WikiLoot, crowdsourcing against the illicit antiquities trade

Posted in: Antiquities Market, ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property, Museums
Tags: Antiquities market & looting, cultural heritage and patrimony
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Jason Felch, a Los Angeles Times investigative reporter and co-author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum—a look into the Getty’s involvement in the illegal antiquities trade—agreed to answer a few questions for us about his latest project, WikiLoot.

Can you sum up what WikiLoot is?

WikiLoot is a web platform for collaborative research of the global trade in looted antiquities. We’ll be posting primary- and secondary-source documents about the trade - photographs, business records, court documents, press accounts — and crowdsourcing the tagging, linking, translation and analysis of those records. The result will be an authoritative public database that yields new insights into the size and scope of the trade and helps raise awareness about the consequences of looting.

What do you hope to accomplish with WikiLoot, what’s your overall goal or goals?

The key challenge to studying the illicit antiquities trade has long been a dearth of data. Estimates for the dollar value of the market range from tens of millions to tens of billions a year — the truth is, we don’t know its size.  WikiLoot aims to address that by collaboratively building a dataset that traces objects from the looter’s pit to the display case. We’ll bring that data to life for the general public with a blog, visualizations and social media. And we’ll use Linked Open Data to give researchers easy access to an ever-growing dataset for deeper investigation and analysis. The project is also an experiment in cross-disciplinary collaborative research.

The site isn’t launched yet, how is the development going? And what can people do to help?

We’re still in the early stages of site development. For the moment we’re focused on refining our vision with input from a diverse array of experts, exploring technology options and raising money. We’ve built an advisory board of folks from a variety of backgrounds — archaeology, technology, journalism, the law. Because several of our advisers are members of ASOR, our first advisory board meeting will be in Chicago on Wed November 14th, the day before the Annual Meeting starts. If anyone is interested in participating, they can contact me at jasonfelch@me.com

How to help? This is a collaborative effort, and we’re actively looking for input and partners. While the site is in development, there are several ways for people to get involved:

- Send us your thoughts on the project’s potential and pitfalls.

- Join our WikiLoot Development Group on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates. (See below for links.)

- Contact us about collaborating on the project or having your institution become a partner.

- If you teach, ask about how you and your students can get involved now gathering data that will eventually be included on the site.

- Help us identify and reach out to potential funders.

Is there going to be any sort of mapping component to show where looting is taking place and how antiquities are moving around the world?

Yes, mapping the trade is a core part of the project. We use maps to dynamically visualize the data we’ve collected and to describe the path objects take to market — from the archaeological site where it was looted, across the border of the source country to the warehouses where it was prepared for sale, to the auction house where it was laundered, the private collection where it was displayed and the museum shelf where it now sits. Maps will also identify looting hotspots and let us see other connections and trends in the data we hadn’t noticed before.

How are you building the dataset you plan on using for WikiLoot?

The dataset is the end goal. The starting point is lots of raw information. Over seven years investigating the illicit trade, I have obtained several dozen gigabytes of documents and photographs that were seized from prominent dealers and middlemen in the trade. We also have thousands of internal records from the Getty and other American museums. Taken together, these records offer a unique window into one prominent branch of the global illicit trade – the market in Classical antiquities. But they’re unstructured documents and photographs that are unwieldy and overwhelming. The core purpose of WikiLoot will be to break these records into discreet tasks and use crowd-sourcing to turn this raw information into a structured, linked dataset.

From this starting point in the trade in Classical antiquities, we plan to expand into other regions of the world where the illicit trade thrives. Already, we and others have begun gathering information about antiquities trafficking networks in SE Asia, South Asia, Near East, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. We will also work backward from existing antiquities collections, collaboratively conducting provenance research to determine the origins of those objects.

You’re planning on using crowdsourcing to help sort through and analyze data, so far have you seen interest from the academic community in helping with the analysis?

The project is still in its early stages, and I’ve been surprised by the interest it has generated already, particularly in the academic community. Professors have reached out about the possibility of having their students help build the site and contribute work once it’s up. Several groups are already gathering data to contribute. We’re talking with a few universities and institutes about more formal partnerships. And many of the leading researchers in this area have expressed interest and support for the effort. I’m hoping to continue building these relationships over the coming months so we can have a sizable crowd ready to dive in once the website is built.

How are museum curators reacting to the project?

To be honest, I haven’t heard directly from any yet. I suspect many haven’t heard of us. Through the grapevine, I know that others are watching our progress with interest and some apprehension. The issue of looted antiquities has been a painful one for the museum world in recent years, and will likely continue to be a sensitive area as more source countries seek returns. In our work, we’ve pushed hard for transparency. Not surprisingly, some museums responded defensively at first. But many have made important strides toward openness in recent years, and their conversations with source countries have often led to promising developments. My hope is that museum curators will see a value in what we’re doing and will find ways to work with us. Remarkably little is known about the how many of our ancient art collections were formed, and curators possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise that could contribute to our effort enormously. Every curator I know decries looting, and to stop it you have to understand it.

How do you think WikiLoot will affect the antiquities market in the future? And do you see WikiLoot as focused on the buyer’s side of the looting equation?

WikiLoot aims to shine a bright light on a very dark corner of the art market. My hope is that light has a cleansing effect.

The idea for WikiLoot developed in part out of the book you co-wrote with Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite, didn’t it? What sparked your interest in antiquities, and especially looted antiquities?

Ralph and I both stumbled into this world seven years ago rather ignorant about ancient art and became fascinated with a seemingly simple question: how did these lovely old things at my local museum get there? My earlier reporting had often focused on transnational crime — money laundering, arms trafficking, the international sex trade. Looted antiquities was a twist on that familiar theme — the dealers were often charming and extremely well educated, and the big client was my local museum, the Getty. Thanks largely to the courage of our sources, we were able to get an insider’s view on how decisions about ancient art acquisitions were made at the Getty over several decades. It was only through that work that I began to learn about the art itself and re-read (ok, read for the first time…) the classics. Seven years later, I obviously still can’t put the topic down.

Where can people get more information about WikiLoot?

We’ll have a basic website up at WikiLoot.org soon. In the meantime people can look for updates at ChasingAphrodite.com/WikiLoot or on Twitter @WikiLoot.

You can also join our WikiLoot Development Facebook group.

For daily news and analysis of the illicit antiquities trade, subscribe to my blog ChasingAphrodite.com or follow us on Facebook and Twitter @ChasingAphrodit

Or email me directly at: jasonfelch@me.com

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