Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Hill Newspaper Highlights Pending Chinese Import Restrictions Request and FOIA lawsuit

Kevin Bogardus interviewed me and others about the pending Chinese import restrictions and FOIA litigation against the State Department:

Overall, I think Mr. Bogardus did well. Trying to simplify fairly complex issues is no easy task. My one real quibble is that the story implied that only archaeological groups are interested in cultural heritage preservation. Plainly, however, collectors and dealers are also interested in cultural heritage preservation as well. After all, they spend a great deal of time and money collecting, preserving and displaying cultural artifacts. In many such cases, their efforts literally save artifacts from oblivion. The dispute with the archaeological community really is over how best to reconcile collectors' and dealers' efforts to preserve, study and display objects with the archaeological community's efforts to preserve archaeological context.

I would also note that the motivations of the archaeological community are not always as "pure" as is portrayed. It's not that I doubt the sincerity of their views. Rather, I have come to believe that the fear of losing an excavation permit acts as a powerful disincentive when it comes to criticizing host governments' approaches to cultural property matters or advocating "common sense" proposals like a Treasure Trove law to address the need to record as many artifacts as possible.

China offers a good example. During the 2005 CPAC hearing on the Chinese request, there was considerable testimony that it was Chinese government policy to repress Tibet's culture by destroying its cultural artifacts. Yet, members of the archaeological community either ignored the issue altogether or tried to discount its importance. As far as I know, the archaeological groups that support the import restrictions, including AIA, SAFE and Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, have much critical to say about collectors, dealers and Western museums, but nothing at all critical to say about Chinese treatment of Tibetan artifacts. In this regard, the views of archaeological advocacy groups would seem to run counter to those of the Dalai Lama. He has specifically recognized the importance of Western collectors' effort to preserve Tibetan cultural artifacts, particularly in the dark days after China's invasion of Tibet, when many of its monasteries were destroyed.

One final point. While there may be considerable disagreement about the merits of the Chinese request, it is refreshing to read that such figures as Patty Gerstenblith (quoted in the article) and Derek Fincham (in his blog: have expressed at least some qualms about State Department treatment of these issues as "State secrets." Perhaps, this will help prompt State to rethink its opposition to providing basic information to the public about its decision making processes. One would hope that the State Department would want to provide countries like China with shining of examples of American transparency of process.

No comments: