Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The American Academy in Rome meeting -- What Brian Rose Could Be Telling Museums They Ought to Do

I was unhappy not to be able to attend the recent American Academy conference, due to a previous speaking engagement. As this article about the meeting makes clear, it was a very timely meeting, and the organizers, Brian Rose and Laurie Rush, deserve kudoes for pulling it together.

The article provides only a very partial account of what went on, and one hopes that the organizers will be posting at least some of the papers and presentations for those of us who could not make it to Rome to get a fuller picture of what was said. The article was written for and so takes a rather parochial view of the issues based on the Cleveland Museum's insistence that it will continue to buy antiquities. That elicits from Brian Rose the suggestion that "Rather than collect, museums ought to forge agreements with source countries to share cultural riches...."

Of course, most museums are now already already doing that or moving in that direction. The problem is that despite this shift in museum policy, site looting continues to plague countries rich in antiquities. In Turkey, for instance, as Rose tells the interviewer,

thieves use road building equipment at night to smash open stone chambers in ancient burial mounds and to remove treasures buried for centuries. Turkey simply can’t prevent the activity, he said.

What is to be done, then? Given that the reporter has been asking him about museums, one might have hoped that the answer would be, the museum world (and the dealers and collectors who are part of it) needs to do more to help Turkey et. al. But instead, Rose merely suggests -- or at least the reporter only reports him suggesting -- that "source countries should train soldiers to preserve cultural sites during wars and revolutions and instill pride over patrimony by educating children about national heritage." Those are both excellent ideas, but neither is particularly well suited to address the kind of looting that goes on in Turkey and other countries at peace. What is needed to stop peacetime looting is not soldiers but antiquities police and site guards. Education campaigns are sure to do some good, but the economic incentives for looting are not going to be trumped by pride in one's national cultural patrimony (Turks are already very proud of their national heritage, as are most Americans for that matter, yet looting of archaeological sites still goes on there and here).

In any case, neither training for soldiers, nor education campaigns for children, nor antiquities police and site guards, can be provided in these countries without additional financial resources. Preventing looting costs money. The article on the meeting misses this key point -- an especially odd oversight, since the reporter moves immediately from quoting Rose lamenting how hard it is for Turkey to prevent looting to naming "another serious challenge" that an Italian archaeologist working in Turkey, Roberto Nardi, has identified: "that of raising the money needed to preserve antiquities."

Rose should be saying the same thing. And he should be saying it to those who have the money: the museums, collectors, and dealers, whose money right now is destroying rather than preserving antiquities, by driving the looting of sites. What Rose could have told the interviewer was: "Museums should be doing more than sharing cultural riches, they ought to forge agreements with wealthy collectors and dealers to get the US government to tax antiquities purchases to raise money for anti-looting efforts in source countries." Why the former head of the AIA, who has done so much both institutionally and personally to raise awareness of the problem of antiquities looting, does not have a more forward-leaning position on what museums should be doing puzzles me.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Brookings Fellow on Libyan Heritage Policy Overlooks the Biggest Threat Ahead: Antiquities Looting

William Y. Brown, a nonresident Brookings Institution Senior Fellow who is former Science Advisor to the U.S. Interior Secretary and President of the Bishop Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Woods Hole Research Center,weighs in with a number of policy suggestions for how to make the best use of Libya's heritage in the post-Ghaddafi era. Among other ideas, Brown urges Libya to follow the example set by developed nations and

earmark funding for museums and land preservation efforts with fees on income or activities. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the United States was established for acquisition of important public lands and is funded by companies engaged in offshore oil and gas activity. Libya might consider such a heritage fee levied on its own oil and gas production.

Given that oil and gas are where the money is,such a fee would make good sense, though it has to be pointed out that the economic logic taxing the users of land and water (the offshore oil and gas companies) to pay for conserving land and water does not translate to users of oil and gas resources paying for conserving heritage. The exploiters of heritage are those who would profit from heritage tourism, and those who profit from selling antiquities. Logic would dictate taxing both those markets,if it could be done. But the heritage tourism market is not yet developed, and while Brown is eager to see it developed because it has the potential to make a lot of money, he shows no interest in harnessing the economic power of that market to pay for heritage protection more generally. And the antiquities market, of course, is not located in Libya, so Libyans would have no way to tax it.

Speaking of the antiquities market: one of the striking features of Brown's argument is that it almost completely ignores the biggest threat to Libya's heritage going forward: market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Brown himself notes that the Benghazi and Apollonia Museums were looted during the uprising, but beyond calling vaguely for immediate action to provide physical security for movable objects and to recover items recently stolen, he sloughs off the issue: "Mostly, however, the problem is a lack of planning, funding and management that preceded and is unrelated to the Arab Spring."

That is very myopic. Libya did not suffer from large-scale looting of its archaeological heritage before the revolution, but it is likely to come under attack by looters in the months and years ahead. As we know from a multitude of examples, any country possessing large stocks of unexcavated sites holding antiquities for which collectors are eager to pay millions is going to be attractive looters. Where the policing power of the state is strong, looters will be deterred, but when authoritarian or totalitarian regimes fall or even weaken, black markets will flourish. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, shrugging his shoulders at the looting that erupted in the wake of the toppling of Saddam, "freedom is untidy". Public education campaigns -- may do something to keep at least some citizens from turning to looting, but there is no substitute for a robust policing capacity.

It would be helpful if development specialists at Brookings and elsewhere paid at least some policy attention to how best to plan, fund and manage the physical security of archaeological sites, rather than ignoring the problem.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another Collector Calls for Registering Antiquities -- and Taxing Them (just not here, though!)

Peter Aldrich refloats a proposal made some time ago for a series of steps he thinks would help curb antiquities looting.

The solution is unrealistic, and unnecessarily so. No country where looting is going on now is going to change its laws to make it even easier than it is now for foreigners to deplete the countries unexcavated sites. But with a little tweaking, parts of the plan would do a lot of good. So instead of asking the world to do what it clearly is not ready to, why not just get together now with other antiquities collectors and dealers here in the US and show the world what good could be done for them? Legislators could be told that collectors, museums, dealers and auction houses all want a registry established here that antiquities would have to pass through to be saleable (a fee would be charged to have their antiquities vetted to cover the cost of that, and to cover the costs of policing the industry to ensure compliance as well). Legislators would also be told that collectors, dealers, museums, and auction houses all want to see a tax on all antiquities purchases here –including purchases made overseas of items brought into the US -- but only if tax revenues are put into an anti-looting Superfund that would support more site guards and other anti-looting measures there in poor countries where looting is worst.

Yes, the US would be putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage in the short run for unprovenanced antiquities, but that would be more than compensated by the goodwill the collecting community would garner from countries of origin — goodwill that could be built on in lots of ways impossible now, given the animosity caused by perceived indifference towards the harm that the demand for antiquities is doing.