Monday, February 25, 2013

Guest Post: Rebekah Junkermeier from the Sustainable Preservation Initiative

Back when I was still in summer-mode, I had the foresight to ask a few treasured people if they would write guest posts for me on how they got interested in cultural heritage issues, and how they turned it into a career. Since issues of looting and cultural heritage aren't exactly mainstream career choices, I've always been super interested in how everyone in this community fell into it in the first place. I'm so pleased that my friend Rebekah Junkermeier from the Sustainable Preservation Initiative has agreed to be the first! We've been trading drafts of posts for each other all winter, but it is particularly fortuitous that the finished product here comes in tandem with SPI's current crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo. Show my gurl and this great organization some love. 

Recently, I’ve been reading Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi’s account of his experiences in the small, poverty-stricken village of Gagliano during Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. One quote of his in particular, when he reflects on the process of writing the book, resonated with me as I think about my own journey to and in the field of cultural heritage:

“The process developed in successive books, changing the author’s spirit and body and words while in a period explosive with new awareness other men also changed. The process is not, and has never been, identification with a datum, a flight into objectivity, but is rather discernment of love.”

I am not trying to draw a parallel between Carlo Levi’s experience with destitution and poverty and my career-path to cultural heritage. However, I am trying to highlight some counterpoints between his process and mine, which have helped me make sense of my own journey so far: intellectual development, self-awareness and awareness of the world around me, and the effect of this new awareness on the direction of my career. To use the words of Levi, I found my journey to be a step away from attempts at “objectivity” and illusions of “data” and towards the discernment of love and truth and acts of justice and empowerment.

My interest in cultural heritage began with a curiosity for all things ancient. This led me from Dartmouth College to Turkey to a master’s program at Harvard Divinity School as preparation for a PhD program, focusing on early Christian and Roman history. While advancing my Greek and Latin and learning Coptic (the ancient Egyptian language written in the Greek alphabet), I also immersed myself in the texts and history of the time period. But while I and fellow classmates stared at enlarged photographs of rare Coptic manuscripts, arguing whether that letter was an alpha or an omicron, or read about the female figurines found all over Bronze- and Iron-Age Israel and debated whether they were representations of idols or the goddess Asherah, a voice in the back of my mind was always (annoyingly) saying, “So what? What am I actually doing with this?”

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hi + Cool Anti-Looting Apparel

I’ve put off coming back to blogging for the last six months for a number of admittedly lame reasons. Grad school is time consuming, I wasn’t sure how to approach this blog as a postgraduate, I may have forgotten how to blog in general, why should I subject myself to more criticism and self doubt when I already subject myself to all that daily through the joyous self-flagellation of grad school, grad school is time consuming, etc. But now I’m back and it’s going to be great and haphazard as usual, with three particular caveats:
  1.  I last left this blog as a recent undergraduate, pretty much flailing ambitiously, believing enthusiasm would probably make up for the lack of disciplinary cohesion. Now, as a postgraduate criminologist, my perspective on these issues has shifted drastically to a more sophisticated criminological framework. So what you see here in the future will undoubtedly reflect a more structured criminological perspective, rather than the mix of hostility and earnestness I was fond of previously.
  2.  The next three years of my life were recently determined by myself, but let’s face it, mostly by my supervisors, Neil Brodie and Simon Mackenzie, as I looked on and nodded solemnly like I wasn’t terrified or confused. My PhD research at the University of Glasgow (and my Masters dissertation as well) will focus on the antiquities market coming out of West Africa, principally Mali, Nigeria, and Niger. As a consequence, I may be more preoccupied than usual with these countries.
  3.  I think I initially geared this blog toward undergrads because I assumed graduate students actually know something about something and wouldn’t need some sassy little undergrad to break it down for them. As a current graduate student, I can happily confirm that we all only kind of know what we’re doing if we know at all, and anyone breaking down anything is almost always pretty useful. So some key terminology in the “About” sections and such has been altered to reflect this.

So for my first order of business, check out this really amazing "Give a Hoot, Don't Loot" design created by student Serena Abdallah. Not only is this really quality design work, but I'm kind of digging (haha, pun!) that it's not associated with any particular organization. It's just a really beautiful design you can wear or hang as a reminder that this stuff matters, and you'd be supporting a student who obviously cares about these things as well.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Trafficking Culture website is live!

If you haven't already seen it, I am really excited to finally be able to share the website for the ERC-funded Trafficking Culture study at the University of Glasgow!

