Friday, 12 October 2007

Should Art Be Kept At Home?

In the second of two articles on the ownership and display of antiquities, Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard argues in favour of dispersal

WHEN MARY Beard heard that August's forest fires had threatened the Temple of Apollo at Bassai, she made the following entry in a blog for the Times Literary Supplement: "First let me apologise for writing about the antiquities of ancient Greece, when so many people have died in the terrible fires." 

Then, after reflecting on the possible fate of Olympia, Bassai, Lykosoura and the Byzantine churches in the Peloponnese, she concluded, "At this point I begin to feel grateful for the dispersal of antiquities around the museums of the world. Suppose Olympia and its museum had actually gone up in smoke (and fire quickly turns marble to a little pile of lime). At least some of the sculptures of the key temple of Zeus would have been safe in the Louvre. And if the temple at Bassae had been destroyed, then it would turn out to be a good idea after all that its sculptured frieze was in the British Museum in London." 

The newspaper Ethnos responded in a web posting on the same day (August 27): "Cambridge professor Mary Beard supports no lesser a position than that we should thank those countries which hold Greek antiquities (eg. Parthenon marbles) since that is the only way to protect them from all manner of destruction. She thinks it would be better for all holy monuments to be divided up and stored in the five corners of the world and kept in ultra-modern museums, such as the British Museum." 

The Athens News called Mary Beard to record the full nuance of her position. 

"Blogging gets you into worse trouble than you imagine. I really do not support the idea of imperialist nations coming and stealing other people's treasures. My problem is that I see the faults on both sides. I think the issue of cultural ownership is complicated and if there was a simple and easy solution that was morally correct and culturally correct we'd have found it by now. The fact is that we're still arguing about it. 

On the one hand there's a kind of centripetal view of the matter which wants a people's cultural heritage to be with that people. The alternative version is often very crudely and imperialistically expressed, which is that culture travels and is shared. 

In many ways I am a dispersalist - not just with Greek cultural property but with anybody's. I think one of the things that is so great and exciting about a global culture is that cultural heritage is so wonderfully mixed. 

Where I see the problem is that the process of that mixing hasn't been a neutral one. It's been imperialistic. I can say that I think it is wonderful that you can go to London and see amazing works of art from tribal Africa, but I also know that I can't go to Africa and see a load of Turners in Lagos. Because the mechanism for dispersal has been about power politics. 

Even that process of imperialism is a bit more complicated than we like to think. Go back to the Romans and you think, "why didn't they smash the stuff? Why do they want this?" In a sense it's the soft underbelly of empire. Empires have always been terribly anxious about the cultures which they conquer and are always liable to be beaten by the conquered culture. 

All the same, the weak point in my argument for dispersal is that there's no way to ensure an egalitarian mechanism apart from the market, and the market is just another version of old imperialist power. 

This is where I find it very hard to know how to operationalise my view. Because, (as Jack Davis was saying last week) there is nothing possibly good about the way the clandestine art market works. It can't possibly be any better than some toff coming along and ripping art off the building. And anyway it's a criminal enterprise. Doing illegal excavations and then saying, 'whoops, it came from the sea somewhere,' well that's just crime. 

I'm well aware of the paradox of my own position. But what I didn't like about comments on the Ethnos website is that people were so sure that there was a right way and that they'd got the answer. I don't think anyone's got the answer. 

Let's take the retentionist, centripetal argument to its extremes. Do we think that a perfect world would be one in which every work of art remained where it was made? I don't think it's a world in which I want to live - to have everything ever made in Greece remain in Greece, and not to have French art come across the Channel. 

On the Parthenon Marbles - I do not think they should be returned. But that has to be seen side by side with the fact that I see no reason why they should be in London either. I am absolutely uncertain about how to find an argument to lead me either to restitution or retention. 

I can see that some objects are so important to a culture that whatever you think about the virtue of global dispersal in general, these should nevertheless be in the place of the people who made them. The Parthenon marbles might be a good case of such a cultural object. But you still have to ask how did that importance arise. Which forms of nationalism are OK, and which are not? 

In some ways the special position the Parthenon marbles came to hold was invented by Otto and his learned advisors. Once they had decided not to turn the Parthenon into a garden ornament, the Bavarians consciously opted to exploit the allure of fifth century culture as a unifying national symbol. But it isn't something that goes back to the fifth century BC. I don't know how to resolve this. 

Of course there is a loss to British culture if the marbles are sent back, but it is a complicated loss. What I feel anxious about is the sense that history can just be rewritten. It goes along with the Queen going and apologising to New Zealand for what the British did to the Maoris. 

There's an inexorable process of history. We can't make it all nice again. We just have to move on. It's become a different world. The Parthenon marbles have become different objects and they mean something different, and you can't just undo that. We'd really be underrating these objects if we didn't see that there's a whole cultural baggage that comes along with them. 

The opposite view would be that none of this matters and that frankly the man on the street lives his life perfectly happily without bothering about Greek culture and where it is. I can't accept that. The man on the street would then be living an impoverished life. You would be culturally crippled if you knew nothing at all about classical Greece - not to understand why such and such building is using Doric columns. Knowledge of the Classical world is intellectually, socially, culturally and politically empowering. That's why the debate about the Parthenon is so loaded. 

