Rational Proposals for Safeguarding Antiquities – But Will Anyone Act?

2015 was a year that saw unprecedented destruction of antiquities, ancient monuments and cultural heritage of all sorts, particularly in the conflict zones of the Middle East. And it wasn’t just IS that was responsible – even the Syrian government got in on the act by, among other actions, bombing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bosra during the final days of December (Ensor). But while the well heeled cultural heritage industry held countless conferences, attended posh receptions and issued gratuitous proclamations, damning the trade in antiquities, legal or illegal, and demonizing museums, collectors, dealers and governments alike, a few proposals floated in the final months of the year offered rational, practical options for saving antiquities and ancient monuments.

The first of these came on October 1, with an announcement held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a one hundred year old professional association representing 242 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico.  (Neuendort). AAMD issued “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.” Based on the principle that stewardship is the hallmark of the museum community, the Protocols would provide a framework for museums to give safe haven for works at risk due violent conflict, terrorism, or natural disasters. Owners/depositors could request safe haven at an AAMD member museum where the works would be held until conditions allowed their safe return. Works deposited would be treated as loans. To ensure transparency, AAMD member museums accepting such works would register them in a new publicly available online registry where information on the objects would be publicly available. The Protocols would even cover considerations such as transport and storage, scholarly access, legal protections, exhibition, conservation, and safe return of works to the appropriate individuals or entities as soon as feasible.

Not surprisingly, some of the leading players in the self-styled cultural heritage community, including the American School for Oriental Research and the Archaeological Institute of America, immediately issued a statement obliquely attacking the AAMD Protocols while offering no meaningful proposals of their own. They claimed that because depositors of objects in AAMD’s institutions might include private owners, rather than just national museums, there might be a chance of looted objects also being deposited, thereby indirectly supporting the illicit trafficking of antiquities (Sharpe). Presumably, they would prefer these objects meet the same fate as those in Afghanistan, where objections – based on the UN’s 1970 cultural property conventions – to the safekeeping out of country of ancient objects, led to their destruction by the Taliban.

In November came word from Paris of a French offer of “asylum” for artifacts under threat. French President Hollande had asked the President of the Louvre to develop a national plan for the protection of cultural heritage. The resulting 50-point proposal included using French museums as a temporary safe haven for antiquities, much like the AAMD plan, as well as a new European database of stolen art and artifacts and funding to preserve existing archaeological sites and monuments, train archaeologists and conservators abroad and reconstruct damaged or destroyed sites (Jones). Again, the heritage industry either ignored the French “asylum” proposal or offered criticism similar to that offered on the AAMD Protocols.

While it seems unlikely U.S. cultural heritage policy will be significantly influenced by either of the initiatives outlined above, there is at least now a glimmer of hope for antiquities to be spared destruction at the hands of extremist groups, indifferent governments and the random destruction so prevalent in all civil conflicts. With museums, acting in unison under the umbrella of organizations such as the AAMD, as well as some foreign governments, such as the bold French initiative, taking the lead, perhaps the tide of thinking is turning away from ineffectual, elitist, self-serving entities such as the so-called Antiquities Coalition, SAFE, and the AIA. Let us all hope that 2016 proves a safer and more stable year for antiquities, monuments and heritage in general.

WORKS CITED

  • Association of Art Museum Directors. “AAMD Issues Protocols to Protect Works of Cultural Significance in Danger of Damage or Destruction.” AAMD website, 1 Oct. 2015. Web.
  • Ensor, Josie. “Syrian regime ‘bombs Unesco world heritage site.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 24 Dec. 2015. Web.
  • Jones, Jonathan. “Asylum for artefacts: Paris’ plan to protect cultural treasures from terrorists.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 Nov. 2015. Web.
  • Neuendorf, Henri. “Museums Offer Safe Haven for Threatened Art and Antiquities.” Artnet News. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 2 Oct. 2015. Web.
  • Sharpe, Emily. “We’ll store your artifacts, US tells Syrian museums.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 8 Nov. 2015. Web.