Friday, 25 April 2008

Cosmopolitanism: "the past does in some sense belong to all of us"

World culture is part of our cosmopolitan heritage. I would agree with James Ede:
the past does in some sense belong to all of us.
There is common ground between dealers, museum curators, archaeologists and policy makers.

And the displays in great national and university museums have helped to develop a strong admiration for, say, the material culture (and art) of Greece.

Yet there has been a continuing problem with looting. The recent return of some 100 antiquities to Italy from public and private collections (as well as one dealer) remind us of the scale of the problem. And these objects represent perhaps as little as 1% of the objects captured on film by one dealer. Some of the objects were found together: the fragments of wall-painting, the 'Morgantina' silver. But all of the returning objects represent now lost archaeological contexts.

And this destruction is massive. If Elia is correct, some 94.5% of Apulian figure-decorated pots have been deprived of their archaeological contexts ("unearthed without the benefit of systematic archaeological investigation"). And Apulian pottery appears among the returns.

So is it fair of Ede to ridicule what he perceives as Italy's "siege mentality"? Is he justified in saying that legislation to restrict the export of antiquities "has nothing to do with protecting contextual information"?

Ede gave his paper at an Oxford seminar in the Michaelmas term of 2004 just as Italy stepped up its campaign to return antiquities: the returns from New York, Boston, Princeton, Shelby White, and (to a large extent) Malibu have taken place since then.

Returns do not restore "contextual information". But museums and private collectors will hopefully think long and hard before buying an undocumented antiquity however stunning it is.

And if those markets are not buying, does it lessen—I do not use the word eliminate—the incentive for people to go and dig up ancient cemeteries?

And that is something we can all applaud as "the past does in some sense belong to all of us".

Ede, J. 2006. "Who owns objects? A view from the antiquities trade." In Who owns objects? The ethics and politics of collecting cultural artefacts, edited by E. Robson, L. Treadwell, and L. Gosden, pp. 77-81. Oxford: Oxbow. [WorldCat] [Review]
Elia, R. J. 2001. "Analysis of the looting, selling, and collecting of Apulian red-figure vases: a quantitative approach." In Trade in illicit antiquities: the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage, edited by N. Brodie, J. Doole, and C. Renfrew, pp. 145-53. Cambridge: McDonald Institute. [WorldCat]

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