I was hesitant to make this my 400th post, as I wanted to save that spot for something else, something less fractured and scattered. Yet, as I wrote out this post, it developed into something much more than the few scratched out notes I had taken during the conference. The whole thing is still a little rough; my thoughts not fully thought through. But, I think it will do.
This weekend, the Western Museums Association had its annual meeting (read: conference) here in Honolulu. Museums from across the West Coast of Canada and the US, Mexico, and the Pacific paired up with the Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums in organizing this conference, and as a result, the vast majority of the talks were about tribal and indigenous issues, which, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll know are not particularly my chief interests.
I’d been to the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference many years ago, in Boston, and back then there seemed to be a lot more talks related to what feels to me like the “mainstream” museum world. But, still, there were a small handful of interesting panels at the WMA this weekend.
I attended one panel talking about the new Pearl Harbor Museum, though, sadly, most of the talk was sort of PR-ese and vague comments about how “there were difficulties, but it all worked out in the end.” Only one speaker actually addressed the controversies and discursive difficulties that arise in discussing such an issue – looking at the section on Japanese society in the 1930s, and the political/economic/cultural background of the build-up to war; no one discussed the real core, meaty issue of the battles between interest groups who were for and against showing the Japanese point of view, for and against it being a more objective historical treatment vs. a patriotic war memorial sort of treatment. One scholar ignored all of this entirely, speaking of the native history of the site, and the importance of the land to native Hawaiians, coming quite close to what I might call a “rant” against imperialism and the US military presence in Hawaii and all of that; he ended with an anti-war [in Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan] song on his guitar.
I also attended a small, brief talk in the conference’s “Tech Lounge,” about one man’s research project into how different organizations are digitizing their book collections (and other manuscripts and similar materials). After this past summer, interning at the Freer-Sackler and being directly involved in their digitization project, this was of particular interest to me. And when he asked us to raise our hands if we’re involved in a digitization project, I was the only one who raised my hand – a lot of people seemed interested to talk to me about it, and I was interested to talk to them, though in the end, not too much discussion actually happened, as everyone just sort of drifted off.
Getting to the point of the topic mentioned in the title of this blog post, in one panel yesterday, entitled “Safeguarding the Past: An Exploration in the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Artifacts,” art historian, lawyer, and published author Kate Fitz Gibbon gave a very interesting talk about the issue of the black market in artifacts.
Interesting because it took a very different stance from most other views I have read or heard on the issue. So much of what I have read sides strongly with source countries fighting for the return of “cultural heritage”, and makes the museums look like the bad guys. They make museums’ responses, speaking of the value to the world of having these objects as ambassadors of that culture to the world, or of the value of having representations of the whole world under one roof, seem unconvincing, like the museum is simply struggling to find an excuse, to hide some other motive, to justify the continued existence of an institution founded, its accusers would argue, on an outdated, and, frankly, racist & imperialist foundation. In short, that all museums are elitist and imperialist institutions, and that all cultural heritage belongs with the descendants of the people to whom it originally belonged. So many of these voices argue for the idea that just about everything is cultural heritage, and just about everything belongs back in its source countries; that there is no such thing as a licit or “above board” market in artifacts, that it’s all black market, because cultural heritage should not be ownable, buyable, sellable, transferable, exportable.
Fitz Gibbon did not specifically address such famous and unique works as the Parthenon Marbles or the Berlin Nefertiti. But, her view was truly like a breath of fresh air, arguing eloquently and compellingly for a less extreme view, and for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. First, she says, arguments that all trade in artifacts is black market villainizes dealers and collectors, ignoring the quite valuable contributions many dealers and collectors have made to scholarship, and to conserving or preserving objects – sometimes rescuing them from destruction, in the case of war or oppressive regimes, bringing them together into academically-valuable collections [i.e. of great use to researchers], and bringing things to light that academia had never taken notice of before.
