Saturday, April 10, 2010

Report on the CUNY Center For The Humanities Symposium

Rick Witshonke has kindly allowed me to post his report about a recent symposium at CUNY Center for the Humanities:

Report on the CUNY Center For The Humanities Symposium
“Who Protects Antiquity”, 4/7/10

Rick Witschonke

The Symposium was moderated by Joel Allen, CUNY Professor of Classics and History, and featured James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of “Who Owns Antiquity?”; Larry Coben, Executive Director of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (; and Larry Rothfield, Research Associate at the U. of Chicago Cultural Policy Center ( The session lasted 90 minutes, and there were about 70 attendees. After a brief introduction by Allen, each of the three speakers made 10-15 minute presentations. This was followed by a 20 minute roundtable discussion, and then questions from the audience were entertained.

Cuno summarized the main points of his book: that restrictive cultural property laws 1) restrict access to antiquities, 2) concentrate the risk of destruction, and 3) politicize culture. He used the Euphronius to illustrate how an object that was originally Greek became a potent Italian cultural symbol through politicization. And he renewed his call for a return to partage.

Rothfield decried the ongoing looting and site destruction. He cited the Schoyen incantation bowel that describes an important Talmud sage as living next door – but with no provenance we don’t know where that was. He pointed out that we need to focus on protection of what is still in the ground – not ownership or restitution of previously looted objects. He described the two primary causes of site looting as economic development and looting, both requiring different approaches. But US law can affect only the demand side of the looting process, and private sales and an opaque chain of custody make it nearly impossible to trace objects, so Rothfield proposes legislation that would require that all sales be reported, and that a national registration system be set up. He also suggested that strong source country laws backed up by force were necessary but not sufficient to control looting. But who should pay for this increased surveillance? Rothfield suggests that US antiquities be taxed, and the money go to support site protection. Or that major museum donors be asked to fund an “Institute for the Study of Looting” in return for loans of objects from source countries.

Coben agreed with Cuno that encyclopedic museums are a good thing, and that archeologists and museums must move past the rhetoric and work together to save antiquity before it is too late. But attacking source countries as retentionist will not work. Coben pointed out that looting is not the only cause of loss of objects and context. War, extreme weather, erosion, tourism, and neglect are all part of the problem. He proposes that working with locals to find and fund alternative uses of the site (as he has been doing in Peru) may be the way forward. Then, responding to points that Rothfield and Cuno had made, he said that museums deserved “a seat at the table” since they had largely reformed their acquisition policies, but that the percentage of museum-quality objects is very small, and partage is a search for objects, not knowledge. And, in his view, no source country would consider exchanging long term loans of its objects in return for site protection funding. In short, the issue of ownership is now settled, so let’s move on.

Allen then initiated the roundtable by posing several questions to the speakers. First, he asked how, in transferring funds to source countries, one could avoid the dissipation of those funds through local corruption. Coben responded that the funds should be small amounts, distributed directly to locals (not through the government). He told the story of the Peruvian site where he had paid $50 to build a gate on the only road to the site. The locals then collected $10 each from visitors, and generated what was, for them, a significant revenue stream, which motivated them to protect the site. Unfortunately, later, some NGO came in, removed his gate, and spent several hundred thousand dollars to build a large building, which now stands empty. Rothfield responded that there was no one solution, and different tools must be used. For example, funds could be used to purchase satellite images of a site (which can cost $300,000) to detect looting. Cuno pointed out that we already have experience in providing aid to many of these countries. He also mentioned that he thought Rothfield’s proposal for a tax on antiquity sales was interesting. But he wondered why a straightforward quid pro quo like partage couldn’t work as well. He then admitted that the practice was, perhaps, tinged with colonialistic overtones, and perhaps long term loans (rather than outright ownership) might work. He also made the point that “long-term” must mean longer than the 4 years that Italy now offers, and that Italy only offered loans to museums that had repatriated objects, leaving others out. Rothfield then pointed out that, if loans rather than ownership was purposed, dropping the heavily loaded term partage might facilitate negotiations with source countries. And funding excavations was one way that museums could assist. Coben then made the point that museums have long flaunted local laws, thereby losing their standing in the source countries and destroying trust.

Next, Allen asked about the destruction caused by economic development. Coben said it couldn’t be prevented, and rescue archeology was the only answer. Rothfield suggested that, for major projects funded by the World Bank, heritage protection guidelines were being developed.

Allen then asked for questions from the audience. Phillipe de Montebello wanted to correct what he thought was a misstatement by Rothfield, asserting that the Met’s new acquisition guidelines apply equally to purchases and donations. He also made the point that 99% of the antiquities market was no longer in the US. Another audience member pointed out that there was little ethnic diversity in the debate, as evidenced by the makeup of the panel. Coben responded that different approaches were necessary for each site, and involvement of knowledgeable locals was essential. Later, another audience member also asked about the involvement of indigenous peoples, such as the Khmer Rouge at Angor Wat. Another questioner asked about World Bank and International Development Bank guidelines for site preservation. Coben responded that these organizations should stay out of the discussion, because they are out of touch with the local situation, and usually cause problems by treating archeological sites the same as shopping malls. I then asked why museums were still the primary spokespeople for the demand side of the debate, when they were now (with the new AAM and AAMD guidelines) very small players in the market. I suggested that perhaps dealers and collectors should be represented in the discussion. Rothfield responded that, because of the opacity of the market, he doesn’t know who the collectors are, and that regulating the market would correct this.

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