Even if I wasn't involved in this study (I'm in the People section and feeling like such a rock star), I would think this website is super beautiful and well-designed and incredibly exciting to explore. As a student, having so much access (for free!) to so much information that has been parsed and organized already is immensely exciting. This is the kind of thing that I wished I'd had when I first began studying these issues. The Encyclopedia (with one entry so far by yours truly and more on their way) is a goldmine of information on terms, looted sites, looted objects; the Publications page has a ton of free PDFs of articles and chapters written by the researchers and other related scholars (I've downloaded them all); and the Links section points you in the best possible directions for other sources and organizations to be aware of or get involved in. Bookmark it and explore! And if you're looking to do your PhD with a team this cool, you can shoot off a message and get that conversation started.

And don't forget to "Like" the Trafficking Culture Facebook and follow on Twitter.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What to read when you're too busy to eat: My preferred cultural heritage news sources

It seems that every time I go away to have some kind of vacation (and by “vacation” I mean scrambling around and doing a lot of paperwork, preparation, and packing for my impending move to Glasgow) there is a some kind of scandal that I should be covering but can’t. Over the last two years of writing here, I’ve always had grand aspirations about being able to update daily and be on top of every bit of news. But if I’m being honest with myself, that only happens for like two weeks during the summer when I have the time and the inclination. The rest of the academic year, this blog is just one of many things in life that sits on the sliding scale of priorities. Coming to grips with that as I move into unknown grad-school-schedule territory has required reconsidering how I want to approach the issues here and how often.

But until I’m able to hold myself to a more regular blogging schedule, I want to share the sources that I rely on to stay in touch with these issues when I’m not able to write about them. I’ve divided them up roughly by how many places on the internet you can find them so you, too, know where to turn when Facebook or Twitter is all you have time for.

Found just about everywhere:

Chasing Aphrodite
I’m not just a big fan of the award-winning book of the same name, but also of the blog, Facebook, and Twitter pages that journalist/author Jason Felch keeps active on a weekly basis. This is my top news resource in this area. All of Jason’s commentary, whether it’s a Facebook update or a blog post, has a really great mix of information and analysis, making for very informative as well as educational reading. It also helps that Jason doesn’t just share blog updates, but news articles from other sources as well, making it so handy to stay in touch when Facebook is the only social media I have time to browse.

Cultural Security
Cultural Security, a team effort by Erik Nemeth, Joshua Mix, and Yasmeen Hussain, is an interdisciplinary initiative that uses the social sciences, technology, and life sciences to explore cultural heritage issues. The team runs a websiteblog, Twitter, and Tumblr, all of which serves a slightly different purpose and is informative in different ways. I’m a big fan of the news articles they provide on their Tumblr, which makes it very easy to stay up to date when I’m scrolling through my own gif-dominated feed. I also turn to their blog quite often, which offers a weekly break-down of the issues.

Found some places:

Archaeological News
This Tumblr/Twitter combo features all kinds of archaeology-related news, even headlines that fall more on the cultural heritage issue side of things. It’s updated super frequently, making it impossible to miss anything too important if you’re on one of the two platforms.

The Archaeology News Network
This is a non-profit daily online newspaper featuring news related to archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology. They’re required reading on Twitter, and have a fancy website too.

Found mostly just the one place:

Looting Matters
Prof. David Gill is one of the lead archaeologists and researchers covering cultural heritage issues online. He blogs very frequently and generally keeps things succinct, outlining the important facts of cases and asking (but often not answering) big questions about the process of the case or how it will affect other issues. Required reading and a great way to get the gist of everything that’s going on when you’ve been away from it for a while.

Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire
Rick St. Hilaire is one of the best known cultural heritage lawyers, and his blog is one of the first I turn to when I’m ready for more than a summary understanding of the current issues. His posts offer very in-depth coverage of current cases and are fantastic for catching up when everyone’s like “OMG Cleveland Museum!” and you’re like “What about it?”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Need an internship this fall? Apply to the Sustainable Preservation Initiative!

Great news for undergrads looking for something other than coursework to get some experience this fall: the Sustainable Preservation Initiative is looking for interns! This is a really fabulous opportunity for any students looking to get their toes wet in the cultural heritage field. I'm personally a big fan of SPI not just because they have great principles, but because the work they do has a discernible impact. In this field, discernible impacts that help communities and preserve cultural heritage are too few and far between. This is an excellent opportunity for students to get experience with an organization employing simple methods with positive results. Also, those are some real nice people they have at SPI, you want to be a part of that.

From my friend at SPI, Rebekah Junkermeier:

"Interested in saving the world’s cultural heritage? Want to transform local communities while doing it? So do we. The Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) is a new non-profit whose mission is to save cultural heritage sites around the globe, but in an entirely new way: through local economic development.

