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.

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