Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protecting heritage in Mesopotamia Redux: Will the US military get it right this time?

It is telling, I think, that the news out of the Metropolitan Museum event focused almost completely on Secretary Kerry's comments and on what the monitoring shows is happening in Syria, and almost not at all on what might be done beyond vague calls for help. Now at least one blogger has indicated at least one more specific suggestion:

Bonnie Earnham (sic)  of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel.
This is a very good idea in principle (and one that Bonnie Burnham may have proffered back in 2007-9 when she participated in the meetings that eventuated in the recommendations and articles, including one by her, in Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War).  As I have argued repeatedly, heritage protection -- especially in times of armed conflict -- needs to go beyond the valuable but insufficient focus on monitoring and conservation to also encompass the kind of expertise needed to secure sites from looters. Archaeologists and conservators simply do not know how to train military personnel in how best to deploy guards at archaeological sites, with what kinds of weaponry and other technologies, etc.

In practice, however, it is far from clear that the American military has the kind of expertise in archaeological site security or antiquities policing to do much if any good. Military policing in general has never been a high priority of our military. On the other hand, it would take an incredibly tiny fraction of the American military budget to set up a heritage security unit better than any other military's. That's why in Antiquities under Siege we urged that the US do so. In the meanwhile, we also suggested, any military intervention by the US be planned with an eye to making use of the expertise of some of our allies in this area, notably Italy, Spain, and others.

Is anything like this in the works?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallax View: the US Responses to Cultural Heritage Destruction in Syria versus Iraq

The State Department has issued a fact sheet related to Secretary Kerry's announcement of steps the US is taking in response to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Those steps, Kerry said, included funding ASOR's documentation of conditions on sites and "doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage."

The State Department's fact sheet fills in more details about what the support in Iraq has focused on:
In Iraq, the United States government has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 for a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq National Museum, establishment of a cultural heritage preservation training institute in Erbil, and site management planning and conservation work at the site of ancient Babylon. The Department of State also partnered with international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft, and illicit trafficking. Since 1990, the United States has restricted the importation of cultural property of Iraq and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance.
A few things are worth noting about these facts:

There is no mention in the State Department's fact sheet of any of the $33 million spent since 2003 going to monitor and document conditions on archaeological sites, as they are now doing. That's because the State Department and the US military stonewalled repeated demands by archaeologists and heritage protection advocates for satellite imagery that would enable conditions on sites to be monitored and documented.  (For more details on the sad history of America's stewardship of archaeological sites and the museum during and after the 2003 invasion, see Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War and The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.)

Nor is there any mention of any of that $33 million going to pay for site guards or antiquities police. The vast majority of Iraq's archaeological sites were left unguarded for years, while millions were plowed into turning Babylon into an unvisitable tourist site for PR purposes, and millions more on training conservators. The latter is at least of some efficacy and worth funding, but we know that the few sites that have been spared have included those on which armed guards remained (including some in Syria in recent days) because they continued to be paid or had faith that they would eventually be paid by the archaeologists who had hired them as guards.

Secretary of State Kerry's remarks contain no mention of restricting the import of cultural property from Syria, as was done for Iraqi material, and done not just for the importation of material into the US, but via UN Resolution 1483, on a worldwide basis. Why is the US not declaring an emergency ban for Syrian material itself, and why is the US not pushing through a worldwide ban at the UN?

Would you rather be immersed online in the museum or in the world the work of art was plucked from for the museum?

The British Museum is going to build a replica of itself inside the gaming world of Minecraft. That will, one assumes, permit visitors to go up to the artworks and look at them closely or even walk around them. Fine. But the major advantage of online environments is that one can immerse oneself and appreciate objects within their contexts, noticing how they are situated in relation to other objects, and how they are embedded in rituals, practices, whole ways of life that the game environment can reconstruct. Museums themselves are technologies designed sometimes to do something like this, but seldom in anything but a very piecework way, given the limits of acquisitions. The best we're likely to get is the museum director acting as cicerone talking to us as we look at the artifacts. But imagine, for example, that instead of a scholarly summary of the Parthenon marbles' role in ceremonies in ancient Athens, one could actually walk up to the Acropolis and participate in the ceremonies (of course there would probably need to be several versions, since we're still arguing about what went on up there).

