Are all nations obligated to protect one another’s cultural heritage?

This was a poll question picked up over at

Firstly I have to give my own response which is a resounding yes. I absolutely believe that all nations have a shared responsibility for the cultural heritage of the planet as a whole. I have a great deal of respect for groups like Blue Shield who attempt to protect heritage across the globe. There are few cultures which develop in isolation and so any particular culture has some degree of “world” heritage in its nature. Furthermore, even without a direct connection to the heritage in question is strikes me as incredibly close minded not to see the value of other cultures.

That said, I recognise that there are difficulties in implementing this obligation. I think the poll responses generally reflect that concern, with a number of voters choosing to limit assistance to countries with stable governments, a lack of corruption and adequate museum facilities. This seems shortsighted to me – after all, the heritage in countries lacking these three things is generally the material at greatest risk. Artefacts in a stable country with resources are usuaully protected by that country – other nations are under no pressure to act. It is these vulnerable artefacts above all others that all nations should be obliged to protect.


American Diggers… American Looters?

Having grown up watching the UK archaeology show “Time Team” I can personally attest to the influence such shows have on viewers and particularly the younger set. It all seems rather glamourous; finding cool “stuff” and the excuse to get immensely dirty without consequences…
The new show on Spike “American Diggers” could perhaps have a similar interest on viewers. Unfortunately unlike ‘Time Team’ which represented a somewhat accurate (though rather idealised and suspiciously speedy) view of archaeology this show could more accurately be called ‘American Looters’. The basic premise of the show is a former boxer and amateur archaeologist travelling round the US and excavating people’s lawns in search of artefacts. Concerns that this glamourises and encourages looting have been expressed at length elsewhere and I won’t labour the issue here (though I do share the concern).

What interests me is the rather eloquent manner in which Mr. Savage, the central figure, acknowledges these concerns and defends his actions. In the New York Times he is quoted as saying:

“I understand where the archaeologists are coming from. You’ve got two groups of people who want to be part of history, to dig it up and hold it in their hand. The only difference is I’m doing it to make a living. They’re doing it to write papers and make it to associate professor and get tenure.”


I’m not sure what part of that last sentence doesn’t constitute “making a living”, but I digress….

In a way he has a point – we cannot simply say that the only people allowed to dig (as in simply pick up a shovel and go to it) are archaeologists or other scholars. How are we to prevent people digging in their own backyards and should we even attempt to do so? Instinctively I want to say that this is looting and that I am therefore dead against it. Certainly I do not like the fact that it is glamourised in a TV show. I must admit, though, that it is unlikely that most of the areas being dug are areas that would attract the interest of professional archaeologists. In which case, does it actually matter if someone else tries their hand? Then again, I’m sure many valuable and unique items have been found in areas which have never attracted professional interest.

Which leaves me with the question: Is looting simply the act of digging up and removing items outside of a sanctioned archaeological excavation or is it only looting if it takes place at a site that is already considered “important”? Does it depend on what is found – is it only looting if something that is unique or has a high monetary value is uncovered?

Defacement or Art?

CBC reported a recent case at the Tate Modern where Vladimir Umanets signed his own name, and a comment about yellowism (a movement he cofounded) at the bottom of a valuable 1958 Mark Rothko mural. He claims that not only has he enhanced the value of the painting but that he has done nothing wrong; “I didn’t destroy the picture. I did not steal anything.”  I cannot help but wonder if Rothko would agree – from his perspective I think this probably qualifies as “destructive”. I’m also fairly certain that defacement of property is classified as a legal offence. Sorry, Vladimir, I’m not buying into the “I didn’t do anything wrong” argument…

This reminds me of another, even more bizarre, case that I was reading about a few months back where an amateur restorer managed to do this to a ninteenth century church fresco:

The restoration was quickly branded “Monkey Jesus”. The best part of the story is that, rather than apologising for the damage, the woman claimed that she had enhanced the work since it was now a bigger tourist attraction and that the church actually owed her money for this service.

In both this case and the Rothko case we are faced with individuals who seem to honestly believe that altering works is art rather than defacement. This is all very well and on a totally theoretical level I agree that the nature of an object can change throughout its existence. However that really is theoretical. I don’t believe that anyone has the right to intentionally alter the work of another; certainly not when the change is not approved of by the majority of interested parties. Above all both individuals treat the monetary or tourist value of the object as the primary indicator of “value”. Art, along with other forms of cultural heritage, cannot be defined in such limited terms.


Civilization is History

At the risk of sounding like one of my more politically minded friends… the Harper government has gone and done it again!

The Museum of Civilization in Ottawa will be changing its name to the Canadian Museum of History. This change is more than just a matter of semantics. Along with the name change will be a new mandate for the museum, which previously emphasised a focus on world heritage. Instead of the broad approach to human civilization as a whole, the museum will narrow its focus to Canadian social and political history.

This change actually makes me cringe – since I rather suspect has been made for political rather than educational purposes and I’m certainly not alone in this criticism. The use of heritage as political currency is disturbing though hardly a new phenomenon and this feels like another case of an external agenda at play.

By all means, construct a museum for the display of Canadian history. I genuinely feel that there is a place for such a museum, particularly in Ottawa. It is not the idea of a “Canadian” museum that bothers me… it is the transformation of a previously encyclopaedic museum to something more limited. Why does it have to be THIS museum changed? Build the museum elsewhere or, if funds do not allow for this, enlarge a smaller or less popular museum. That would truly represent a support of national heritage without the devaluing of world heritage.

