Monday, February 11, 2013

Fighting the evil with a new mind


Illicit traffic of heritage objects is the  consequence of complex problems. It is due to the colonial conquest as well as the later wars, plunder and looting. The chaos and poverty wherever they happen immediately cause the heavy losses of cultural substance. The crime chain usually starts  with the deprived and poor and ends with big and rich be them dealers or, in some cases, museums. The problem is that occupations concerned with heritage  failed in performing their task in a prevention and in coordinated action.

Some budgetary redistribution of financial means that would imperceptibly diminuate military expense, would be a solution to the problem as most of the plunderers and traders could be either encouraged to earn on legal excavations or would be prevented from performing their crime. Further investment would provide documentation and safe storage as well as training for the professionals.

Besides plain return (dubious hope for the important expatriated cultural heritage) there are possibilities of loans, exchanges and cooperation. Since museums without objects are possible and do exist, some solutions could make up for the massive losses for cultures of origin. Their specific right makes the use of secondary material (copies, facsimiles, replicas, models or media presentations) more of a solution for them than for the others. If done creatively and backed with international cooperation those creative solutions could turn some of the problem into advantage. Many museums nowadays do not exist merely to present their collection. Based upon scientific expertise, they thrive on communication, explaining the concepts and values important for the life of the given community.

Acknowledging the problem, the article is an effort to offer a combined wisdom of a professional and the lay person, a sort of practical view of on a problem of restitution of cultural objects to the country of origin with some suggestions for solutions. Otherwise, the matter seemingly grows more complex the more it is discussed by curators, academics, lawyers and politicians.

Key words:

looting of cultural heritage, illicit traffic, illegal excavations, redistribution of resources, professionalism, museums  without objects, repatriation, common sense, expertise, fascination, ICT, Internet, new mind

1. The specific source of the problem: culture is not a priority choice

I am sure, the experts on looting of cultural heritage, illicit traffic and the deficit of honesty in returning to the rightful owners (what has been unlawfully estranged from them) - will describe this problem better then a theoretician on heritage. So, my intention is only to contribute some simple thoughts on the sources of the problem and possible solutions to it.

My heart is with tombarolli , if I have to choose between them and the rich art dealers in Geneva or New York. Besides, most of them would be perfectly happy with a daylight job for the same wage if the state decided to make culture its priority. Now, culture is expensive and we cannot afford it, - I hear some say. But, is it not just a question of policy or the  quality of the societal project? If there would be a decision of buying one Mirage or Phantom fighter plane less a year, per country in question, there would be enough money to turn all the secret excavations into legal ones . These planes that are discarded into junk after a few hundred of  hours of usless flying cost between 25 and 70 million  Euros and the Stealth bomber may reach 3.1 billion dollars , while a Trident submarine costs only 1.4 billion. In brief, we are forced to solve problems that stem from the lack of logic in priorities. I believe, no millitary eagle would even notice this skratch at the millitary budget nor it would result in the loss of their power. Of course, this is naive. But so is love. So is honesty, and so is culture itself... Is the simplicity of it a problem? Alas, in terms of immediate profit, wars stay more lucrative than culture and prove so convenient for unrestrained plunder of any property, the cultural included, - so beneficial for the art market. 

2. The task for a mega profession

The problem of illegal excavation, plunder and illicit trade is deeply social and will be getting worse. All problems are manipulated into solutions that serve best the particular interests of the rich. The de-ideologized world offers no support for the rightful claims so that fragmented society can only produce harmless corrective or counter-active actions, allowed and tolerated to provide the illusion of democracy.

If the country X is drowning in poverty, the exports of illegally excavated archaeological sites or looted museums will bring rocketing profits for the well perfumed and respected gentlemen who will be growingly different from the stinking poor devils digging in the darkness and risking their lives for the few dollars it brings. If the country falls victim of warfare, that is even better opportunity for smashing profits. The equation  more-despair means-more-evil, - is the mathematics of hell. In 1993 the illicit trade was worth 39,3 billion dollars and in 2003 it was already 60 billion; the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to mention only the big scenes, were only the good news for the art market.

