Thursday, October 20, 2011

I'm back. I hope.

I am a little bit horrified that it’s been so long since my last post, and am slightly nauseated by how overwhelming it is to come back. For the past seven weeks, I have basically had my illicit antiquities trade news ticker on pause so that I can analyze all the little details of a few particular cases. This stuff is my life, so much so that I have managed to incorporate it into almost every single one of my courses. So, coming back to the blogroll and realizing that I’ve actually been missing everything was, in a word, overwhelming.
This has been my best term yet academically. I never imagined that I would measure academic excellence by routinely becoming confused in class because something we’re discussing is about something I already talked about in another class and the links between the two blow my mind. Between discussing memory as a social construct as applied to conflict and art and figuring out that the swarm of fruit flies plaguing my room were hiding in my bamboo plant and not, as I had initially assumed, in a two-day old mug of wine, my mind is just suffering one explosion of insight after the next.
This is particularly true for all things related to the illicit antiquities trade, conflict, activism, internet activism, blogging, ALL OF IT. The problem with my education right now is that there is too much of it and I don’t have any time to blog about the amazing connections I’m making between fields as I’m making them because there are more connections to be made before very important deadlines and it all turns into a big, knotted, twisty, crazy, complex ball of insight that becomes too much of a thing in itself for me to deconstruct it. At least, not in the couple hours I’ve given myself to blog. So, I’m just going to list some bullets of the most important parts of this knotty learning mess before more come rushing in.

  • MY SENIOR WORK IS JUST SO COOL AND GOING SO WELL. In a nutshell, I am focusing on the rift between the museum and archaeological communities when dealing with ancient art/artifacts, particularly unscientifically excavated/looted objects. I will be using the controversy over the Smithsonian's exhibition of the Belitung shipwreck as a focus for how this rift is detrimental to academics and the non-academic public alike. Last week, Julian Raby, the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian, responded to my email wondering if he would be the least bit interested in talking to me about the "Shipwrecked" exhibition. Not only was he enthusiastic about working with me if the exhibition goes up, but he sounds like a very kind and generous fellow. I get the impression that he is a rare breed of museum director: not only is he very aware of the risks involved in exhibiting unscientifically excavated artifacts and willing to spend a great deal of time talking to concerned parties to see if he can make most everyone happy, but he was so kind to be open to the work of a lowly undergraduate student.
  • The CAPA opening at Bennington was an incredibly exciting weekend and resulted and three things: First, me finding a new personal hero in author/journalist/human rights activist Rebecca Tinsley. Second, me writing a half-baked draft about whether or not internet activism is more effective than physically protesting because Vermont state representative Brian Campion thinks internet activism isn’t effective; PEOPLE. BOTH INTERNET ACTIVISM AND PHYSICAL PROTESTS ARE A MEANS TO AN END, NOT THE END IN ITSELF. BOTH ARE TOOLS AND WE NEED TO LEARN HOW TO USE THEM TOGETHER IN ORDER TO HELP THE SYSTEM WORK EFFECTIVELY. This really deserves its own post. And third, the introduction of infographics into my life: first there was Gong Szeto’s CAPA workshop on infographics, then today in my conflicts class, our librarian Oceana Wilson gave a talk on infographics/complexity mapping in relation to conflicts. I cannot stress just how much a) Gong should have a class related to infographics next term and b) how important a tool infographics is for EVERYTHING but especially for studying the illicit antiquities trade. 
  • My conflicts course, Solving the Impossible, is one of the most glaringly useful courses I’ve ever taken EVER. A post will happen sometime in the near future about finding vacuums in conflicts, and the vacuums I’ve discovered in the antiquities trade conflict that need filling by all of you.
  • I am ¼ of the way done with my senior year of college. Nausea, again.

Now that I am halfway through this term, most of my research is done and I’m in my writing stages. Hopefully, I will have more of an internet presence and posts like this will not occur regularly.


  1. +1 for the infographics. I (really) don't know how much infographic stuff there is, so I don't know whether there's enough for a course. But we definitely need to learn how to track networks, create and manipulate large data sets, present data in an understandable way... (If nothing else, so we have some transferable skills to take to industries with job opportunities.)

