what this is about, and where it leads in the modern world is anyone's guess. But how do you stop the globalisation process that is pushing out the sort of things the Convention covers while preventing their 'Disneylandification' if you try to maintain them outside their original natural cultural context? Reading some of the stuff written recently around this convention, it seems to me that UNESCO is losing focus here.

The other major source of 'memory' is of course through archaeology (and here I mean proper archaeology rather than mere study of objects and 'art'). Archaeology has simply dropped below the UNESCO radar. The 1970 Convention for example is wholly object (and collection)  - centred. Even urban archaeology (including in World Heritage Sites) is subsumed in UNESCO-speak into Historic (sic) Urban Landscapes, another international document without any real meat, let alone visible archaeological input. There has of course long been a "Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations" (Delhi) which goes back to December 1956, and hardly reflects current thinking on the topic or the manner in which such research is conducted or typically organized and financed in many regions. Even its definition of what archaeological research (it calls this "excavation")  is about. Its definition is object-centred "research aimed at the discovery of objects of archaeological character" - see also articles 5 and 23. This is a definition of Treasure-hunting, not archaeology. One wonders whether, sixty years later, some of the recommendations of this ancient text will ever be revisited (for example in a protocol like that of the Hague document) by the Organization to make its Recommendations more in step with the needs if the twenty first century, or whether they prefer one firmly embedded in European colonialism. Only the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater 2001 Cultural Heritage 2001nderwater Heritage has any relevance to the modern state of achaeological thought - but in turn is regarded by many as in effect largely unworkable in its present form.

The current UNESCO vision of the "Memory of the World" and its place in modern cultural life and policy making is a highly selective one, and if one examines it more closely is intellectual colonialism, for it is mainly directed towards the needs of literate western societies with archives and 'art objects', which in fact flies totally in the face of the (stated) objectives of the Organization. Is there any prospect that this will be sorted out properly soon, or would that be overcome by the Organization's institutional inertia?

Vignette: Whirling devotees of the heritage sect. Going round and round, looks effective, but going nowhere?

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