War and Peace: The Enduring Saga of Cultural Heritage Protection

There were great presentations on looting. After my posts to twitter yesterday, I thought I would focus mainly on parts of the conference that focused on some of the solutions at present to help protect objects from looting to begin with and to help countries reclaim their orphan objects – or unknown stolen cultural heritage.

moderated by Tom Kline (Andrews Kurth), Richard Leventhal (Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania), Timothy Rub (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Victoria Reed (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Richard Leventhal (Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania), Timothy Rub (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Victoria Reed (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) on a panel moderated by Tom Kline (Andrews Kurth) on museum ethics.

On the museum side, moderated by Tom Kline (Andrews Kurth), Richard Leventhal (Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania), Timothy Rub (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Victoria Reed (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), presented a lunchtime panel discussion on museum response to the legal environment and collecting ethics. More specifically, what are the responsibilities of museums and auction houses to protect cultural heritage as they manage the business of the day?

What is the responsibility of museums to do this research? Victoria noted that, traditionally, provenance was the responsibility of curatorial staff. Now, museums can be more transparent because of the speed of internet. Provenance didn’t used to show up when the museum catalogue was only way to share collection. Its a balancing act. Complete provenance information on collections are starting to emerge online, including the National Gallery and MFA, Boston. Larger institutions have staff, but smaller institutions have more of a challenge, but the sector is moving in that direction.

Richard felt that museums needed to admit to missing sections of provenance and open up conversation to host countries. He believes that most countries would not take it, but arrange a long term loan process. He also felt, like Victoria, that digitization will help some things with pre-1970 or with patrimony law walls, giving the opportunity to resolve the issues around repatriation and orphan objects.

A BBC journalist asked the panel: “Do museums have a responsibility to be safe keepers of objects from places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen? Is that too imperialist a point of view?”

Victoria responded that is depends who is offering the object.  She noted an acquisition from a bequest to the MFA with objects in question and described how, along with estate, the museum approached Nigeria and the objects were returned.

Richard brought up what I thought was a great point that museums can’t accession because what they DON’T OWN; He felt that the issue of transparency becomes a critical one to solve for X. It is mostly an issue with dealers, or museums who need to say no and WHY and approach source countries. He continued on to say that morality says to have sanctuary departments at museums to make orphan objects available for research and make space for claims.

It is valuable to know that later in the day Victoria Reed presented on her role at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She discussed the boundaries of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) best practices, noting that in 2008 AAMD put together a report on acquisition of archaeological materials and ancient art (June 4, 2008). It noted that museums should not acquire work unless probable discovery before 1970 and should provide a framework on works that do not have a typical history. The AAMD portal also has an object registry – a place to go where source countries can browse, but success is based on compliance and awareness. Museums have to share this information and source countries must be vigilant, as well as well resourced, to act on cultural objects. Further, she noted that AAMD’s guidelines have no legal consequence – they are purely ethical and focus specifically on the problem of antiquities looting.

In Ms. Reed’s work in Boston, she never focuses on 1970, with exclusion of everything else. She noted three objects: a votive figure from Cyprus, where a  memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the US and Cyprus in 2002 was a concern, as well as the Turkish invasion in 1974; An Aureus with bust of Septimius Severus coin from Italy; and a Roman flask from Israel before the country’s laws on patrimony and lacked a paper trail after 1960s.

What about those antiquities without a paper trail (orphan objects)? Most critical problem with antiquities is not whether they can be traced to 1970, but can they be traced at all? Unverifiable for many, or amorphous in 1960s (no surprise); objects that can only be traced verbally or in Chasing Aphrodite fame! The market has little incentive to change unless required to provide provenance information before a transaction. If museums begin to do this seriously, it will discourage the larger market issue.

On the final panel of the day, entitled “Legal Framework for the Emergency Responses to Heritage Destruction in Times of Conflict: The Case of Syria”, Corine Wegener, a Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer at the Smithsonian shared the importance of partnership in these scenarios. Wegener, who is also the head of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) task force, discussed how the destruction of culture in Mali served as guide for the needs of Syria.

In Mali, the French military had pushed forces out and dispersed them throughout Timbuktu and destroyed really important sites, left looted museums, and stopped Malians from the practice of intangible cultural heritage in dance, storytelling, and dress. The country was able to smuggle some things under the nose of jihadists to Bahami. This followed with a big meeting of UNESCO and other interested in helping Mali recover…so UNESCO/ICOM/Smithsonian Museum all collaborated to provide training workshops. This helped show countries what was successful and unsuccessful when facing the same challenges. It brought those individuals protecting cultural heritage in Mali to people from neighboring countries with similar problems. It gave community examples with museums as a safe place and leverage-able assets to help in these efforts. More formally, this event helped bring SHOSI together with a wide range of stakeholders in training June 23-25, 2014 for  “Emergency Care for Syrian Museum Collections”.

Dr. Salam Al-Kuntar presented afterward, giving more detail on the SHOSI Project. The Department of Antiquities in Damascus (government) has very low capacity to be at sites: SHOSI provides emergency response for collections in museums and in situ (packing and crating to bring to safekeeping, protective wrapping from bombing, etc.). SHOSI provides participants with basic supplies. It also thinks about what local preservationists can access from their home and from the local market to protect cultural objects. SHOSI helped to create a dialogue between Syrian participants about emergency responses. Some examples of the group’s work include Ma’arra Mosaic Museum, which is cultural heritage in and of itself and the largest collection of mosaics in the Middle East – raising the question, “How do you preserve objects in situ?” Contrary to some western assumptions, there are many moderate Muslims who want to preserve these objects and places, but need guidance and support. SHOSI helped provide the capacity for these individuals.

Additionally, Susan Wolfinbarger from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) spoke about the use of GIS toward efforts in litigation. AAAS has been doing a lot of training at international human rights courts and commissions about ways GIS and GPS may be used in research. Now AAAS wants to do the same for cultural property prosecution; to help prepare cases at trial. Current international practice has a problem of evidence: witness testimony, lack of access to sites; good knowledge in forensics, not as much in other areas of new scientific technologies. Admissibility must meet the Daubert standard: Has the technique been tested?; Has the theory been peer reviews?; It is generally accepted in community?In terms of authentication, burden to show data suppliers, provide a chain of custody (which is ridiculous to me in times of war), and aid in identifying circumstances that require more detailed investigation by visual observation. With remote sensing, there can be access to dangerous, remote, or unreachable ares; large area analysis (vs. on ground).

Overall, while the issues remain immensely complicated and the endless streams of violence throughout the world challenge further the protection of cultural heritage, these panel discussions, for me, were hopeful. There are individuals, organizations, and institutions informing new (what I hope will become) best practices. Both panels address the responsibility of these well-resourced institutions to change their thinking about how they manage cultural heritage, as well, as creating more capacity and infrastructure in places where religious ideology, poverty, and terrorism challenge the prevention of these objects all together. How do you feel these examples address the problems related to cultural heritage destruction and looting? What else would you like to see done?

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