Protection, Preservation and Commodification

Italy has been making tremendous strides of late in securing the return of objects. A major tenet underlying these successful repatriation claims has been the idea that by cutting off buyers of illicitly excavated objects, and by ensuring objects are not entering major museum collections, the demand for the illicit trade will be substantially reduced.

This is an important policy shift, and has unquestionably altered the cultural property policy landscape. However I think its worth asking if nations like Italy are following through with their aspirations, and if everything is being done to preserve sites and archaeological context. It stands to reason that more nations of origin will be adopting this Italian strategy, but we should ask ourselves if perhaps these efforts are looking at only one part of the problem.

In fact as I tried to point out last week, it looks like more nations of origin will be banding together and attempting perhaps to negotiate as a bloc, in much the same way that OPEC has dominated the world’s supply of oil. TIME Magazine’s Richard Lacayo in his “Looking Around” blog responded to my assertion by rightly pointing out that “OPEC is powerful because it sits on top of a natural resource that, at the end of the day, the world requires. Antiquities source nations have…..antiquities.”

He’s right of course that there isn’t nearly the same demand for antiquities as for a commodity like oil, but nations of origin do need market states in a number of ways which aren’t often fully appreciated. Italy, though it was very forceful in its recent negotiations with the Getty, the Met, and the MFA Boston chose not to use all of the legal ammunition it perhaps could have, and even reached very generous reciprocal loan agreements in exchange for the repatriated objects. The obvious question is: why be so accommodating if there were such powerful ethical principles and photographic evidence which called for the return of these objects?

The answer I think is that these nations need good relationships with other nations, and one of the major reasons is the enormous tourist dollars visitors from America (and elsewhere) can bring to these nations. Capitalizing on this tourism can have a heavy price however.
Adam L. Freeman has an excellent article on Bloomberg in which he details the struggle Italian authorities have had in properly caring for Pompeii (pictured above), “Chunks of frescoes depicting life in the Roman city are missing, carried away by visitors or eroded by the elements. Graffiti is gouged into walls. Tourists ignore signs forbidding flash photography as they take pictures of erotic designs inside the Lupanare, an ancient brothel.” This all comes as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attempts to cut expenditures, with the Culture Ministry likely to receive heavy cuts after the former government cut protection by 20 percent this year already. In fact, Italy has declared a state of emeregency for the ancient city and appointed Renato Profili former head policeman for Naples to oversee the situation.
Profili is quoted “It’s obvious that there is an emergency in a country like Italy where there’s so much to protect and so little money to do it.” This despite the 33 million euros generated by all the tourists who visit the city.

Other nations are having similar struggles. Robert Turnbull a few weeks ago in the New York Times details a museum/retail mall development in Cambodia near Angkor Wat, pictured here.

There aren’t easy answers of course, but merely returning objects to nations of origins won’t by itself protect sites, heritage and context.

The valuable tourist dollars which these sites bring in can help alleviate the situation, but it also carries with it the distasteful tradeoffs, such as the commodification of heritage, and the wear-and-tear which millions of visitors will always cause. Hopefully nations of origin will be able to move beyond the dramatic repatriations, which are a necessary step, and continue to work to preserve the sites themselves.

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