Soft Cultural Power

The Economist examines how well UNESCO manages its list of World Heritage Sites:

This year’s most dramatic move was a rare decision to strip a place—Dresden and the surrounding Elbe valley—of its status as a “World Heritage Site”: that is, a location deemed to be of universal worth to humanity by virtue of its built environment, ecological importance or both.

The German metropolis, belatedly restored to its Baroque glory after massive wartime bombing, was punished because of a motorway bridge that threatens to wreck the skyline. (The only other place to have been delisted is an antelope sanctuary in Oman, where the government actually wanted to renounce the status.) Meanwhile UNESCO accepted 13 new sites, including a sacred peak in Kyrgyzstan and a fortress in Burkina Faso, bringing to 890 the number of places under its purview.

What makes this whole procedure tolerable (and indeed, respected) is that it is a voluntary arrangement between governments, with groups of states taking turns to form committees that duly exercise UNESCO’s moral power. At least in theory, it is not the permanent staff of the World Heritage Centre (a smallish part of the UNESCO bureaucracy) who exercise dominion over the glories of the earth, but the 186 states that have ratified the World Heritage Convention and thus signed up to the notion that some places are too precious to be left at the mercy of one government alone.

 For an earlier post on the promise and peril of declaring an area a World Heritage Site, see this earlier post

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Challenge of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Simon Usborne has an extended piece for the Telegraph examining the difficult task UNESCO has in selecting and preserving heritage sites. A number of pressures make this a difficult task, from too many visitors to looting to environmental or other factors. Pictured here is Monte Albán near Oaxaca, Mexico. The site is reportedly under threat as its carvings are exposed to the elements, it has been looted, and a nearby fire damaged it in 2006. The site is a World Heritage Site, which brings visitors and attention, but not perhaps enough resources for protection, preservation or crowd management.

One difficulty is the huge number of sites the agency is responsible for:

Unesco insists all its sites adhere to strict rules about management and planning, but could it be that the task facing the organisation – effectively to protect the planet – has become so daunting as to be impossible? If it has, the man in charge must have one of the toughest jobs in the world. Speaking from his Paris office, Francesco Bandarin admits it’s a tall order. “Sometimes you feel it’s impossible to control everything, especially when you look at our founding principles,” he says. “Our list is growing and the number of requests is growing, and it seems like the more work you do the more you get. It’s a very big job – too big.”
Bandarin suggests a solution would be to maintain a central committee, but to break some of the bureaucracy by handing partial autonomy to an “effective network of heritage institutes”. Unesco has launched a review of its practises and Bandarin expects big changes by 2012, when World Heritage turns 40. “It’s the only way we can cope with the crazy volume of work,” he says.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Student Comment on American Cultural Heritage Law

Katherine D. Vitale has posted on SSRN her Student Comment, The War on Antiquities: United States Law and Foreign Cultural Property, 84 Notre Dame L. R. 101 (2009). 

She criticizes the general trend of American cultural heritage policy, and is far too kind I think to museums and antiquities dealers generally.  She has some very interesting things to say about the AAMD Guidelines, and does a very good job putting the recent California searches in context, perhaps helping to explain why a year has elapsed with little apparent progress.  

From the Abstract:

The use of the National Stolen Property Act and Archaeological Resources Protection Act as mechanisms to protect cultural property taken from a foreign state through prosecution of individuals who buy, sell, and otherwise deal in such property is in direct tension with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”), a statute enacted in accordance with an international treaty to which the United States is a party. This Note explores how criminal liability under United States law for museum officials and others who acquire art, archaeological materials, and especially antiquities, originating in foreign nations conflicts with CPIA’s treatment of foreign cultural property. Part I discusses the principle of protection of cultural property in international law and the manifestation of this principle in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (“1970 UNESCO Convention”). Part II examines the 1970 UNESCO Convention’s influence on United States civil law and policy regarding foreign cultural property, and on the acquisitions policies of international and domestic museums. Part III discusses criminal penalties under both the National Stolen Property Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act for those who knowingly acquire stolen foreign cultural property. Part IV analyzes the conflict between policies on foreign cultural property followed by the United States and domestic museums and the application of criminal penalties in art-trafficking cases. In addition, this Part explores the consequences of the conflict for both the United States and individuals, and suggests resolutions to the conflict through law. Finally, Part V concludes that in order for the United States to fulfill its obligation under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it must stop conducting a war on antiquities-and those who acquire them.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Preserving Babylon

Christopher Torchia and Ammar Al-Musawi have an interesting article for the AP on UNESCO efforts to rescue the ancient city of Babylon.

