Thursday, January 20, 2011

Frischer vs. The World: A Summary

In December, Bernard Frischer, a professor of archaeology and classics and the director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory atthe University of Virginia, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times. He proposed a solution to the lucrative trade of looting and dealing illicit antiquities: have museums fund excavations and borrow the finds from origin countries for exhibitions.

I found his proposal interesting because it's at least trying to find a solution in a public arena to a worldwide issue instead of just complaining that it exists and leaving it up to slow-moving governments or badly funded academics. I think there are parts of it that could solve some issues and that it's important to not let this idea die once the bloggers have finished responding. Excavations that could help save antiquities and valuable information are too few and too badly funded to have much impact in putting a dent in the market. Finding a solution to this should be a bigger priority for more educational institutions.

However, Frischer's proposal is admittedly riddled with a hopeful naivete and a lack of consideration for the minute details that would be involved in its execution. Since its publication, there have been a few responses to Frischer's proposal that make some apt, realistic points but don't altogether tear down the concept. Paul Barford, British archaeologist and blogger (with a dry wit that cuts and burns with awesome ferocity) and Larry Rothfield (that's right, the same Lawrence Rothfield who wrote The Rape of Mesopotamia) both responded on their blogs to Frischer's proposal. Because you are all probably too busy getting back into the academic swing of things to have heard about such things, here's a recap:

Frischer's main thesis is that if museums sponsored excavations, it would "put looters and smugglers out of business". He suggests that museums could sponsor excavations in origin countries and in exchange, origin countries would loan the finds for the museums' exhibitions. To keep collectors happy (the same collectors who usually donate to museums and buy looted artifacts), he offers them the opportunity to invest in the project and have objects loaned to them. And where he does he want to start excavating? Already well-known locations and World Heritage Sites.

Both Barford and Rothfield point out Frischer's teensiest lack of consideration as to the funding and performing of these digs: who is going to dig, catalog, analyze, store, and publish the findings from these projects? Furthermore, both authors express concern over the possibility of the museum's sponsorship dictating the kind of items that should be found: Barford criticizes Frischer's focus on "spectacular goodies", while Rothfield is concerned that curators would be driven to find the most dazzling artifacts instead of the most educational.

However, Barford focuses on US museum's inability to deal with the collections they already house (or house in other countries) and Frischer's, frankly, bad choice of already well-protected World Heritage sites for excavations. (World Heritage sites? Really? How about the whole of Guatemala or maybe the seriously threatened Middle East?) Frischer talks about museum collections as if they've run out of pieces to show and are simply recycling a well-known batch of masterpieces. Barford points out that they actually have so many objects that they can't even ship them back to the museum. Not to mention that anyone who's familiar with how museums work (and Frischer should) would know that the biggest of them have HUGE collections of artifacts that they have never exhibited. So it's not like we're running out of pretty things to look at and we need to plough the earth for more.

On the other hand, Rothfield cites the huge political hurdles that would be involved in museums persuading origin countries to loan pieces for exhibition. With so many origin countries already asking for pieces back and unable to protect their own heritage from plunder, would they really be open to willfully loaning what would probably be the finest pieces from an excavation to Western museums?

Both authors cannot agree with Frischer's grand idea to loan pieces to collectors. Rothfield notes the political toxicity of such a move; Barford wonders why it hasn't happened before "if this is such a jolly spiffing idea". In the end, Barford and Rothfield both scoff at Frischer's belief that this scenario could bring the market for looted objects to a standstill. Frischer seems to have forgotten that even if museums stop buying looted antiquities, private collectors will always keep the market going.

What's important to note is that both authors did not totally deny the principle of the proposal. This kind of scenario has the possibility to succeed, but I would like to point out that in order for this proposal to work, it would take a very special type of museum to make it happen. I'm not an expert on museum programs, but in my limited experience most major museums in the US (and some in Europe) have alienated themselves to origin countries by stubbornly refusing to return antiquities and begrudgingly handing them back after prolonged press coverage and court cases. It may be near impossible for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to do any excavations in Italy, and incredibly hard for the Met to do anything in Turkey. And just forget about the Getty doing anything anywhere. The only institution I can think of that not only has the people, the storage, the money, and the decent relationships with origin countries is the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, this kind of idea could actually do amazingly well in the kind of environment that the Smithsonian could offer. They already have a number of very successful educational programs; they support a great amount of scientific and cultural research; and I can vouch for their dedication to a quality educational experience, not just a pretty one.

I have to agree with Barford and Rothfield but I see the merit in Frischer's proposal. Since we young people are the Future and whatnot, what are your thoughts? Do you think this kind of scenario could work? Who would you want to see accomplishing it? And what other hurdles, political, monetary, or otherwise, do you foresee in the execution of such an idea?

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