Meaningful Discourse

There is a core of agreement even among the most diametrically opposed heritage advocates.

For example on Wednesday of this week the BBC program Today featured a brief piece with James Cuno and Colin Renfrew debating some of the foundational issues of heritage policy. What I find striking, is how to the casual observer much of what Cuno and Renfrew are discussing would appear to not be too far apart. They’ll both agree I think that the looting of sites is a problem, and museums should not acquire stolen or looted antiquities and works of art. They will disagree vigorously on what exactly constitutes ‘stolen’ or ‘looted’.

I’d argue that the disagreement, and much of the petty argument which takes place on the nets and at conferences actually makes the task of all sides more difficult, and is counterproductive. I’d like to see some real meaningful discourse, and a lot less sniping and unproductive exaggerations on both sides. Sadly all too often the disagreements make the american electoral process look sane and measured in comparison, not an easy task. The end result is a situation where the public often does not know how or why these issues matter.

Take for example the recent Interpol Symposium on the Theft of and Illicit Traffic in Works of Art,Cultural Property and Antiques in which a “lack of awareness among the general public of the importance of cultural heritage and the need for it to be protected,” and recommend that “INTERPOL, UNESCO and ICOM: Jointly seek ways of raising awareness among law-enforcement services, those responsible for safeguarding religious heritage, the major players in the art market and the conservation world, and the general public, with regard to protecting cultural property and combating illegal trafficking.” (via).

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6 thoughts on “Meaningful Discourse”

  1. There was a clear difference between Cuno’s “legal” position, and Renfrew’s ethical one. Why does Cuno fail to recognise the importance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention? After all, the AAMD is nudging towards 1970.

  2. I think most cultural heritage lawyers will tell you Cuno is actually right on the mark with his characterization of the legal landscape.

    We can argue quite rightly that this may be an unethical stance to take, given what we know about the state of looting and the illicit trade, but with the lack of transparency in the market — particularly in the 1960s and 1970s — there is no legal requirement that these objects are returned absent solid evidence.

    Like it or not the 1970 Convention is soft law, it wasn’t implemented in the United States until 1983, and not until the last few years in the UK. The Barakat case finally gave it some real legal impact, but by and large it has had very little teeth. Though it serves an important symbolic function to be sure, and was a very important milestone.

    I do think Cuno was exactly right when he noted that these returns to Italy have been driven by the fabulously successful (my characterization) Medici investigation. Without those Polaroids, I suspect the Euphronios Krater, and the many other returned objects would still be in North America.

  3. Derek
    There is a huge gulf between Renfrew and Cuno. Read Renfrew’s review of Who Owns Antiquity? if you are in any doubt. See my brief comments on Looting Matters. Renfrew also comments on the use of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

  4. Of course I’m aware of the many distinctions between the two; however the public is generally not. They probably aren’t able to pick up on the differences. That was my point. Both agree looting is a problem, but would I think point to very different culprits and have very different potential solutions.

    Public education is really lacking in my view. Honest people still buy antiquities, without knowing how or why what they are doing may cause problems. Odyssey Marine had an operation here in New Orleans before Katrina, and lots of people bought objects from underwater sites. These issues just aren’t on many people’s radar. Education and cooperation between the Renfrew’s and Cuno’s is needed I think on the core areas where they do agree (and they do agree on some things).

  5. Derek- You should also note that serious discourse within the archaeological community itself is hampered because anyone who disagrees with the the status quo is subject to being “blackballed.” See:

    In this climate, there also is little incentive for archaeologists to advocate sensible approaches like you yourself have advocated in your recent article about the “Treasure Trove” and the PAS.
    Indeed, to do so risks not only being “blackballed” by one’s colleagues, but potentially also having one’s excavation permits yanked by source countries with a “state owns everything” approach to anything old.


    Peter Tompa

  6. One problem is that when the debate becomes petty or hostile the public tunes out. (To be honest, sometimes I stop listening at that point.) The sound of academics squabbling is not the most appealing one.

    Here are the things I think would promote more meaningful discourse:

    1. Less polarization between what have been characterized as competing “sides” of the argument.

    2. Less emphasis on doctrinal positions (on both sides) and more emphasis on solving the mutual goal of cultural preservation.

    3. More emphasis on what is working as opposed to what is not.

    4. Less emphasis on what positions people have espoused in the past (too often used as a means to unproductively attack).

    5. More precision in language used because (come on now) the capability exists there and imprecise language is fodder for about half the bickering I observe.

    Your post is timely for me because I’m still early in my blog, and I’ve made an effort to write in a way that’s accessible and interesting for the general public. I have gotten some positive feedback in that respect as well.

    I’ve been thinking about doing series of “101” posts (i.e., shipwreck law 101, or historic preservation 101, or NAGPRA 101), which may not be of much interest to fellow cultural property scholars, but could become a resource for laypeople interested in educating themselves informally.

    I think gearing discussion with the public eye in mind can help facilitate meaningful discourse to the extent that it takes the five points I mentioned into account, and makes the concept of cultural preservation more accessible to everyone.

    Just some thoughts!


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