Now, for the first time, global institutions led by the U.N. are thoroughly documenting the damage and how to fix it. A UNESCO report due out early next year will cite Saddam’s construction but focus, at the Iraqi government’s request, on damage done by U.S. forces from April to September 2003, and the Polish troops deployed there for more than a year afterward.

The U.S., which turned Babylon into a military base, says the looting would have been worse but for the troops’ presence. The U.S. also says it will help rehabilitate Babylon, funding an effort by the World Monuments Fund and Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, but has yet to release precise funding figures.

Archaeologists hope the effort will lead someday to new digging to follow up on the excavations done by a German team in the early 1900s.

“The site is tremendously important,” said Gaetano Palumbo of the New York City-based World Monuments Fund. Yet in its present state, Babylon is “hardly understandable, as a place where so much happened in history.”

The damage at Babylon is a tragedy, but hopefully the damage done can be reversed and the site can be protected and preserved for enjoyment and study. Perhaps the slew of Babylon-centered exhibits and books detailed by the Art Newspaper will help to raise awareness.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

UNESCO Takes UK to Task

Severin Carrell has an interesting story in the Guardian on UNESCO’s concerns over how the UK is protecting and preserving these ancient sites:

Edinburgh
Site The “remarkable” medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town of central Edinburgh [Pictured Above] were listed in 1995.
Problem Unesco fears several building projects in the city centre and Leith docks will damage the site’s architectural heritage. It “deeply regrets” the city has approved a hotel, office and housing complex by the Royal Mile, and is sending inspectors to visit.

Stonehenge and Avebury
Site The neolithic stone circle and avenues, and the associated megalith circles at Avebury, were listed in 1986.
Problem A cause of anxiety for 22 years, Unesco is angry that plans to reroute the A344 with a tunnel and build an offsite visitors’ centre have again been scrapped. It “regrets” the continued delays and “urges” ministers to act quickly.

Neolithic ruins, Orkney
Site Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar were among the ancient sites listed in 1999.
Problem Three planned wind turbines will be visible and Unesco wants the project stopped. Historic Scotland agrees they will damage it. A public inquiry will report soon. 

Bath
Site The city’s grand neo-classical Georgian crescents, terraces and squares were listed in 1987.
Problem Unesco fears plans to build 2,000 flats in buildings up to nine storeys, and an engineering school sponsored by James Dyson, will damage the site’s setting. It is sending inspectors and wants the schemes blocked until its committee has studied the plans.

Liverpool
Site Its maritime mercantile city, with its churches and Georgian warehouses, was listed in 2004.
Problem Unesco is happy the city swiftly acted on concerns that a new museum, a 24-storey tower and a new conference centre threatened the site’s setting and integrity. Unesco wants further action to protect it.

Westminster, London
Site The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church were listed in 1987.
Problem Unesco believes several new tower blocks, including the 170-metre Beetham tower in Southwark and a 144m tower at Doon Street, will affect the site. It is annoyed its demands for a buffer zone and a detailed study of the skyline have been ignored.

Tower of London
Site The Norman tower and its 13th-century walls were listed in 1988.
Problem New buildings, such as the 66-storey “shard of glass” tower and a 39-floor tower at Fenchurch Street, will dominate the skyline. Unesco “regrets” the UK has failed to implement a robust buffer zone or an effective local plan. It is threatening to put the tower on its “world heritage in danger” list.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Can the West do More to Protect Iraqi Antiquities?