Traditionally, preservation organizations will throw a bunch of money at a site, building large and expensive museums or visitor centers in an attempt to attract tourism and protect the site from looting and decay. Time and time again, however, this paradigm fails. The museums close, the visitor centers are empty, and the site isn't preserved and continues to be looted, often by the impoverished local community. We think the problem with this model is the point of focus: the people actually living in the area tend to be an afterthought, if that. To provide themselves and their families with the essentials, it's not uncommon for local residents to take stones and artifacts, grow crops, or graze livestock on the sites. To prevent these destructive practices, SPI creates jobs by investing in locally-created and -run businesses whose success is tied to the preservation of the site. Not only are lives in the community transformed, but the endangered archaeological sites are preserved in a completely sustainable way.

We currently have two projects in Peru, one at San Jose de Moro and one at Pampas Gramalote, and are hoping to expand to three more sites by the end of the year.

We are looking for smart, self-motivated individuals passionate about cultural heritage and economic development to assist with the following this fall:

·      Organizing traditional and online fundraising programs
·      Writing and reviewing grant applications and reports
·      Administrative work
·      SPI’s website, Facebook page, and other social media
·      Preparing presentation materials
·      Assisting the Executive Director

Join us in saving sites by transforming lives!

We are located in New York City, but remote (online) internship positions will be considered depending on the candidate.

Email Rebekah Junkermeier, Program and Development Associate at SPI, at with a cover letter and CV to apply!"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The MFA's new acquisition of Benin artifacts proving to be a tricky bitch already

If I was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which just received a gift of 34 rare Kingdom of Benin objects from the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, I would not have responded to the official request by Nigeria to have 32 of these artifacts repatriated with the veiled and tired excuse that they will reach a wider, more diverse audience in Boston than in Nigeria. I would not have tried to pacify them by describing how the collection will be installed in an exhibition that will discuss both the history of the individual objects as well as the history and culture of the Benin Kingdom. And I wouldn’t have capped it all off by throwing in the bonus of presenting the objects on the museum website and the hope that keeping the objects will “further opportunities for cultural exchange”.

Once again, the MFA is being, let’s just be frank, a tightfisted little bitch about the obviously looted objects in their collection. Let me break it down for you: In 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Benin king and destroy Benin City. Field commanders were instructed to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages and hang the king whenever and wherever he was captured. After the British secured the city, looting began in the monuments and palaces of high-ranking chiefs, as well as homes and religious buildings. 2,500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, and artworks were exported to England. These objects were later auctioned off in Paris and held by the British Museum in London. The objects now in the possession of the Boston MFA were privately owned by Mr. Robert Owen Lehman. This donation is a big deal for the museum because until this acquisition, it had only one Benin object in its 20-year-old African collection. There are now plans to build a permanent gallery for the Lehman Collection.

That is, if the Nigerian government fails in its effort to have the artifacts repatriated. The MFA refusing to repatriate these Benin artifacts is disappointing for a number of reasons: 1) refusing Nigeria their cultural property that was so heartlessly taken in the midst of the death and destruction of their people, even if it was over 100 years ago, is not great for post-colonial PR; 2) you’d think that after problems like the Weary Herakles debacle, the MFA would have learned; and 3) every time a museum gets so tightfisted, it puts us all two steps back from the ideal many hope to see one day: that instead of these catty repatriation lawsuits, we will instead enjoy the generous and willful exchange of collections between countries and museums, and spend less time being concerned with ownership and economic value and more time educating, preserving, and respecting. This ideal has been described by many in the museum, archaeological, and cultural heritage communities, but it has been frustratingly slow to manifest in real life. Conflicts such as the one between Nigeria and the MFA only keep us in the mud of the mid-20th century encyclopedic museum dream.

If the MFA was at all interested in joining the rest of us here in the 21st century, it might begin by repatriating the objects to Nigeria and hammering out a deal for exchanges between our countries. Then it might consider taking the initiative and acknowledging fishy or limited provenance in the history of all its objects, not just the ones on trial, and make a whole-hearted effort to discover their true origins. Then it might acknowledge that many of the objects in their collection may still hold significance for living cultures and be less stingy when those cultures come forward and ask for repatriations. Then it might do a much better job of educating its public about art crime, the modern commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and the past and present war time looting that scatters artifacts and attempts to destroy cultures and ideologies. But instead, it will continue to drag its feet and deny a formerly occupied country the right it has to its stolen heritage.

