Saturday, May 02, 2015

Financing the Saving of the Past

Selling Artifacts to Save the Past?
by Peter Tompa

Chris Maupin asks why not?   And it's not just Maupin.  Others have also suggested that there be deaccession of duplicates from stores.  This does not only makes sense.  It will increasingly become a necessity for cash strapped cultural establishments in places like Greece and Italy.


A great deal has been said in the archaeological blogosphere regarding ethical objections to selling artifacts. The perspective upon which this "moral judgement" is based appears to be a belief that unearthed artifacts are inherently the common property of all mankind, and should not be owned, or traded in, by private individuals. 

A very consistent advocacy of this perspective may be found in the blog of sometime British archaeologist Paul Barford, who uses the words "collector" and "dealer" in his blog utterances with venomous scorn suggesting that such individuals are, in his view (and that of all true believers in the righteous cause of preserving the archaeological record), moral lepers.

A similar rejection of selling artifacts recently became a cause célèbre, when the St. Louis chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America deaccessioned a number of Egyptian and Mesoamerican artifacts which were not being publicly displayed. 38 of the 40 artifacts were placed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, the AIA strongly objected to the sale, and eventually forced the entire board of the St. Louis chapter to resign.

It isn't clear to what extent the AIA leadership, Mr. Barford and other believers in the "iniquity" of private ownership of artifacts and the existing antiquities trade realize the economic, social and political implications of their perspective.

In this observer's opinion, a very crucial question must now be addressed: Who provides the custody, storage and display of artifacts? If their possession by private collectors, and exchanges via the antiquities trade, are thus deemed to be "unethical," then who are instead to be the custodians?

So far as one can judge from what has been published regarding this topic there seems to be general agreement that existing institutional resources, such as museums and universities, are overburdened and unable to take on responsibility for additional holdings without increased funding.

It also seems apparent that throughout the world, governments are likewise overburdened, and unable to take on responsibility for increasing funding to existing institutional curation resources, or creating new public resources. Doing so would require cutting back services in other important areas, or increasing taxes which are already perceived as being too high.

So who will pay for the custody, storage and display of artifacts, if private collectors, the antiquities trade and privately held museums are deemed to be "ethically unacceptable?"

It seems to this observer that such theorizing upon the "ethics" of private ownership of antiquities, and the antiquities trade, without providing any workable fiscal alternative is not an acceptable basis for public policy decisions, and that government officials should not accept arguments based upon "moral theorizing" of this sort without first determining and making responsible provision for the consequent financial, social and political effects.