Dr. Bahaa Mayah, a special adviser to Iraq’a Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, has strongly criticized the response of the West to the trade in looted or stolen antiquities originating from Iraq. Dr. Mayah held a press conference yesterday at the British Museum, and argued it was the occupying forces’ responsibility to retrieve the valuable objects taken since 2003. He also urged a global ban on Iraqi antiquities via a UN Security Council resolution. He said “Our antiquities are scattered everywhere from America to Europe. This problem is not new but it has intensified since 2oo3 and is now becoming a bigger problem.”

Speaking of America specifically, he argued “America is co-operating and not co-operating at the same time. We were grateful when they returned the Statue of Entemena (from 2,430BC) but at the same time, you see auctioneers all over the country trading in our antiquities. No action is being taken”. This statement, curiously, comes on the same day the Department of State published a notice of an import Restriction to Protect the Cultural Heritage of Iraq.

You can also hear his comments on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program here, his interview starts at about 18 minutes in, which David Gill has noted this morning as well.

There at three separate issues here, first is what can be done to prevent looting in Iraq and how to regulate the illicit trade in Iraqi antiquities. Second, is the damage done by occupying forces to important sites at Babylon and elsewhere. Finally, there is the claim for restitution for objects which have long in the British Museum collection. The first two, it seems to me are related. The final question, which speaks to the notion of Universal Museums, must be separated. Every time this kind of discussion spins off into a discussion of the Parthenon Marbles and other restitutions, I think we lose site of the present ongoing issue: the looting of sites, and the illicit trade.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Mayar, as he must find it difficult dealing with a myriad of different agencies in Europe, and he feels the burden is on the source nation to give evidence of of an object’s illicit nature. Unfortunately this is the regime which the 1970 UNESCO Convention has produced, and efforts to create an effective multilateral agreement in this arena have been notoriously difficult. I think that must surely be tied to the disagreement and acrimonious nature the debates often engender.

Prof. Patty Gerstenblith has noted before that a lot of the reporting and discussion of the law as it pertains to the antiquities trade is wrong, and misses the point completely. I have to agree. Dr. Mayar talks about the incomplete response of the West to the trade in Iraqi antiquities, but I think the US and the UK have taken the necessary steps to attach criminal penalties to this trade. International law already bans the trade in Iraqi antiquities, under UN Security Council Resolution 1483:

Decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since the adoption of resolution 661 (1990) of 6 August 1990, including by establishing a prohibition on trade in or transfer of such items and items with respect to which reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed, and calls upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Interpol, and other international organizations, as appropriate, to assist in the implementation of this paragraph;

In the United Kingdom, the Theft Act 1968, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order 2003 creates a criminal offence for merely being in possession of Iraqi Antiquities.

The United States has banned the import of Iraqi antiquities, and the National Stolen Property Act, as well as the powerful Civil Forfeiture mechanisms available to Federal Prosecutors strongly regulate the criminal aspects of the trade.

The difficulty of course, and its one that Dr. Mayar speaks to, is the difficulty in establishing evidence of the fact that an object originated in Iraq, when it could have originated from any one of a number of countries. Are there Iraqi antiquities currently being sold in the United States and United Kingdom? I’ll confess I don’t know. His comments strongly indicate they are, but I’m unaware of such sales, or any reports indicating this is the case.

Ultimately, I think the US and the UK in particular have taken nearly all the steps they can to regulate the criminal aspects of the trade. To shift burdens any further would, without being overly dramatic here, require Constitutional-level reworking, to allow fewer rights for criminal defendants. That is a step no thinking person can responsibly advocate. That’s at the core of my arguments about the utility of the criminal response to the illicit trade. The solution, as I see it, is to introduce a way for cultural property transactions to require title history, provenance and findspot information for antiquities. This would give real effect to the law. Without such information, the antiquities trade will continue to evade effective regulation. Think about the California searches from earlier this year, despite a dramatic raid, we have yet to see any charges filed. Though this is heresy to even suggest for many in the archaeological community, this will in my view require compromise and will almost certainly require a liberalization of the trade in some respects.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com