Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Association of Art Museum Directors' Opposition to MOUs: Is it Justifiable, and What's the Alternative?

Rick Saint-Hilaire has an interesting post noting that the AAMD appears to have changed its policy stance towards Memos of Understanding, shifting from muted acquiescence or support to outright opposition. Several colleagues have already commented on facebook at how troubling this shift is. But it's also troubling that the law establishing the MoU system is not what many of us whose primary concern is stopping the market-driven looting of archaeological sites want it to be, i.e., not just a way to close down US imports regardless of any other factors. It requires countries asking for this restriction to do certain things, and supposedly lets us off the hook -- or, if one prefers, enables us to put pressure on those countries to live up to their end of the deal -- if they do not do those things, whether the reason they do not is corruption, indifference, or revolution. 

Reading the AAMD's brief on El Salvador as an example, one has to admit that they make a strong case, based on the evidence they provide, that the Salvadoran government is not doing a very good job. Because governmental presentations to CPAC are not made public, there is no way to know how or even if the Salvadoran government has refuted the charges the AAMD makes. The best we have is a  brief from the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Protection which does not address the evidence offered by the AAMD, and as evidence of El Salvador's  offers a single example of a joint operation initiated, it seems, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We have no way to know  how much El Salvador is spending on site protection, customs inspections, etc. etc., whether that amount has increased either in absolute terms or relative to the country's overall budget, or what the fruits of this expenditure have been.

The AAMD's more general policy position seems now to be that MOUs are not working and should be scrapped. In favor of what? The AAMD suggests that countries should open their markets and tax the exports to pay for more better policing (and, just coincidentally of course, to bring more better antiquities to museums). 

This is an intriguing suggestion, despite the fact that it is both politically unrealistic (they really think El Salvador's Ministry of Culture is going to go back to their government and persuade them that they have to both let national patrimony be bought up by foreigners and institute new taxes, because the museums and collectors in the US have reopened the US end of the market and caused a spike in looting as a result?), and bureaucratically unfeasible -- since, as the AAMD notes, corruption is a major problem, it's hard to see how the tax will be collected and revenues find their way to site protectors. What makes it interesting is that the AAMD recognizes that the general idea of taxing the market for antiquities to pay for site protection is a good one.  

The next step would be for the AAMD to propose, whether as a quid pro quo for abandoning particular MOUs or simply as a more effective way to bring looting under control enough to make MOUs unnecessary, that the US impose taxes on the import and sale of antiquities here. The funds raised could then be funneled -- perhaps via the newly proposed White House coordinator -- into targeted programs aimed at improving site protection and other anti-looting and anti-site-destruction efforts.