Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Animal rights and archaeologists: a strange comparison?

There is clearly a link being made between animal rights and the discussion over the looting of archaeological sites.

In July 1990 the 'Cycladic and Classical Antiquities from the Erlenmeyer Collection: the Property of The Erlenmeyer Stiftung (A Foundation for Animal Welfare)' were auctioned at Sotheby's in London. The sale catalogue gave details of the projects assisted by the Foundation. They included helping to 'finance the "Save the Elephant" campaign of WWF'. It is perhaps ironic that money raised from antiquities looted from archaeological sites in the Greek islands, including the infamous Keros haul, should help to preserve African elephants from being blasted away by poachers seeking to provide the market with ivory tusks.

Talking of shotguns, take a thought for the wildlife of Texas. Carlos Pícon (now of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) recently described his relationship with the collector Gilbert Denman during his time at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The New Yorker reported, 'Pícon learned to shoot, in order to participate in weekend house parties dedicated to boar-hunting, a pastime that is to Texas billionaries what golf is to those in the Northeast'.

Pícon was asked to comment on the 'suggestion that the collecting of antiquities will eventually earn the same degree of opprobrium that the wearing of fur has acquired in some quarters'. He 'lifted a derisive brow. "I don't have a fur coat, but I would like to have one".'

Protecting endangered animals and supporting animal rights can, perhaps, be similar to protecting an endangered archaeological resource or supporting the rights of national governments to reclaim and protect their cultural property. The suggestion that the naming of a museum gallery in honour of collectors could be compared with the renaming of an African game reserve to celebrate with poacher with the largest 'bag' is not lightly made. (See K. Taylor, "Shelby White in Center Court at the Met." The New York Sun May 1, 2007.)

But the language is getting stronger. The Oxford-based academic Sir John Boardman spoke out on the issue in a 2006 interview for Apollo. (The text of the interview, 'A Classical Warrior', can be located conveniently on the website of Phoenix Ancient Art.)

'Now I find I need to speak out against a highly politicised lobby of archaeologists who are, I think, responsible for what amounts to a witch-hunt of those who disagree with them, especially collectors, but with severe implications also for museums. They put one in mind sometimes of the more fanatical animal-rights activists'.

Do we accuse those who wish to put an end to the slaughter of elephants as fanatics? Do we dismiss then as activists?

Of course not.

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