The Terms of Heritage

Posted in: Antiquities Market, ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property
Tags: Antiquities market & looting, cultural heritage and patrimony, preservation
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By: Kathryn McDonnell

Specialized terminology, such as stake holders, the “universal museum,” provenance, or even the phrases, “cultural property” or “cultural heritage,” is often used during discussions between law enforcement professionals, such as Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the US or the Carabinieri in Italy, diplomats (ICOMOS), lawyers, and scholars, including archaeologists. Although these terms allow us to sustain discussion across disciplines, they are often meaningless to non-specialists. In addition, this language can obscure the intellectual, emotional, and economic impact of the antiquities trade, much like the term “human trafficking” stands in for the more visceral, and potentially inflammatory, term “slavery.” My intent here is to break down some of these terms, describe their core concepts, and problematize some of the assumptions beneath them.

What is cultural heritage?

The terms cultural heritage or cultural property are intentionally broad, as they must encompass a world’s worth of objects, sites, and monuments. If you asked me to describe the cultural heritage of the United States, I might mention Gettysburg Battlefield, James Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn-Highland, or Chaco Canyon. I could also choose objects, such as the copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives, Native American arrowheads, or the sweetgrass baskets of Charleston, SC.

Sweetgrass basket

A sweetgrass basket

It is not an accident that I have alluded to immovable and movable, ancient and contemporary, objects and sites. As outcry over the fate of the Mostar Bridge or the Buddhas of Bamiyan demonstrates, the intentional destruction of sites and monuments is considered a crime against humanity, not just against those targeted by that destruction. The wholesale removal of monuments is now contemplated only when they are endangered. The colonialist worldview that brought the Ishtar Gate and the Pergamon Altar to Berlin is demonstrably flawed (see Elena Corbett’s blog post, Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage), although similar sites and monuments are still damaged by human agents and natural processes.

Objects, however, particularly those perceived to have intrinsic aesthetic, economic, or intellectual value, such as coins, cuneiform tablets, sculpture, and decorated pottery, even sherds, have remained more difficult to protect. Indeed, some of the debate over their protection centers on their portability in antiquity and their ubiquity then and now. A quick search of listings on internet auction sites turns up an array of such objects from any culture and era. Reactions to such listings by archaeologists range from amusement at the preponderance of fakes, to despair at the lack of legal avenues to counter casual artifact hunting, and horror at the ease with which customs laws can be circumvented.

The comparisons to differing national approaches to drugs or alcohol made in comments on previous ASOR blog posts are not unwarranted. In contrast, however, the resources employed to supply artifacts to their market are destroyed by that exploitation, and any knowledge their context might have provided is permanently lost. Context or provenance, the knowledge of precisely where an object was found in archaeological time and space and what we can learn from it can only be interpreted through careful scientific documentation. Once lost, it cannot be regained or reconstructed.

Who “owns” the past? What is a stakeholder?

The Declaration of Independence is a central artifact in the history, ideology, and self-image of the United States. Given its effects on world history, we could concede that other countries, especially France and Haiti, might view it as a part of their cultural heritage. So how do we balance local “ownership” with global interest or significance? Do some of us who are “stakeholders”, i.e. who are interested in or affected by the object, site, or monument, matter more than others? How do we decide?

Some scholars have argued that destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas proves that not all local governments are suitable custodians of cultural heritage, that their role as stakeholders is immaterial. While the method used by the Taliban to suppress “undesirable” aspects of Afghan heritage was spectacularly violent, it was not unique in its intent to erase a particular facet of the past. Particular eras of a nation’s cultural heritage may be valued more than others, as the discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan illustrates. In addition, all governments, even those benefiting from the preservation of their cultural patrimony, face difficult choices about protecting it as a resource and allocating funds. The slow collapse of buildings at Pompeii, while not recently caused by explosives, has also resulted in an irretrievable loss.

Now let’s add another layer of complexity. What if the choices for one stakeholder pit access to clean water against the preservation of a 2000-year-old tomb and the objects in it? There are economic arguments for the preservation of the 2000-year-old tomb even in the context of such a stark choice.

Archaeological resources can contribute to local economies in multiple ways, including short-term effects during excavation and conservation, and in perpetuity through museums and tourism. The shift that favors the placement of artifacts in a local museum over their collection in a central, national museum is one that invests in local communities and sets objects in a contextualized past and present. My first glimpse of the damaged Parthenon in its topographical relationship to the city below was more moving than my encounters with the disembodied fragments in the Louvre or the British Museum.

The “universal museum”

The Louvre

The Louvre and the British Museum, among many other institutions, have inherited the predatory approach of previous eras to cultural heritage. The underlying concept was the “universal” or “encyclopedic” museum – one that held objects from every era and culture, although in practice some eras and cultures were preferred to others. For many of us, myself included, our first introduction to art, archaeology, and anthropology occurred in a museum in this mold, such as the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The role of these museums in the display of artifacts is critical; far more individuals have seen ancient Egyptian artifacts outside Egypt than would realistically be able to travel to see such artifacts there. But do museums need to own the objects they display? What is the connection between ownership and exhibition?

Travelling exhibitions, such the Tutankhamen or Cleopatra shows, demonstrate one avenue for international access to cultural heritage, the blockbuster museum show. The exhibit of artifacts from the tombs of Vani in Georgia, in contrast, illustrates a fusion of archaeological rigor and showmanship. Even the loan of individual works, like the bronze Apollo from Pompeii that visited the Getty Villa, have attracted new visitors and generated interest in their sites of origin. Loans, exchanges, and cooperative agreements between institutions are ways in which museums can advocate for the protection, preservation, and open exchange of cultural heritage, rather than its acquisition.

Final Thoughts

I have left many aspects of the debate untouched, including the role of the avid collector, the marketing of artifacts to interior designers as “décor,” thefts from museums, the role of nationalism, and the stunning success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the United Kingdom. My goal in this post was to consider openly some of the core concepts of cultural heritage as an American and an archaeologist, and to ask you the reader to think along with me. How do we balance competing concerns about objects, monuments, and sites? Whose past and future is it? I hope that we can begin generating new collaborative solutions to old problems and outdated dynamics.

Kathryn McDonnell is an assistant professor of Classical Archaeology at UCLA, specializing in the Roman empire, and has excavated in the UK, Italy, Israel, and Turkey.


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