June 26, 2006

Patrimony of cultural artefacts

Posted at 9:11 pm in Similar cases

Laws to protect cultural property do not always work in the ways that their curators intended. In Turkey for instance the result of discovering an artefact may have completely different outcomes depending on whether or not the official that you report it to is corrupt.
Countries that have lost much of their heritage to the great museums of the west can not sit back & buy into the post rationalised preservationist logic now expounded by these museums. Rarely were artefacts removed from their context to preserve them – in almost every case they were taken (in most cases without permission) because someone wanted them to ad to their collection, or in form of reparations following invasion of a country or suppression of an uprising amongst the countries indigenous inhabitants.

The New Anatolian (Turkey)

Patrimony of cultural artifacts
Recep Guvelioglu
26 June 2006

The matter of stolen artifacts and looted historical treasures has been one of the most important and ongoing issues in Turkey. When I visited the Ephesus Museum in Vienna and the Pergamum (Bergama) Museum in Berlin, and saw many artifacts from Anatolia at the Louvre, the British Museum and Dumbarton Oaks, my first reaction was to curse at the looters and the international system that gives an opportunity to looters and thieves. But when I learned that the Germans dug an enormous shelter for the Pergamum Altar during World War II to protect it from bombings and all the other museums took similar measures, my view changed quickly. Even though Turkey lost those unique historical treasures, at least humanity possessed them. Today many people from all around the world can visit these museums. In addition, what happened to some of the historical treasures in Turkey is well known. The Greek columns of Side, for instance, were burned just to get lime to build brick houses.
We have made many mistakes regarding historical artifacts, and there are many reasons for our cultural loss. It would take at least five of these weekly columns to discuss them all. The primary reason is our legal system: Our laws and judicial practices. Turkey holds a treasure trove of antiquities to protect, which is why many laws and codes were adopted.
Yet time has proven that that system does not work.
The most famous law to preserve our cultural heritage is the “Kultur ve Tabiat Varliklarini Koruma Yasasi” (Code of Protection of Cultural and Natural Property, or the code of antiquities). Under this law any ruin, artifact or cultural finding discovered falls under the state’s patrimony and it needs to be reported to the authorities, such as museum directors. Afterwards you have several options:
The director might be corrupt and want to have the artifacts for himself. He might offer you one percent of its real value and threaten to throw you in jail for illegal excavation if you don’t comply.
Let’s say the director is decent, yet he might still threaten to give it to “the state,” in which case you will receive a paltry compensation. In either case, you’re in trouble… If you decide not to inform the authorities, you have to find a middle man to sell this merchandise. The middle man would certainly deceive you, and if the artifact is quite valuable you might even be murdered. The last option is to try selling the artifact abroad, which leads to the same problem.
The bottom line of the matter is the issue of the patrimony of humanity’s past. Robbers destroy and loot temples and tombs. In the eyes of ordinary people, they are cursed criminals. Some people purchase mankind’s oldest and most exquisite creations and are proud of their efforts; these private collectors, commercial dealers, and museum curators view themselves as temporary caretakers of treasures.
However, collectors’ demands for these objects have created incentives for looters to pillage archaeological sites.
“Cultural patrimony” is the question of who has the right to own and exhibit humanity’s aesthetic and archaeological treasures.
It’s a three-sided debate. On one side, there are “internationalists”: Academics, dealers and collectors who advocate the regulated market as the best way to protect antiquities. The second group believes that cultural patrimony is linked to a group of people’s identity. “Our cultural heritage tells us who we are.” These “nationalists” generally call for a trade that is limited, heavily regulated and open to public scrutiny. The third party consists of archaeologists and scholars who say that trading uproots cultural artifacts from their original place, rendering them useless for scientific study.
The nationalists’ and archaeologists’ non-liberal amalgam of nationalism and anti-capitalist mentality goes back to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It is the first major international agreement to protect cultural property from thieves and smugglers.
Actually it’s hard to say who’s right in the debate. In Turkey’s case, with the current judicial system, which doesn’t give Turkish citizens any right to buy any artifacts, and with the problems of museums which have became like unprotected storage houses, the nationalistic approach seems to have lost the game.

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