Thursday, May 30, 2013

Blame the Victim?

While some in the archaeological blogosphere dismiss questions raised about poor stewardship of cultural resources in source countries as nothing more than "blaming the victim," others take a far more thoughtful view of the subject.  Arthur Houghton suggested in a comment on a recent blog post on CPO that source countries should forfeit their rights to demand repatriation when they fail to take care of their own cultural patrimony.   Now, Yale educated archaeologist Sally Johnson raises the same issues on the Art World Intelligence Blog.  In so doing, Johnson discusses the casual destruction of a Mayan pyramid in Belize to provide road building materials.  Johnson asks, "What rules can be put in place—and enforced—to prevent such intentional destruction if the 'owner' of the 'property' chooses to destroy it?"  Ironically, just this year the State Department granted Belize a MOU that supposedly will assist that country "preserve its own cultural patrimony."


Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur Houghton asked me to post this:

Ms. Johnson asks what rules can be put in place - and enforced -- to prevent such intentional destruction. The question is exactly to the point. As I suggested in an earlier note, countries that knowingly engage in the destruction of their own cultural heritage, including those that willfully allow and even encourage public and private construction that destroys their own historic past, cannot complain if it is taken away from them. There is good reason to rewrite the 1970 UNESCO Convention to this end, and I have found significant support among very well connected political circles for an amendment that would allow signatory states to impose draconian measures against State Parties that violate the intent of the Convention in this manner. I will have more for you on this at a later time.

Many thanks for your interest in bringing this to the attention of your readers. It is to be noted how broadly read and appreciated you blog has become.


Cultural Property Observer said...

AW, a scholar-dealer, asked me to post this response:

I think that you, Arthur and Sally Johnson all miss an important point about what might be termed the casual destruction of ancient monuments. A real problem concerns the clear conflict that exists between the concepts of the "cultural heritage of mankind" (=CHM) and the "cultural heritage of country A, B, C, etc. (CHC)". If everything is thought of as being CHM the result would be clear: other countries or peoples (like the US State Department for example) could sound an alarm and act decisively to halt such destruction wherever it might occur. This could include the offcially sanctioned use of force on recalcitrant people or governments. This is the way some people, primarily archaeologists and their allies, seem to think. However, the actual rules of UNESCO clearly refer to CHC. This is obvious, because the use of CHM would allow any item of cultural heritage to be cared for virtually anywhere since it effectively would belong to us all. So all these heritage items basically can be said to belong to the countries where they are found. As such, if they are perfectly happy to turn a pyramid into road material in Belize, or an ancient mosque into a parking lot in Saudi Arabia, or an immense statue into rubble in Afghanistan, or areas filled with ancient sites into reservoirs in Turkey and China, no one from outside those countries has any right whatsoever to complain. Those countries are destroying their cultural heritage because they want to or because they value something else more: how can anyone dare to propose some kind of binding rules to prevent this? If the government of a country prefers to do a quick preconstruction rescue dig prior to destroying an ancient site to build a hospital, who can dare gainsay the project? To reiterate, CHC means that each individual country has the right to do whatever it wants to with its CH, and no foreigner has any right to get involved.
When the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, as they possibly will once the US leaves with all its subsidies, let's hope that they act in a more civilized manner about heritage. Instead of smashing everything with hammers, they should just call in Sotheby's and Christie's and arrange that all those blasphemous objects be taken away and sold, providing loads of money so that the indigent can receive clothing and other aid they might not have.


Cultural Property Observer said...

AW asked me to publish this too:

Dear All,

I have actually just read some of Barford's fascinating blog and it seems quite clear that he writes without actually understanding why he does so. What do I mean? In his first comment he talks about the Moslem concept of Shirk, which basically seems to mean the impossibility of worshipping anything other than the One God (included in that is the veneration of idols). Then he suggests that I note Deuteronomy 7:25 - which mandates the destruction of idols completely, without even reusing any of their components. OK, fine with me. I was suggesting that instead of destroying blasphemous or pagan objects, people like the Taliban should sell them to unbelievers or whoever in order to use the money to support the pious poor (after all, Vespasian used the tax on latrines for public works). I want to thank Mr Barford for reminding me that in fully orthodox Moslem states (or Jewish or Christian ones) such objects should just be completely destroyed rather than reused in any way. Thus, I now understand his complete agreement with Taliban policies. I suppose I must apologize to him for suggesting that the Taliban sell those items rather than destroying them, since that would, obviously, violate their religious principles (which Mr Barford seems to share).