Monday, February 27, 2012

It's Museums Advocacy Day!

Today and tomorrow are Museums Advocacy Day, an event sponsored by the American Association of Museums and designed to advocate for policy and funding issues that affect museums in the United States. Today and tomorrow there will be events on Capitol Hill that you can watch here. However, if, like me, you're not able to make it out to D.C. to make an impact in person, there are other things you can do.

AAM's E-Advocacy page is mostly for museums, but no one's going to stop you from also writing to your representatives and making a fuss about it via Twitter (#museumsadvocacy) or Facebook or whatever. The point is, do something. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know (either consciously or at least deep down) that museums are the safe guards and celebrations of our shared heritage, both material and intangible. As Americans, we have a particular responsibility to make the protection and preservation of our museums a priority because of the vast number of cultural memories and identities they serve. So jot off a quick letter to your state representatives! For reference, here's what I wrote to Senator John Kerry (with some help from the letter guides provided by AAM):

Dear Senator Kerry,

As a constituent, I know that you are pulled in many, many directions and must make difficult decisions every day about how to meet the needs of people like me and our community. I recently learned, through the American Association of Museums, how important it is that I take a moment to express to you why museums are so special to me.

There was recently an article in the BBC about how lack of funding in Bosnia has affected museums. During wartimes, the museum workers dodged bullets and bombs to protect the material manifestations of their cultural heritage and shared history. Now during hard economic times, Bosnian museum workers have not been paid for six months and are taking on part-time jobs to support themselves while they continue to work for their country’s museums. During World War II, museum workers at the Hermitage in Russia barricaded themselves in the museum’s basement tunnels and died of starvation and cold protecting their collections from the violence of war. And just a few years ago in 2003, Donny George risked his life during the American invasion of Iraq in an attempt to protect the Iraq National Museum from looters.

Museums are the safe guards and celebrations of our shared heritage, both material and intangible. When our way of life is threatened, we look to museums to remind us who we are and to keep our identities alive. As Americans, our museums contain a vast number of cultural stories and memories, giving us a great responsibility to make the protection and preservation of our many cultural identities a priority. We need to support our museums now so that we may not have to sacrifice so much for the protection of our histories in the future.

Essentially, I grew up in museums. As an adult, I continue to grow up in museums as I graduate from college this year and dedicate my life to museums; to figuring out how they work, how to make them work better, and how to continue to protect the world’s history in ethical and educational ways.

As a representative of our great state of Massachusetts, I hope you will remember how important museums are to me and provide support for museums in your future work.


Meg Lambert

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spike TV's new show, American Diggers, promotes commercial exploitation of historical sites

This spring, Spike TV intends to air a new show called American Diggers, which will follow a team "led by former professional wrestler-turned-modern-day relic hunter Ric Savage as they scour...battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history."

Let me break it down for you: THIS IS BAD because shows like this perpetuate the idea already put forth by pop culture icons like Indiana Jones that cultural property is "treasure": old things with great economic value. This is not responsible archaeology, and it needs to be shut down. Sign this petition on to urge Spike TV to cancel the show before they can continue to poison the minds of America with the idea that looting is fun and stuff.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ancient Olympia Museum robbed and Geroulanos a coward for resigning?

Gold ring seal, Antheia, Messinia. Date: 14th or 13th century. 
It's been all over the news: last week two armed robbers broke into the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, tied up on the only on-site guard, smashed and made off with 77 artifacts dating back more than 3,000 years. It was the second devastating blow to Greece's cultural heritage in the midst of their economic crisis after paintings from the National Museum were stolen last month. Due to extreme budget cuts, funds for security have been halved in the last few years, leaving Greece's cultural institutions incredibly vulnerable to theft and looting. So, far the case at Olympia remains at a dead end, made even more complicated by the fact that it appears the police and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism are releasing differing information about their understanding of the heist. 

However, the most concerning aspect of this case for me is that due to the embarrassment of the break-in, culture minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation to prime minister Lucas Papademos. Papademos rejected it yesterday, which could be both a good and bad thing. The entire situation is giving me flashbacks to around this time last year when Zahi Hawass resigned as from the antiquities department in Egypt after the many cases of break-ins and looting through the revolution and limited resources to deal with it. At the time, Hawass blamed the lack of resources and security for his inability to prevent chaos. He said, "I cannot stay in Egypt and see antiquities being stolen when I cannot do anything to stop it! This situation is not for me!" The problem is that there very probably were things he could have done to better prevent mass looting of archaeological sites and the looting at the national museum, including reaching out to international organizations and mobilizing the kinds of youth who locked arms in front of the museum. With Greece currently in a similar situation, it might have been wise for Geroulanos to learn from Egypt's tragedies and mistakes and do what he could to deal more creative and proactively. For some perspective, this situation compared with how Bosnia is dealing with their current funding issues is particularly embarrassing: while museum workers in Bosnia have historically dodged bullets to save their artifacts, have not been paid for six months, and are taking on part-time jobs to support themselves while supporting their museums, Greece's culture minister has thrown up his hands after two high-profile (and therefore easier to track down) museum thefts.