Don’t be that guy, MFA. Be brave.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Holes: Looting in Photos

Photo: Holly Pickett for the NYT
Having created and maintained this blog for a while in an effort to expose more college students to the illicit antiquities trade/cultural heritage issues in general, I can confidently tell you one thing about the whole process: it's damn tricky getting people to care sometimes. There are only so many times a young white person can insert "bitches be trippin'" into a rant about Jim Cuno or Timbuktu to get people's attention. I think, frankly, people don't care enough when I tell them thousands of looters are tearing up archaeological sites for merchandise every day because they don't know what that actually looks like, what it really means, or what it has to do with them.

So I decided to create an online photo collection of looting. Holes: Looting in Photos is an effort to bring together many images of looted archaeological sites and looted artifacts to more effectively present what our destroyed human past actually looks like. By displaying both the individual artifacts/sites alongside the repetition of countless holes, dug up bodies, and defaced stone, I hope to provide a different kind of resource for learning about looting, as well as a more meaningful comprehension of the overwhelming global scale. 

The kicker in this whole project is that I would like it to be a sort of collaborative, crowd-sourced deal. There are many photographers, journalists, and archaeologists who document the looted sites they see; it would be amazing to bring them all together in one place as a kind of testimony to what is happening to our human past for a global market. 

I've created a Flickr group pool for submissions, and a Flickr site to house the collection. Additionally, there is a whole Tumblr  dedicated to showcasing the project, and photos will be pinned to Pinterest as well. It's all pretty raw right now, but hopefully that will change with you! If you have any photos of looted sites or artifacts, submit them! Remember to have the name of the photographer, a caption including where it's from, and website or source from where the photo came.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Guest post on the ARCA blog!

Scoot on over to the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art blog, where you can read my newest post on my super dreamy experience at the very exciting annual ARCA conference last month.

They are great peoples, and they want more excitable young people who are into this stuff. Cough cough. Do it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The New York Times is asking all the wrong questions.

David Dewey with his
unsellable Yuan dynasty
Today the New York Times published a very telling article on the various problems that collectors, museums, and auction houses are facing now that guidelines for provenance are much stricter than in decades past. It does a fairly good job of outlining the various sides of the argument and quoting some of the best known voices for each (Kate Fitz Gibbon, Ricardo J. Elia, Neil Brodie, Arthur Houghton, Lawrence Rothfield, and Julian Raby, among others), but as an article, it very solidly reflects the perspective of object-centric collectors.

The big argument going on is that there are a lot of artifacts in the hands of private collectors that can’t be donated or sold because they don’t have a valid trail of paperwork documenting their every owner. Recent scandals over museums accepting donations of looted objects from collectors, whether they knew they were looted or not, has encouraged museums to stand more firmly by the no-objects-looted-after-1970 date set by the UNESCO convention, and discouraged collectors from even trying to donate or sell objects they bought 15 or 20 years ago.

This is indeed a problem. No one can quite agree on what to do with all these artifacts that have limited or no provenance, won’t be accepted by most academics or museums, and can’t be sold through the major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Exhibiting them is often seen as condoning the trade, or at least demonstrating to looters and dealers that even though the deed is demonized, the exhibition justifies their actions. Not exhibiting them or letting them be sold, potentially to collectors that won’t share them with the public, also leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the concerned.

But even though this is a valid issue that does need to be considered, the better question that the New York Times should be asking is how the demand for the illicit antiquities trade should be approached and reevaluated. How do we get collectors to divert their money from the big, often illegal market to funding preservation, conservation, archaeology, and education instead? How do we replace the economic incentive for looting at the ground level with the economic incentive of building local museums, funding local archaeology, and finding sustainable ways to capitalize on local and regional heritage? How do we write and rewrite international and national policies so that they more effectively convict, punish, and prevent the white-collar criminals moving the trade in looted artifacts? This entire field is not so much an issue as it is a conflict, and as such the journalism reporting on this conflict has the responsibility to not just ask the post-war questions that affect only the pampered Western party. In my view, there are more important questions that need to be asked and answered before we begin to tackle the post-conflict issue of what to do with the “victim” artifacts.

Derek Fincham also has a great commentary on this article that points out the lack of emphasis on the major tax deductions that collectors get for donating to museums.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some updates

In the pages section of the blog, you'll notice some swank new updates to the information and resources offered that I finally got in today. First, there is now an "About the Issues" section which offers a really concise overview of the core issues of the illicit antiquities trade and a simple outline of its structure. Pretty easy to share with a friend who isn't in the know about this stuff and maybe wants to be. Second, there is finally an Internship Guide for cultural heritage/art crime internships. However, it's pretty rough so far, so if you know of any organizations or individuals that offer work experience with things related to art crime, cultural heritage issues, historic preservation/conservation, and museums studies that emphasize transparency, let me know! You can email me at