Monday, April 29, 2013

Governing without a state: The stakes for archaeological heritage

The withering-away of the state in Egypt has meant the emergence of do-it-yourself civic action, as this NY Times story makes clear, with consequences both exhilarating and frightening. Reclaiming public space on behalf of a community can mean real progress when the state was hoarding resources that the public left to its own devices could have better employed. But the dark side of this is the cannibalizing of nonrenewable or potentially renewable resources by short-term community interests (or worse, by private interests as when gangs rule). Encroachment on empty land that had been hoarded by the government is one thing; encroachment and artifact-farming on land that the government had declared offlimits in order to protect the nation's and the world's heritage is another.

In this moment, the fate of Egypt's cultural heritage depends on whether, left to their own devices, Egyptians will be able to form civil society groups that can advocate for protecting archaeological sites, demanding action by the state, and where necessary taking direct action themselves to do so.  We saw that spirit on display in the spontaneous joining of hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum when looters attacked it, and we are now seeing the emergence of citizens' groups, with participation not just by archaeologists but by locals, focusing on this. That is a highly promising development. It would be wonderful if such efforts could be supported by NGOs and individuals overseas (not to mention governments). 

Welcome, America, to the world collectors have made, in which no cultural patrimony is safe from looting, not even that of white Southerners

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On the UN's New Campaign to Educate Tourists Not to Buy Dodgy Antiquities

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announces a new campaign to "encourage tourists to make informed decisions and help reduce demand for trafficking in persons, cultural artefacts, wildlife, fauna and flora such as ivory products, as well as counterfeit goods, and illicit drugs." “Well-informed tourists can make a real difference in turning the tide,” the Secretary-General said.

Two things about this. First, it is really important that cultural artifacts are now recognized as illicit goods that need attention at the level given to human trafficking and drugs, or at least the destruction of wildlife. Attention is now being paid, not just by UNESCO but by the UN's higher echelons. That is good.

Second, an information campaign to inform tourists that buying unprovenanced antiquities is not a terrible idea, especially since UN agencies haven't either the money or the authority to use other more potent governmental means. I am not convinced that in and of itself it will do very much to stop looting. Information as a tool of government action tends to work best when the harm being done is to oneself by an activity that giives pleasure only to oneself (i.e., anti-smoking campaigns) and when any reasonable being would agree that knowing what they know it would be irrational to continue to do that harm. But we know that wealthy collectors are well aware of the harm done by the looting that their purchases of unprovenanced antiquities incentivizes, and that has not stopped them from continuing to collect. The harm they are doing is not to themselves, and the pleasure derived is not solely their own but also that of the others with whom they will share the beauty of the artifact.  And so long as just a few wealthy collectors are willing to pay thousands or hundreds of thousands for the rare artifact, looters will be incentivized to dig, even if the tourists stop buying.

On the other hand, if -- a very big if -- tourists begin to tell antiquities dealers they will not buy any artifact that is not declared kosher by a UN-approved-and-overseen registry system, the dealers in-country may begin to suffer enough that they would pressure their governments to establish such a system. That might be a helpful step, if it made it easier to prosecute sellers and buyers of unregistered antiquities, or at least to pursue restitution claims abroad. Registries raise some difficult problems of their own: how would the costs for administering a registration system be covered? who would decide? would unprovenanced antiquities brought forward by a date certain be grandfathered in? how would the kind of corruption of the registry that Morag Kersel has documented occurring in Israel be prevented? And would the UN have the will to remove its seal of approval in the event that a registry system was corrupted (the record on World Heritage site listing -- only two ever de-listed, despite massive evidence that there are terrible problems on many other sites -- does not encourage optimism about this)?

None of these problems is insuperable, and it is worth a try to get to a registry system via tourist demand. Of course, the UN's campaign mentions nothing about a registry, so they may not even be imagining such a possibility. And it seems a long way round. I agree with the UN World Tourism Organization head that the infrastructure of tourism [from accommodation establishments to transportation networks] could be used in the fight against trafficking, but a much more simple way to do so would be to tack on an "archaeological site security" tax on tourists entering the country from abroad (or at the hotels or at the sites) to pay for site guards and antiquities police not just at the World Heritage sites but around the country wherever looting is a problem.