Time for a Major Rethink in Greece
By Peter Tompa
Greece's financial meltdown has prompted calls for its economy to be liberalized by cutting back on excessive government regulations and ending state subsidies for connected insiders.
While the archaeological blogosphere remains in denial, it's time for those without a vested interest in the status quo to make suggestions on how Greece can turn its current challenges into an opportunity by similarly liberalizing its cultural establishment. Here are some ideas, though I'm sure others will have their own views.
In the Short Run:
Deploy the Greek Army to protect archaeological sites and museums.
Reduce the cultural bureaucracy. Greece sent a huge delegation to the US to appear at the State Department's CPAC hearing on Greece. (My recollection is there were 12 people there!) Most countries make do with one or two representatives. This confirms for me other complaints that the cultural ministry's upper management is grossly overstaffed.
Deaccession and sell off duplicates from museum stores to foreigners and wealthy Greeks.
Give tax breaks to individuals that donate money to Greek museums.
Require foreign archaeologists to pay a hefty user fee for the privilege of excavating in the country, but as a quid pro quo reestablish the historic practice of partage.
Require foreign archaeologists to police their own sites when they are not being actively excavated.
In the longer term:
Establish a legal market for ancient artifacts that can be taxed.
Establish a recording system akin to the Treasure Act and PAS.
Require developers to pay for the services of archaeologists to undertake salvage excavations on land likely to contain ruins, but then allow the developer to sell what is found after it is recorded, or give them a tax break if the artifact is worthy of going into a museum.
It is indeed time for a major rethinking, not just on Greece but upon cultural policy in all "source countries" that have declared antiquities to be public property, to be held in public custody at public expense.
The only truly sensible and viable path to adequate funding for the protection of archaeological sites and antiquities is to come to the realization that these responsibilities can no longer be funded by taxpayers. Archaeologists and others involved in cultural heritage issues must now recognize reality - society is not willing to continue to pay for archaeology, or for demands of archaeologists that countless millions of ancient artifacts shall be kept in state custody at public expense.
The obvious solution is to decide that policies regarding disposition and custody of ancient artifacts will no longer be driven by the impractical ideology that these objects somehow inherently "belong to everyone" and that it is morally wrong for any of them to be privately owned, or for private individuals to profit from owning them or trading in them.
Ownership inherently involves responsibilities and financial obligations, and it is becoming increasingly clear that taxpayers do not want these onerous responsibilities and are not willing to provide financial support for the associated financial obligations. There are many millions of redundant artifacts in public custody in source countries such as Greece and Italy, where drastic budget cuts have recently been made and where the cost of maintaining secure custody of these artifacts is becoming insupportable.
A sensible and responsible system of triage should now be instituted, whereby responsible experts decide which artifacts shall be retained in publicly supported museums where they will be displayed or kept in active research collections, and which artifacts are redundant and not required for public display or research. Redundant artifacts should be released (with provenance) to the antiquities trade at periodic auctions, to find their way into the hands of collectors who will care for them, learn from them and thereby significantly increase public interest in the study of the past and in archaeology.
Such an approach will significantly reduce the custodial burden, providing funds for protection of archaeological sites and antiquities, and for museums. It will also provide funds for increasing support for archaeology, and will tend to devalue unprovenanced artifacts - which will materially assist in suppressing illicit excavations.