This change seems to be emphasising internal history at the cost of a broader understanding of world cultures and their connections. Where will the “non-Canadian” items be sent? Who will define what is “Canadian” enough to be included? Would artefacts brought into the country by migrating settlers be included? It all seems like an attempt to limit the scope of what is currently a very fine museum.

CBC reprt:

Toronto Heritage

There was an interesting article in the Toronto Star today about the recent fire on George Street and its place in the overall treatment of heritage sites within the city. I think we tend to spend a great deal of time focusing on “the ancient and exotic” aspects of heritage but such articles remind North American readers that “heritage” can be found in their own neighbourhoods. The article focuses on several buildings within the city which are either seeking or, in one case (the Paradise Theatre) have already been granted a heritage designation. Such a designation gives the city more legal power to preserve buildings through the Ontario Heritage Act.

The list of eight buildings raises some interesting questions about what we should consider heritage. Is a one hundred year old library a heritage site? How about a 1958 supermarket? Should fifty year old buildings in high states of disrepair be demolished and the land reused?

The article has a poll which I think shows some interesting assumptions. The two building which attracted the lowest level of support were a 1950 “art modern” building, currently serving as a bank, and the 1958 supermarket. I wonder if the lack of support is the result of the use of the buildings – we don’t generally consider the local, somewhat run down, grocery store “heritage”. The building was actually the largest wooden arch in Canada at the time of its construction – is this enough to ensure its ongoing preservation and protection. In the poll, the highest level of support went to the most “traditional heritage” site; the Queen and Lisgar Library. Built in 1908, the library is one of the first Carnegie Libraries built in the city. In both age and function it is perhaps more in line with the type of building that is commonly viewed as worthy of protection.

The article also underlines the challenges for preservationists in the city. Due to under staffing and under funding it takes months to get through the process of being a heritage building. On average, according to the article, only four cases are processed a month. With a backlog of 100 cases this is a serious problem. We tend to judge a building worth preserving based upon its age and its aesthetic appeal. Without early efforts to preserve very few buildings will reach the requisite age while maintaining their aesthetic appeal. Preservation must be preemptive rather than reactive.


Toronto Star Article:–george-st-fire-can-districtwide-heritage-designations-save-toronto-s-past

La Gioconda… Mona Lisa

Picked up this topic over at and just had to add my thoughts.

The basic issue: The French have possession of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”. He probably painted it in Florence. The Italians want it (back?) to place in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Two questions are raised for me by this. Firstly, how do we determine the “birthplace” of an object? Secondly, can an object belong to more than one nations heritage?

I should start this by saying that although I am an advocate for the repatriation of SOME objects I am not of the opinion that this is a “one size fits all” type of solution. That may colour my opinion. I think the Italians are on some very shaky ground here. Firstly, the fact that the painting was painted in Florence, or even that the painter was Italian, is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that he moved it out of the country during his lifetime. It has been in Florence for a very short space of time over the course of its existence. Comparisons have been drawn to the Elgin Marbles but I’m not sure even they are comparable; they were, arguably, in Greece a lot longer than they were in London. Furthermore, I’d say they may have somewhat more meaning to Greek national identity than the Mona Lisa does to Italian identity. Possibly. I digress. What I am essentially asking is whether point of creation is the single indicator of “ownership”?

I’m not saying it doesn’t have meaning or value to the Italians – but this is a painting that has meaning to the artistic movements of many countries and is truly “world heritage” in that respect. The Mona Lisa is the single best known piece in the Louvre. The Louvre is the best known gallery in France. The painting has spent most of its existence in France. At this point, I’m inclined to say, since it was never removed illicitly but rather transported by the painter himself, that this time at least… I have to side with the French.

US-Mali Agreement Renewal

Following up from my previous post I’ve been reading up on initiatives to protect heritage threatened by civil or political unrest. One area that keeps cropping up is Mali. They have been fairly prominent on the Blue Shield and CHAMP websites since the recent (Sept. 19) renewal of the “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Mali concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from Mali from the Paleolithic Era (Stone Age) to Approximately the Mid-Eighteenth Century”.  This of course falls under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO convention and is a continuation of an agreement that has been in effect since 1993.

Such agreements between nations may go some way to alleviating the difficulties of protecting cultural heritage sites but I do wonder how practical they are for the overall protection of world heritage. The above agreement is simply an example (although a positive one!). As a limitation on illegal import it is an important step. However, it is limited strictly to import and strictly to US actors. The whole system for implementing the 1970 convention seems remarkably complicated to me… there are so many different agreements and differing guidelines in each country that it is difficult to see how well all these agreements integrate.

The above agreement is strictly limited to import. One of the main dangers facing the heritage of Mali, if I understand the situation correctly, is the outright destruction of sites rather than their illicit excavation. Given this, I’m unsure how far agreements between Mali and other nations can go towards preservation. I’m aware through CHAMP that there are individuals working actively towards defending such sites but understandably and perhaps rightly, given the possible political ramifications, such agreements can do little to prevent outright destruction of sites by internal actors. I’m not sure what the solution is in such cases – or if there even is one.