The solution is simple like some Greek allegory: a goddess of Expertise standing on a pedestal of common sense. In brief, the entire domain of heritage, be it museums, archives, hybrid heritage institutions, and galleries has to be professionalized in such a depth and extent that they finally represent a power in the society. We still do not have an organized profession but disorganized number of occupations without unifying philosophy and coordinated methods. The mega profession of heritage care and communication will come into being and will be able to generate a heritage movement, like the one that was in the seventies crated for the values of environment and now represents the only chance of our survival.

So the real solution, besides diminuating despair that comes through poverty and wars,  - is: education of professionals dealing with heritage, more money for documentation, more money for excavations, and media campaign denouncing the protagonists of the shameful plunder. By preventing big museums to take part as promising buyers, a considerable demotivation of trade would take place. Only a profession united and composed of otherwise scattered occupations would be capable of dealing with the problem: both in negotiations among institutions as well as in prevention of the problem. A real profession will be able to create all form of cultural or heritage action in order to raise the awareness and make political and public space for the professional solutions. One could sincerely doubt that certain big returns of cultural property to the countries of origin would meet the necessary public support.

3. The reverse effectiveness of law

We have law and order that are partly effective with the desperate plunderers but hardly ever touch the big figures of the trade. The latter are, well, the crème of the occidental societies. They are simply rich and famous, socially and often culturally, the elite of their respective countries. One day, many of them will also become big donors, bequsting their collections to the society, figuring as philanthropists and persons of respect: to honour these qualities and provide place for their collection, tax payers will pay for the expensive buildings named in their eternal memory. Christie's and Sotheby's will continue frowning at us when we bother them with ethics: do we want to harm an important branch of country's business? They are just doing "their job". The last time merchants were opposed in a society on the ground of ethical implications of their trade, was in the middle ages, when they were not given the status of an estate. Times changed and merchants now make much of the occidental economy. So, it is the public tacit consent and the lack of evidence that makes us all the accomplices of their sad and harmful affair. The law reaches the protagonists only occasionally and recuperates what has been stolen only sporadically. The figures of losses remain frightening: less than a half of 14 000 objects looted from the Baghdad museum have been found. Apulian heritage is, some experts claim, 95 % excavated  by pillagers who looted about 130 000 thombs.

4. The paradox of expenses

The naive expectation of spending a fighter plane or two a year to cure this growing illness will surely fail. But, If we calculate the time and money we spend on tracking the illicit trade, on protecting the sites, on international investigations, on search and control, on cultural diplomacy trying to rectify the injustice, on conferences and gatherings, - we will arrive at very substantial sums. But, say, we decide to invest much of this expenditure in advance to discourage the plunder and illicit traffic by financing excavations, by offering professional education, by improving documenting, launching media campaigns... This would also comprise special storages and some new strategy but might bring good results. Poor countries require less for the expenses and are most vulnerable to the problem. They need solidarity and assistance, otherwise we are but part of a vicious circle. Only 65 countries have their version or translation of the museum legislation. To donate them to the rest is a little expense for the international community.

It is a burning  problem that many countries suffer from. ICOM Arab claims that only  from 1983 until 1999, Algiers has been plundered of 50 300 objects. The plunder continued. Not many Arab museums would have sufficient documentation of their collections to issue a legal search at all. The astonishing 95% of African heritage objects has been lost for national and local cultures by constant export. Their soul has been taken away from them. That is a shameful consequence of the advantage of the prosperous world taken of the helpless  part of the Planet. There can be no excuse for this crime.

5. The paradigmatic case on injustice, the bad fate and some chances

Though I was always an easy prey to British charm, - in the case of "Elgin marbles, I am a Greek. I do believe my top professional friend from England who said: "nobody tells British museum what to do".  Splendid, I almost hasted to exclaim. What if my colleagues there are not disputed because they are the epitome of the same possessiveness that created the former hard pride and recklessness of the big nation? If there would be a vision in them, they would negotiate a fair deal with the future: some sort of mixed ownership and use. Elgin marbles look best and say most where they come from. Yet, not all them, and certainly not all the time need they be at the either place. If visiting the part exposed in British Museum one would profit from having a real time video link to the rest in Athens, including the context lacking in London. There could also be in some adjoining space an on line communication channel for the public or expert comments. In supporting the deal, Greece could contribute a regular exclusive exhibitions on the ancient Greek treasures they and the British could also send other rare Greek objects to be temporarily exposed in Greece.