The British Museum would be much better advised to launch an initiative to put replicas of its artworks inside an online version of the original (or to be more specific, the most meaningful) locations from which those artworks were removed and brought to the Museum. For many artifacts, of course, this would be impossible given that they were looted and their context obliterated. But for many of the BM's holdings it would surely be fascinating to put them back in situ electronically, if arrangements could be made with the holders of other parts of the predella and the original church location, for instance, or with the holders of bits of the Parthenon marbles and the Greek authorities holding image rights to the Parthenon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Kerry Speaks at Met on Looting and Iconoclasm by ISIS

Wanted to put this up quickly, and will have more to say after I get a chance to read it more carefully. But I did want to flag three things that pop out:

First, it is wonderful that ASOR and others have succeeded in getting the administration to pay attention to the cultural disaster.

Second, the conflation of looting with iconoclasm is troubling, because the two phenomena are driven by different motives and therefore require different policy responses.

Third, and related to the conflation of looting with iconoclasm, there is no mention of any policy response beyond supporting documentation and conservation efforts -- both of these being laudable and useful things to do, but quite distinct from imposing international bans on antiquities trade, or beefing up INTERPOL and customs enforcement around the world to help enforce bans already in place, or calling on countries we know are conduits or important end-markets for these antiquities to tighten up, etc. etc. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Call for Papers: U of Chicago Conference on New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting an dIllicit Antiquities Trafficking

Archaeological Looting: New Approaches to an Ancient Problem
A two-day conference at the University of Chicago
27-28 February 2015
Joseph Regenstein Library, room 122

The Past for Sale: New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities is a three-year interdisciplinary project hosted by the University of Chicago. With major funding from the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society, the project brings together anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians, legal scholars, museum professionals, and social scientists in order to develop new ways of safeguarding archaeological sites, cultural heritage sites, and museums from looting and illicit collecting. Our aim is to advance both scholarly and policy goals.

Our opening conference will address the topic of new approaches to archaeological looting. The ultimate aim of The Past for Sale is to generate new policy and conservation tools for the safeguarding of cultural heritage sites, archaeological sites, and artworks and artifacts. Along the way, we seek to clarify the grounds of inquiry. This includes definitional and methodological work, as well as empirical data. We are pleased to announce that Dr. Neil Brodie, co-director of the Trafficking Culture research center at the University of Glasgow, will present the keynote address on Saturday, February 28, 2015. Dr. Brodie is an internationally respected expert on the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities.

Some of the questions on the agenda for this conference include:
  • Who loots, and why? What are the economic and social factors that incentivize
    this practice?
  • How is the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities organized?
  • What is the impact of looting on local communities? What can we learn from
    local-level efforts to stop cultural looting and trafficking?
  • What recent innovations (in policy, law, technology, advocacy, etc.) hold promise
    – or only false promise -- to curb looting?
    Papers will be allocated 20-minute presentation slots as part of panels, with half an hour at the end of each panel for discussion. It is hoped that the conference will give rise to an edited volume of essays.

    200-word abstracts, with paper title and author’s contact details, should be submitted to Fiona Rose-Greenland at by 1 November 2014. Replies will be sent by November 21, 2014. More information about The Past for Sale is available here:
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Friday, September 05, 2014

Egypt to Develop "high-tech" museum and site monitoring system

Egypt announces it is developing a high-tech security system to monitor archaeological sites and museums. This is good news, though a better strategy might have been for Egypt to join forces with a number of other countries and approach MIT, Google, and other tech innovators to create next-generation monitoring designed for the special needs of protecting sites.