Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Rabid Arguments in US Antiquity Collecting

Dr C[lifford?] J. Scheiner (perhaps the porn dealer Clifford Scheiner?) writing on the Museum Security List reacts to the story about the looting at Antinopolis near Minya in Egypt. What he writes is astounding and really deserves putting in wider context and discussion. He opines:
Does any one else find it hypocritical that countries which refuse to protect the cultural heritage they possess within their borders so loudly complain in the media that they deserve to have returned to their country items of world cultural importance which originated within their geography but have been safely cared for for decades and centuries in other lands?  Perhaps international laws on antiques replevin should be modified to exclude nations that do not meet standards of care for what they already are responsible for. There exi[s]ts an extensive list of endangered World Heritage sites, which grows weekly.
Wow.  My first reaction is to point out that in point of fact, there are worldwide 38 sites on the list, just one in Egypt, but six on the American continent. So I consider that part of the argument less than relevant. Dr Scheiner has yet to reply to my questions which "international laws" he had mind, and whether it is sites he wishes to preserve or loose objects taken from them. I do not expect he will. Ton Cremers however was not very subtle either, he concentrated on the patronisingly colonialist "we look after things better than the natives" part of the argument: 
Do I have the right to come and loot your heritage because I am convinced, according to my standards, that you do not take properly care of your heritage? During colonial days heritage from source countries was not looted to ensure better protection, but out of sheer greed. One must not forget that source countries that, according to you, do not take well care of their heritage have safeguarded that heritage hundreds, or even thousands of years before it was looted by western 'civilisations'. And: are those civilisations really better in safeguarding heritage, whether it be our heritage or that from far away countries? That is very disputable, even observing recent - 20th century - history. I have been maintaining the Museum Security Network for over 16 years. In those years some 45,000 reports about incidents with cultural heritage were disseminated. Most of those - fires, looting in wartime, vandalism, thefts, armed robberies, natural damages - were about incidents in Europe and the USA...the (in)famous continents with 'universal' museums. So let's be a bit more modest, and stop boasting that the 'consumer' countries know better how to deal with cultural property.
The argument under discussion is one that most frequently is trotted out by US collectors. I cannot recall too many examples of it being used in the UK. Part of the reason for its popularity in the US is the distorted way these transatlantic folk read the 1970 UNESCO Convention (through the prism of their own anachronistic CCPIA without seeing the wider background). I suspect however it goes deeper than that. Note the horror with which the argument (and other variants of basically the same notion) react to the prospect that cultural property should be leaving the shores of the USA, when "it should be" being used to the benefit of US citizens. Contrast that with the huge numbers of British antiques which are shipped out (yes, even over to Poland) week after week, month after month, year after year. Do the Brits have any problem with that? Well, if they do, it seems to me they only grumble very quietly. Yet the US collectors and antiquity buffs apparently convulsively want to hang on to every last piece of foreign dugup metal, marble or pot currently in the USA that (they feel) can illuminate their "roots" in Old World society. Is this related to the fact that the US is in fact cut off from what it fondly sees as its roots? If they are denied access to (illicit - see below) antiquities, is it in some way felt to threaten to undermine the carefully constructed identity of the nation? Is this compulsion to acquire, accumulate and retain born of a fear of isolation? Whatever it is, it seems to have a basis in irrationality.

Let us remember that the ONLY artefacts being repatriated from the US are those sold by US dealers to foreign buyers, and those that came to the US in a manner which involved breaking of some law or other (there are, pace Dr Scheiner, no "international laws", more is the pity).

Now, what's all this nonsense about "countries which refuse to protect the cultural heritage they possess within their borders"? I'd like to ask whether, in reality, the USA has a particularly laudable record in that regard. Does the US have any grounds for the evident feeling of self-satisfaction that comes through in suggestions like this? The Four Corners fiasco comes to mind, a moment's glance at the weekly volume of sales of native American lithics and pottery artefacts on EBay alone makes one wonder just what is being protected from what. We hear that the BLM and Park services are understaffed, unable to police sites to prevent vandalism and looting. Sites on private land are rented out so people can come and dig their own artefacts. I really do not see that the USA has any more to boast about with regard site protection than any other nation. We are all doing awfully, and losing vast amounts of our archaeological heritage annually. Redevelopment, agriculture, hydroelectric schemes, soil erosion and - yes, looting, to name a few agencies of destruction which in every country on this planet we can do nothing much to stop, and all too little to mitigate.* This is a global problem, not by any means restricted to poorer (or "backward" / "corrupt") countries. It is a serious problem and one that demands a response a little more sophisticated than the American collectors' idiotic "two wrongs make a right" arguments as represented here by Dr Scheiner.

Some figures might put the US vision of "how the world should be" into a little wider perspective. The USA has a total area of  9,826,675 km2 and a population of 315,901,000. That means it has a population density of 34.2/km2. It has a total GDP of $15.685 trillion (per capita, $49,922). Egypt has a total area of about a tenth of that of the USA, 1,002,450 km2, but a population of 91,000,000 (so about a third of that of the USA), a nominal population density of 84/km2 (but in fact mostly crowded into the Nile valley and delta which occupy less than 10% of the country's area, so that density is actually much, much higher with consequent pressure on the land - which happens of course to be the very area in which most ancient sites were located too). The total GDP is  $533.739 billion (per capita $6,594).

If there is any hypocrisy here, it's self-satisfied and self-serving Americans ignoring the realities of the world and expecting Egypt to find some magic solution to the problem of preventing agricultural or other use of archaeological sites "in their geography" (sic). I'd like to ask, how many archaeological sites in the USA have been incorporated into private properties? Why is Dr Scheiner expecting (for example) the Egyptian state to make every part of every single one state property when his own state does not do that? That is hypocrisy.

Ton Cremers raises an important point. Scheiner apparently expects the rest of the world to fall in with what America (presenting itself as 'the international community') decrees is "the right thing to do". This ignores the fact that (a) people in other countries have lives to lead and need somewhere to do that, and the economic infrastructure to do that  - is he going to force their governments to deny them that opportunity for the sake of some abstract concepts dreamed up in California, Chicago and New York state? And (b) other nations do have other ideas about what constitutes conservation. Who are the Americans to say they are all wrong because it is different to what they believe?

Dr Scheiner, get those Florida Everglades off the List of World Heritage in Danger before you start advocating punishing the brown-skinned folk for what America sees as their shortcomings. Why not work with them, rather than all the time against them? Surely is that not what an "international community" is about, is that not what a "global heritage" is about? Is not "intercultural understanding" about more than  no-questions-asked collecting hoiked-out shabtis and knocked-off temple sculptures, but about attempting to understand the current problems of modern nations dealing with the many problems, including cultural ones, they face in the changing pressures of the modern world and global economy?

* (I like to think we can deal with the looting, given the will)

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.