She also argued that the federal government, and many others citing such figures, grossly exaggerates and misrepresents the size of the illicit market in art and artifacts. Some sources cite it as a multi-million dollar a year operation, quoted by Interpol as the fourth largest set of criminal operations, behind only drugs, weapons, and money laundering. Yet, Fitz Gibbon argued, providing extensive figures, that this is blown out of proportion completely, creating a spectre out of what is in fact far smaller (not that there isn’t still an illicit, illegal, and immoral portion of the art/antiquities market; just that it’s much smaller than Interpol and the FBI make it out to be).
Fitz Gibbon went on to speak about the idea that there are many who cast far too wide a net in their definitions of cultural heritage, and of art, and of things that should not be commodified. It was on this point in particular that I thought the presentation really soared, as she dared make some rather controversial comments. And, after all, isn’t that what makes academic presentations, especially conferences, intriguing and exciting? If not for controversial statements, new and groundbreaking arguments, if it was all just platitudes, wouldn’t we all just be asleep in our chairs?
Native Hawaiians and other tribal organizations may be a different story, she said, as what little they have of their cultural heritage is all the more precious because it is so limited. But places like Egypt and Italy are basically swimming in art and artifacts, and so long as many of the most famous, most important & significant, pieces remain in (or are returned to) the country, why can’t other objects – such as pieces of pottery of which hundreds or thousands of relatively similar examples are also extant – be allowed to flow more freely across international borders, through the hands of dealers and collectors, and into the hands as well of museums which will share Egyptian and Italian culture with the world, educating and inspiring others?
Fitz Gibbons cited the National Treasures system of Japan as one of the best systems in the world, which you know of course made me happy, to see Japan singled out and mentioned, and to see it praised. A limited number of objects (and architectural structures) are designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, and most of these are prohibited from leaving the country. Yet, a system of permits and such exists for other art and artifacts to leave the country, and to be privately owned; the Japanese government seems quite cognizant of the idea of these objects serving as cultural ambassadors, and of the value of soft power throughout the world. Those objects that are of the greatest importance are protected, while other objects are allowed to flow more freely; the Japanese recognize the value in not going to extremes to protect and keep *everything* that might be considered cultural heritage. Furthermore, private ownership of Important Cultural Properties and even National Treasures within Japan is allowed (probably largely because so many of these objects have already a centuries-long history of being owned privately by a particular temple or aristocratic family), and the objects are not seized by the government. On the contrary, owners of such properties are entitled to eligibility for conservation funding and other sorts of benefits to help protect the objects. In total, there are only about 1400 objects that are prohibited from leaving the country. Unlike some who call for a total return of all objects of cultural heritage to the source countries, or a total ban on objects leaving the source countries, Japan seems to recognize the value in making value judgements on the importance or significance of objects, of what does and does not merit protection as a “National Treasure,” and allowing people from all around the world to learn about, be inspired by, and otherwise enjoy and engage with Japanese culture, through visiting museum exhibits, and through being able to privately own Japanese art objects. How many thousands upon thousands of objects of ceramic, lacquerware, textiles, etc. are out there? Paintings and rare books are a bit more rare and precious, but even then, I think it’s okay to not consider every single object “sacred” when it’s not – Edo period books and prints were very much commercial objects, and I have a hard time believing that each and every Hawaiian artifact out there, every calabash bowl, every piece of tapa, is truly a sacred ritual object and not a utilitarian everyday object – and I think it’s okay that some of these objects flow more freely around the world, through the art market and the museum world.
I have just touched upon it above, but one phrase, one idea, stuck out to me in particular during the talk. Paraphrasing, Fitz Gibbon said something to the effect of that we must not cast our net too wide, and call “sacred” all manner of things that are not. Egypt has apparently recently done away with private ownership of art, and is building giant government storehouses to hold everything which I guess I presume will at some point be seized from citizens by the authorities. Who does this benefit?
