Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Houghtonism, a "modern" (?) Elginism

In his latest comment to the text "Something's Missing from the Discussion About the Repatriation of Some Ancient Coins to Bulgaria", the President of the American Cultural Property Research Institute Arthur Houghton voices his thoughts about a brave new world of world heritage run by the Americans for the Americans:
[C]ountries that knowingly engage in the destruction of their own cultural heritage cannot complain if it is taken away from them. China, which continues to systematically destroy its ancient past through aggressive development, is a prime example, but I would have to add Turkey, Italy, and a bunch of other countries that allow and even encourage public and private construction on top of ancient archaeological sites -- or, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, simply set out to destroy their own historic past. Can you think of any reason why such undeserving states should claim ownership of the very material that they willfully (sic) allow to be obliterated? [...] Perhaps a new UNESCO resolution is needed here, one that would allow the divestment of cultural material from countries that act to destroy it. In view of the importance of the matter and with the thought that the idea can get real traction in certain political quarters, I have begun to some soundings among friends in Washington with a view to rewriting UNESCO (sic). 
I guess Washington would first have to renew payment of its subs to UNESCO to get that one through. Houghton should remember that UNESCO still  is run on democratic principles (despite the recent US attempt to force its will on the body and then withdrawal of funds in a huff when it could not). How Houghton and his friends in "certain political circles" intend to force the will of US collectors on the international cultural heritage community remains to be seen. I think it unlikely that the proposers have thought this one through properly. It seems to me that Mr Houghton has missed out the vital link in logic between UNESCO's aims of promoting peace by building it in the minds of people all over the world and his suggestion that UNESCO should be taking stuff away from the developing nations and giving it to the Americans to 'look after'. From the course of the preceding discussion about the actual contents of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, I think one may confidently predict that he'd be unable to explain it.

I also find this latest suggestion wholly inconsistent with Mr Houghton's earlier (but misinformed) insistence that  the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property allegedly actually only refers to a highly select body of pre-selected artefactual material, not sites built over by housing, hydroelectric dams or hospital-building. Now he seems to have shifted tack.

This Houghtonism is basically an extension of the Witschonke Premise. The latter only referred to not taking preventive action in the case of countries that did not live up to what US collectors expected of the (sic). In proposing Houghtonism, the President of the CPRI seems to have in mind that no repatriation of stolen or dodgy material already in the USA should be contemplated if the country it came from was not halting development in, for example, cities with an historical town centre. It is almost as if the Mr Houghton  wants to see developing countries of the world kept in the stone age for the convenience of American collectors. Furthermore, from what he said, the President of the US CPRI is actually suggesting that he envisages the citizens of nations that do not comply with the US-led vision of what constitutes preservation should acquiesce, without complaint, to having their cultural property taken away from them. Like naughty schoolboys caught out and reprimanded for looking at girlie magazine in the toilets which they are forced to give up and which them make their way to the teachers' common room.

What on earth is one to make of such suggestions?

I would be the first to say that the 1970 UNESCO Convention needs rewriting, but rewritten in a manner likely to strengthen the position of the countries that are losing so much already to the global no-questions-asked market (exemplified most strongly by bodies such as the CPRI or ACCG and on blogs like Peter Tompa's). It seems that in proposing Houghtonism, the CPRI ideologist has other ideas, he wants to recruit UNESCO in his attempt to weaken the position
of and disempower the "source countries" still further. If that is the way discussion in the US really is going, the sooner we kick them out of the 1970 Convention, the better. 

UPDATE 30th May 2013:
One lobbyist has just referred to "Houghtonism" as a "thoughtful view of the subject" of cultural property management. Hmmm.

Meanwhile Mr Houghton himself has not been idle. He cites the recent bulldozing of a mound in Belize as a springboard for threatening:
"countries that knowingly engage in the destruction of their own cultural heritage, including those that willfully allow and even encourage public and private construction that destroys their own historic past".
He reports that in Welthaupstadt Washington:
"I have found significant support among very well connected political circles for an amendment that would allow signatory states to impose draconian measures against State Parties that violate the intent of the Convention in this manner. I will have more for you on this at a later time".
Just like that, the Americans are going to produce a new draft of the 1970 UNESCO Convention to suit them, and the rest of us are going to meekly accept and one by one put our names under it? Dream on, Mr Houghton. (What he CAN do is lobby for rewriting, or rescinding the CCPIA, go on, show the world just what it is the US no-questions-market is up to.) We will watch the CPRI website for news of this initiative.

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