Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Bible Museum/Israel Antiquities Authorities Deal: Four Lessons

The US Bible Museum, about to open in Washington DC, has struck a deal with the Israel Antiquities Authority for a multi-year agreement to display artifacts, possibly even including artifacts that haven't yet been excavated by the Authority. Complete details haven't been released, but we do know that the deal includes both a permanent exhibition and rotating special exhibits. The IAA already has a long-term loan arrangement with the Met for about 30 objects, but the Bible Museum deal calls for hundreds or even thousands. In exchange, it would seem that the IAA gets, in addition to the opportunity to share some of its archaeological heritage with the world, Bible Museum sponsorship of a new archaeological dig.

Readers of this blog likely already are aware of the problematic nature of the Bible Museum's interpretative focus and, more troubling still, of the likelihood, given the speed with which it has been  built, that the museum's collection includes many artifacts of dubious provenance. But these ethical issues aside, this long-term loan agreement holds several important lessons for those interested in preventing the future looting of archaeological sites.

First, there is a huge and growing demand for antiquities on the part of private museums being established at a record pace by wealthy collectors. This demand constitutes a huge opportunity to tap resources desperately needed by archaeological authorities in economically-stressed countries.

Second, the way to tap those resources is via long-term loans that do not carry the stigma of selling off heritage.

Third, the quid pro quo should recognize that securing archaeological sites from destruction is the highest priority. In this instance, that was not the case. Instead, the quid pro quo was (at least in part) investment in an archaeological dig. This is a good in itself, and will no doubt protect the one site being dug. But digs are not the most efficient way to protect sites from looters. Any deal should involving digs should also require the partnering museum/collector to give or do something to help protect sites or fight the illicit market. There are many possible forms that assistance could take, as readers of this blog know. The important thing is to establish the principle that caring for the world's heritage requires not just displaying it and digging it up but also protecting it in the ground.

Fourth, any agreements should also include a codicil in which the museum partner agrees to follow strict rules going forward regarding acquisition of unprovenanced artifacts (including a pledge to require any artifacts proffered to the museum to be photographed, their owner identified, and the information shared with law enforcement).  Museums will surely balk at this, but an attractive enough loan arrangement should assuage their anxiety. And since many collectors establishing private museums are currently fueling looting by buying unprovenanced materials, getting them out of the illicit antiquities market should do much to ruin that market.

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