If you want my prediction - not what I want to happen, but what I think will happen - it's this. One day I think that the heat will go out of this debate. And when it dies the marbles will go back. They will go back when they don't matter culturally any more. Cultural problems tend only to be solved when they're not problems any more. That's another irony!"

Friday, 5 October 2007

The Rising Love of Loot

In the first of two interviews on the ownership and display of antiquities,the newly installed director of the American School talks about the destructive effects of private collections 

"AT THE University of Cincinnati we passed a resolution in our department, which is strongly focused on archaeology, that we would not accept the donation of any antiquities from private sources into our department, and that we would not accept funding for archaeological projects from collectors.

We all had been in situations where we had witnessed terrible looting of archaeological sites. Often the amount of devastation to an archaeological site is really disproportionate to the loot that's recovered. People will do huge damage to a site just to walk away with some coins, destroying sometimes the whole history of an area in an evening with a bulldozer. There's hardly a field archaeologist alive who hasn't seen that. 

Some of us have been in situations where we've had to post guards with guns over archaeological sites at night, especially if we're digging in or around the cemetery. These things because there's a market, there's a demand for antiquities, and that market is largely fed through the introduction of new antiquities, which pass up in a chain of transmission from small farmers encouraged by higher level exploiters, who feed these finds into overseas networks. 

I think we need to attack small-scale operations like eBay. You find thousands of hits for illegal antiquities on eBay every day. Those may not be coming out of Greece now, but they're coming out of certain Balkan countries; they're coming out of Russia, the Near East. The business in Iraq and Afghanistan led to a real flood of antiquities from those places into western markets. 

An unbelievable range of things is now being collected that was never collected before, with huge values attached. Things that one used to be able to acquire for hundreds of dollars are now on sale for tens of thousands of dollars. 

The antiquities laws in America are, in my view, ridiculous. They permit the private ownership of archaeological sites and the exploitation of those sites. If I am a farmer and I own an American Indian cemetery, something Late Mississippian, 13th or 14th century after Christ with beautiful artefacts, I can dig it. They're my property. I can sell them just as private property. There are no restrictions whatsoever.
So we do what we can do. We have a couple of organisations in the States that exist to raise money to buy private property on which archaeological sites are located - the Archaeological Conservancy. We buy sites and set them aside just to protect them for the future. 

There's something of value in almost every place. In a country like Greece that's been occupied for thousands and thousands of years, it's impossible to dig and not find something. This is a matter for citizens and education and sociology, not for law enforcement. We each need to be educated and take ethical positions. 

I remember when Jackie Kennedy started her Every Litter Bit Hurts in America campaign and I thought, "Yeah right, people are going to stop littering." And they did. It took a couple of decades, but they did. And that was through public awareness, constant bombardment of the public message. 

I've read the documents from the 1820s when the [Greek] government was trying to organise the archaeological service. What they were doing - and it was somewhat successful - was appeal to national pride. It didn't work with everybody, but there were people sending antiquities to form the national collection established initially on Aegina. 

At the same time, work on the other end of the equation - make it harder to sell by cracking down on law enforcement in the receiving countries. And that requires a change in American attitudes. 

It used to be possible to take your antiquities into a local university department, talk to a professor and say, "What is this? Is this real?" We don't do that anymore. We tell them that we have no opinion. It's not our business. We refuse to partake in the process. This is a role a person like myself can play to make the process of commoditisation more difficult. I want a buyer to have doubts about the authenticity of [an object]. It's the official policy of the Archaeological Institute of America, which is the parent institution of the American School in Athens. 

There's an argument to be made that it's better for an antiquity to stay in the country of origin through purchase by a private collector than for it to leave. At least you retain it in Greece. But that's different from what goes on in America and Britain. 

Museums form support organisations - friends of the museum - and those are encouraged to collect to buy. The purpose is that the museum, rather than directly buying the objects, which they don't have the money to do anyway, can deny the responsibility for the acquisition because it's purchased by the buyer. And the private buyer then ultimately wills it or donates it to the museum and receives tax benefits for so doing. So, in effect, everybody feels good. 

I think some of the most avid collectors are paying the highest prices and are fuelling demand; they're driving the market. I don't want to see archaeological sites destroyed. I want to learn as much about the past as possible. 

My personal feeling is that antiquities are best held by people for whom they offer the most meaning. It's not just the Parthenon Marbles. Bulgarians have raised issues about silver plate that's held in Greece. A big issue for Albanians is the helmet of Skanderbeg held in Austria. Where is the helmet of Skanderbeg most naturally displayed - in Tirana or Vienna? You can make an argument that it's a part of the history of the Austrian empire and its expansion into the Balkans, but I think that it doesn't have the emotional charge that it has for the Albanians, and it seems a crying shame that there has to be a model of it in the museum in Tirana. Where do the Parthenon Marbles look best? Where do they derive the most meaning?"