I personally see these resignations as cowardly and ineffective. (Though, in the case of Hawass, it was time to get rid of him anyway.) Maybe I'm just young and naive, but to me Geroulanos's resignation was essentially an admission that he was unwilling to support his country throughout this difficult time in any way his government position may allow. Geroulanos is still minister for now, but I hope that a much stronger replacement can be found as soon as it is financially or politically possible.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Glasgow University Team gets £1m grant to study illicit antiquities trade

A looted archaeological site in Iraq from the air in 2003. Copyright: Italian Carabinieri
In case you somehow haven't heard or just aren't paying attention, researchers at Glasgow University were recently awarded a £1 million grant from the European Research Council to study the illicit trade in antiquities. For those of you who are new to studying these issues, this is what is what the more arcane academics like to call "a big freaking deal." Over the next four years, a team led by archaeologist Dr. Neil Brodie and criminologist Dr. Simon Mackenzie will gather and analyze data on the movements and motives of traffickers, the activities involved (such as illegal excavation/looting), and pricing structures. The goal of this grant, as described by the Guardian, is to "develop new approaches to regulate the international trade of cultural goods and help policymakers better define laws to fight criminal activities."

This is incredible for a number of reasons. First, to my knowledge there has never been such a generous amount of funding directed towards the study of the illicit antiquities trade until now. So much of what we know about illegal artifact trafficking is cobbled together from various international busts and trials, some hard-won insider information, investigative journalism on very particular controversies, and years of accumulated blog posts chronicling the changing nature of collecting. It is often incredibly difficult to get solid statistics from those kinds of patchwork sources. This study will be the first of its kind on the illicit antiquities trade, and will undoubtedly be groundbreaking in deepening our understanding of how illegal artifact trafficking operates. Second, Dr. Brodie and Dr. Mackenzie are already well-known in this field for their groundbreaking research on the illicit antiquities trade. Considering what they have already achieved on what one can assume is a fairly average budget, it is astonishing to think what they will accomplish with such a large sum over a relatively short amount of time. Third, can you imagine the kind of research opportunities this one study will inevitably open up to our generation of academics? This is the perfect time for ambitious grad students and bold undergrads to make a good case for focusing on the illegal antiquities trade and demand funding for its study. The findings from this research will undoubtedly give us twice as many questions as they will answers, and here's hoping those questions will require more studies that young, lively bloggers like me may soon be a part of.

For more information, here's a rather brilliant piece on Prof. Mackenzie contrasting his work with Indiana Jones' tomb robbing. (When will that stereotype die, already?)

Congratulations to Dr. Brodie, Dr. Mackenzie and their team at Glasgow University!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Robert Hecht, famous antiquities dealer, dead at age 92

On Wednesday, notorious antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht, Jr. died at age 92 at his home in Paris. Just a little less than three weeks ago, his criminal trial in Rome ended with no verdict after judges found the time allotted for trial had expired. Hecht had been the focus of a long-term investigation into an international network of antiquities smugglers, dealers and private collectors, along with former Getty curator Marion True and Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. Hecht was a key player in the illicit trade and, after the scandal at the Getty and the discovery of Medici's warehouse in Switzerland, a legendary figure who boasted that he never knew the origins of the pieces he sold. A charming and likable man, even his enemies in law enforcement could not help respecting him as a worthy adversary.

Which has made it that much more difficult to process his death. The few who have acknowledged his passing in the press or in social media seem to be struggling with how to remember or commemorate a man who, though charming and respected as a skilled criminal, made terrible contributions to the destruction of history through looting. Cultural Security even went so far as to wonder whether Hecht's activities have had "an inadvertently positive effect on art and antiquities." They point out that the notoriety surrounding the trials of Hecht, True, and Medici have led museums around the world to alter their acquisitions policies and repatriate unprovenanced objects, while the media attention on Hecht brought the trade to the forefront for private collectors and galleries, not just the museum community. I'm reluctant to agree entirely, because Hecht's contribution to the publicity surrounding artifact trafficking was only one of many made by a number of individuals on both sides of the controversy. But his old-world glamour and enigmatic appeal certainly did not hurt the popularity of the case. There is something very bittersweet about Hecht's passing for the communities on either side the illicit antiquities trade, and I'm not sure we'll ever know how to definitively approach his legacy. Condolences to his wife and daughters.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Check me out on ARCA's blog!

Recently, I was honored to be asked to guest blog for the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art. Now, in addition to blogging here and for Bennington's admissions blog, you can also find me writing occasionally for the ARCA blog! My first post (a real winner, in my opinion) is up now. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chasing Aphrodite at the National Press Club and art museums as neutral ground?

Me and Jason Felch,
one half of the authors of Chasing Aphrodite
Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to attend the panel discussion at the National Press Club for Chasing Aphrodite authors Jason Felch (who looks like Clark Kent up close) and Ralph Frammolino (who phoned in from Bangladesh), as well as former Getty curator Arthur Houghton and Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan. The event was moderated by Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi. To summarize, it was magical, in a way only these things can be. Tanya Lervik wrote a great summary of the event for the ARCA blog and really captured all the best points (except for when Houghton and Vikan passed each other notes and nodded diligently as Jason looked on in mild befuddlement and amusement).

However, I was particularly struck by a few aspects of the discussion that aren't super polite to mention in an official summary of an official event on a more official blog than this. First, it was apparent that although every single one of the men on the panel has the utmost respect for one another, there was a definite rift in opinion over the role that museums can and should play in addressing the ethics behind the objects in their collections. While Arthur Houghton played a huge role in providing much of the information in Chasing Aphrodite and was for all intensive purposes a lone, sorta ethical voice during his time there, much of his contribution to the panel discussion was a defense of museums, particularly the Getty, and their role in the legality versus the ethicality of the events that took place. Two particular statements by each Vikan and Houghton bookended the discussion with the museological perspective: at the beginning of the conversation, Vikan stated, "Do we own these things? No. We take care of them.", while near the end, Houghton expressed that the real question that needs to be asked is the degree to which Americans want to find themselves subject to foreign laws. Both seemed to agree that it is not museums or collectors that fuel the illicit art market, but the lack of stringent laws in source countries.

With all due respect, haha.