Looting the Past: The Battle for Our Ancient Heritage

Wednesday evening I attended a Chicago Council on Global Affair’s event “Looting the Past: The Battle for Our Ancient Heritage.” It was a panel moderated by Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. On the panel was James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust (and former head of the Art Institute), Patty Gerstenblith, Research Professor of Law, and Director, DePaul Center for Art, Museum, & Cultural Heritage Law, Richard Leventhal, Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, and Executive Director, Penn Cultural Heritage Center. The event focused on looting right now and the past few decades. The panel didn’t much discuss looting/discoveries from past centuries, like the Rosetta Stone or Parthenon Marbles.

All the panelists agreed that looting is a terrible, violent act. Patty Gerstenblith summed up the harm of looting with three points. First, looting eliminates the context of the piece. Ripping it from its resting locations eliminates the information about its placement, relationship to other objects and more. There was this incredible shot of a Mayan Stelae (large stone carving) that had a small section cut off it and sold on the market. It was horrifying. Second, looting could destroy the piece. She cited examples of pieces that were repaired/touched up badly, like a mosaic piece that was held together with Krazy Glue. Third, looting complicates authenticity of objects; it’s hard to tell the difference between real artifacts and fake ones.

James Cuno has a reputation of being firmly against repatriation of artifacts. He is a big promoter of the encyclopedic museum, of which I actually subscribe to (though not to the same extreme by any means). However, he firmly believes that calls to return items, like the Parthenon marbles, is extreme nationalism, pure politics. There was some of that in his talk on Wednesday, but he was firm against present day looting. He argued that national laws (idea that anything in the ground is automatically owned by the government) and export laws didn’t help; instead countries had to develop alternative economic systems to eliminate the financial incentive to loot. He explained that museums were taking the first step in not accepting artifacts that didn’t have extensive provenance (history of ownership, how it was found, etc). However, Patty Gerstenblith, a lawyer who is an expert on cultural heritage law, disagreed with Cuno that these laws weren’t useful, instead positing that the enforcement of the laws was the issue. Not enough importance has been placed on enforcement.

And he encouraged collectors to refuse acquiring items without the proper provenance to end the demand side of the equation. But he made the provocative point about what do you do about objects already out of the ground; some have historical/cultural importance and it would be better if it were in a museum than a private collector.  Of course, his fellow panelists would say that the ends doesn’t justify the means. Museums, more than anyone, need to set an ethical example.

Richard Leventhal, Professor of Anthropology, appears on the other side of the spectrum; artifacts need to be returned to their countries of origin. Common arguments against this like lack of knowledge about country of origin are bunk; he explains that it can be figured out amongst nations. He posited the future of museums is loans, not acquisitions. Museums should borrow pieces from other countries for short or even long-term loans, instead of working to acquire pieces.  This is an interesting point in the larger context of how business is moving from goods based to service based. (For instance, a carpet manufacturer started leasing and recycling its carpets, instead of installing and then disposing of it). However, Mr. Cuno made the critical point that loans are very expensive; the Getty pays millions to get loans from around the world. Most small museums wouldn’t be able to afford these loans, including shipping costs, insurance, etc. Long term loans sound logical but many countries have so many restrictions for how long something can be out of the country, or even if it can be moved.

Professor Leventhal went on to explain how countries need to do more training and education of its own people to safeguard these treasures. He explained that people want to protect what they consider part of their national identity.  Most importantly, while the world may be getting smaller figuratively, people want separate cultural identities and find their identities in artifacts, like Americans do with the Declaration of Independence or Abraham Lincoln’s hat. However,  Mr. Cuno asked the problem of governments who do not value the cultures of their minorities. There is no easy solution. Going in and “saving” artifacts of cultures smacks of paternalism/colonialism. It’s the justification for why the Parthenon Marbles were taken to begin with.

And the issue of museums and looting in conflict zones is heartbreaking. In the cases of recent looting of museums in Iraq and Syria, international institutions offered to safeguard the artifacts beforehand but the governments refused. As repressive regimes, how could they not? Letting these objects leave the country or even go into safekeeping would be admitting to a failure on their part. Politics definitely play a role with 1000 year old objects.

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