Fitz Gibbon specifically omitted native & indigenous groups, citing that they have so little left of their cultural heritage that every little thing is precious, and rightfully so. Still, her comments struck a chord, reminding me of thoughts I had a year or so ago in my [Indigenous Issues] Museum Studies course. We must be careful not to cast our net too wide. What happens when every single spot of land is sacred, and is argued for as a site of great historical or cultural importance that has been defiled by “modern” human settlement (and more specifically by settlement by outsiders, especially whites)? You’re left with nowhere to have your modern houses, your roads, your shops and stores, your bars and restaurants. I honestly wonder, if every spot of land that someone says is sacred and of great cultural and historical importance were to be set aside as a Native Hawaiian Cultural Site or whatever, is there anywhere at all in these islands that would be left for people (i.e. Natives themselves) to live their modern lives? Similarly, what happens when everything, not just ritual objects, but everything from gourds and bowls to spears and baskets, is deemed “sacred, inviolate, cultural heritage?” What happens when we take all of these objects out of museums, out of public view and public use entirely, and rebury them in caves and elsewhere? Not only does the outside world lose the potential for greater understanding, appreciation, knowledge about your people, but your own people lose access to that cultural knowledge, now buried, now set aside, and inaccessible even to you who are trying to reclaim and revive your traditions.
The situation with cultures such as Italy is a bit different, in that it is not so closely tied to conceptions of the “sacred” and “inviolate.” No Italian will ever tell you that any ancient Roman artifact or Etruscan pot is not meant to be seen by outsiders, or is not meant to be seen by men (or by women), or is not meant to be placed next to such-and-such other object, and that, in short, the placement of these objects in a museum is offensive and culturally insensitive to the core. That’s an indigenous concept, shared, somehow, by a wide swath of cultures from around the world, from the Pacific to Native Americans to certain African and Asian tribal peoples. Yet, still, there are many who argue on behalf of Italy, Egypt, and others, that every single pot, every single stone, every single object, is “cultural heritage”, and should be returned. That no art, no artifact, should be allowed to be a commodity, at all; which brings us back to Fitz Gibbon’s argument about the great good so many dealers and collectors have done, and about how many dealers and collectors are in fact “good guys”, not to be lumped in with some shadowy stereotype of the black market antiquities dealer. There are a few, she says, who give the rest of us (them) a bad name, and who inspire the authorities and the law to react in ways which harm us all in wide blanket sort of ways.
To take just one, particularly appalling example, UNESCO and other organizations (Interpol? I’m not sure exactly who) have placed bans on objects leaving source countries, within certain specifications. So, when a crate of ancient Akkadian cylinder seals arrive at JFK, they are sent back to the Iraq Museum from which they were stolen. Good job. Yet, when the Afghanistan Museum in Kabul tries to send crateloads upon crateloads of objects to Switzerland, specifically in order to get them out of the country to keep them safe from the war, and these bans are blindly applied, the ancient, priceless objects get returned to Afghanistan where they are promptly smashed to bits by members of the Taliban. Yes, that apparently happened.
Because, as Fitz Gibbons quite rightfully pointed out, government is not always right when it comes to cultural heritage. Every government has political aims, and will use culture and history to further those goals. Every government has misconceptions and misunderstandings about these issues, especially as the vast majority of politicians and bureaucrats in any government are made up of political & economics experts, and not art, history, and cultural issues experts. Just because a government is the government of that country does not mean that they have the best interests of that country’s art and artifacts in mind, as evidenced by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and now of these cratefuls of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts. And while the Taliban may be one of the worst in these respects, that does not mean that we should trust or believe that the Italian, Turkish, and Egyptian governments (or, to be fair, for that matter, our own, here in the US, or in the UK, or wherever) are 100% in the right when they set cultural policy.
I have yet to read Fitz Gibbons’ book “Who Owns the Past?“, but am all the more eager to read it now. While I cannot presume that she, or I, or anyone, has all the answers – and perhaps these issues are indeed so complex that no single blanket solution, or no good solution at all, can ever be reached – it is wonderfully refreshing to hear a different opinion, a different argument, so eloquently elaborated. Maybe museums, dealers, and collectors are not the enemy after all. Maybe there are valid sections of the art market; maybe it’s not all illicit, and should not be seen that way. Maybe not everything should be considered “sacred” and “cultural heritage.” Maybe it’s okay to allow some things to be commodified, some things to flow more freely, while the proportion of things that might more truly be considered Treasures are protected.