6. An additional practical solution

The best way to make sure one is not part of the problem is to become a part of the solution. Theory of heritage is in its adolescence and makes brave claims that practice can learn from. Unlike before, the new theory is not ashamed of giving ideas for practical solutions.

Museums without objects are possible and do exist, and so do even museums on concepts and intangible heritage. The ICT and Internet made possible the digitally born objects, and institutions alike. The world has changed and will continue to do so. The best one can do is to understand it and manage it towards the usable future. A museum may possess three-dimensional, palpable objects, but that is not the ultimate condition for an institution to be considered a museum. Museum consists (also) of  intention, capacity, ability and right, to pass on (both in space and time) the values recognized, researched and communicated, - found to be of vital importance in maintaining coherence of a certain identity. Museums are not about protecting the past but about protecting the (quality of the) future. The past is just the part of means to that aim.

Modern Greece has a specific role of the privileged inheritor of an enormous cultural patrimony. Due to the historic circumstances, this patrimony has been dispersed throughout the world, often in the circumstances that would be found questionable or very unacceptable today.

Yet, the harsh reality prevents major corrections to this historical development for a long time to come. Dealing solely with the problem of repatriation of cultural heritage Greece is not enough. There is also the right to certain procedures, the right of legitimate inheritor. When the original alley of kuros on Samos is replaced by impeccable copies (while originals are in museums), - it is a perfectly correct procedure, specific to the genius loci and provides legitimacy of substitutes there. Establishing, erecting the same alley done with substitutes in Essex would certainly be ridiculous. Doing the alley even with then originals would be impossible. However, Samos and the original context make the right.

Greece should create a specific heritage institution that would deal with the widest possible scope of the problem, turning it into advantage and creating itself still another attraction for visitors. It would be a quasi-museal institution, showing representations, substitutes, of illegally exported or stolen treasures of its culture. It would be easy to obtain the replicas and/or audio-visual and other representations of Greek exhibits from all over the world for the sake of showing them in such a specific institution. Refusal would create so much media space for the central theme of final reclaim that, I believe, most would consent instantly.

To avoid the image of "unsympathetic" institution that implicitly accuses all of theft or casts suspicion upon them, the concept should be enlarged and turned into a story. There can be exposed the representations of Classical Greek artefacts scattered all around the world; not any and not all, of course, but those that deserve to be shown cumulatively as a giant demonstration of Greek importance for the entire world, - how the fascination with ancient Greece continues throughout the last two millennia. The exhibition should, namely, show the spread and examples of values in architecture, design, ideas and terminology inspired by Greek heritage. Its virtual version would be a heavily visited web site: both of them a truly global Greek museum (a "Fascination Greece"?).

This would be a relevant, modern, attractive and even avant-garde institution, - a museum by all its functions and yet a unique international cultural centre to the extent of global tourist MUST. Such an example could be followed, I believe, by many other museum institutions internationally who would document the presence of their cultural artefacts elsewhere in the world. The times when museums existed to explain their collections has expired. Now they increasingly see and use their collections to tell the story of the identity they stand for. Neither the academic research nor the scientific contents of their messages suffer any lowering of standards. Museums are based upon scientific expertise, but live on communication. The language of communication is not that of scientists but the one of life, - told by the words and syntax we, the taxpayers, - all understand. 


Maybe things are simple as they seem to be. When about naivete, - anything worth our beliefs or trust, be it love or faith, is naive, specially if compared with the harsh reality. But that is also the power. There are many practical moves and improvements that many experts will bring into this matter, but ultimately, the decisive solution lies with the big changes we await: those of governance of law, of professionalism, justice, fairness in the division of wealth...- the improvement in the governing value system forming a new mind in many matters. We seem to realize that culture may well be the gravity centre of the social project, and yet to redistribute favourably even a particle of percent of  the state budget (or, indeed, military budget) seems such an impossible task. Curious and quite a dangerous world!