  2. Making everyone happy...

    Why don't u start by looking at the past history of the Freer and Sackler Galleries exhibitions? Take for example, the 2004 "Iraq and China" exhibit, compare the objects (e.g., Plotnick Collection) sold at this month's Sotheby's Arts of the Islamic World sale? Make sense? Is it too much to argue that the Galleries served nicely preparing a major sale?

  3. Bullet point one: since this museum director is such a wonderful person and open for controversy, ask directly on the provenance of the in-house collections amassed over the last thirty years. Do this AFTER you have studied I mean provenance in the real sense. And you might ask this museum director for the role of the collector Nasser David Khalili in his career. And you might ask about the Smithsonian signing contracts (Unesco underwater heritage is a nice example) and doing quite the opposite. And you might google Ban Chiang material. Planning on an internship in the Smithsonian, right?! Happy welcome to the $$$$$ art dealers on the East Coast.

  4. I think you will miss the major point in this whole discussion. It is an internal Smithsonian dilemma as I understand it which has nothing at all to do with archaeology, even though it is cleverly portrayed as such. I might be wrong, but happy to be challenged, in thinking this is about the Smithsonian as National Museum breaking quite a couple of contracts. I do not understand why you want to study the problematic/or not relationship between archaeology and museum communities. This is about sticking to contracts people were fighting for for some reasons.

  5. The debate absolutely has to do with archaeology; the Belitung shipwreck was largely excavated by a commercial salvage company, but was eventually studied by two maritime archaeologists. The debate is over whether or not this material was excavated in such a way that it is ethical for a museum in the United States to exhibit it. This one controversy at the Smithsonian lives within a bigger controversy between archaeologists, who generally believe that ancient artifacts should be exhibited primarily in a historical context, and museums, who often assert that ancient art objects should be seen in a largely aesthetic context. Generally, the archaeological community is against the unscientific excavation and illegal trade in antiquities, while historically, museums have supported both through the purchase of unprovenanced artifacts. If you do not understand the problem in the archaeology/museum relationship, I recommend you read Chasing Aphrodite, by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino or The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson.

  6. Hello Meg,

    I did read both Felch, Frammolino, and Watson. I know two of them personally. I would like to second the anonymous author above, in fact you should do some research. I also do not understand how you make this part of an museum/archaeology/science battle which is what the team of Julian Raby decides to portray it. There is (!) a valid and important legal aspect here that you simply seem to miss: the Smithsonian is bound to signatures it has given! If you sign a contract, you do not violate this the next second. This is only comparable to Marion True (again, museum curator, not archaeologist, who was accused of illegal actions) to go with JF and RF, in that she was signing a contract and doing the contrary at the same time. This is about getting the Smithsonian in deep trouble for acting against its own ethics. Archaeologists are not (!) the ones who can be blamed here for by Julian Raby. If you do not see this, you should inform yourself more about the complex role of the Smithsonian in the past ... Larry Small, Hello?

  7. Why is the Smithsonian not doing what someone in the other blog stated: "That Julian Raby should be fired for even suggesting this exhibtion."

    You have not understand anything if you are happy that the guy even invites you working with him if the exhibition goes up. After reading the comments above, and having worked with people who seem so nice on the outside but act the opposite, I strongly suggest you stay far far away from this, write your paper on the topic. And continue to give us more blog entries on cultural heritage issues! Please!

    Marcie, an avid follower

  8. @ anonymous above and Meg:

    Look at Christie's London October Islamic Art 2005 sale and how it ended in Raby's bazar:

    Do some research, Meg! This from Iraq, right? Study the US politics then and what the government recommended on (not) acquiring Iraqi antiquities. Any questions on where this very museum stands with its policies and ethics and keeping to UNESCO guidelines etc? HAVE FUN!

  9. PS: Look at the price of the piece in the sales catalogue and imagine what the US taxpayer spent and then answer the question: Would you have wanted to "save" this object?

  10. Haha. Wow. No. The objects in the Belitung shipwreck are from Indonesia, not Iraq. There is a post coming soon addressing some of the comments here.

  11. And when I say Indonesia, I mean the shipwreck was found off the coast of Indonesia and contained roughly 60,000 pieces of Changsha ceramics from China, while the ship itself was an Arab dhow.