Monday, 2 May 2011

Looting, exhibitions & conservation

Various debates emerged this week. Although they are not directly concerned with conservation they are certainly relevant.

First there were news of illicitly acquired artefacts being returned to Egypt by the Mexican government. It is interesting to see Mexico at this end of the negotiation. As Mexico is one of the countries that had its material culture plundered in the past, they certainly know what it is like to be at the opposite end.

There were also news about the reconstruction of four halls at the Baghdad Museum despite the fact that it is closed to the public until further notice. One of the halls will display artefacts recovered after the 2003 looting. According to the reports the museum managed to recover more than 750 objects from Syria, 2,000 from Jordan, and unclosed numbers from the US, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Poland and Peru.

Quite a lot of space has been dedicated to the discussion of an exhibition organized by the government of Singapore in collaboration with the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The material to be displayed was salvaged by aprivately-held German company from a shipwreck off the Indonesian coast. It includes pottery, rare pieces of porcelain , silver and gold. Although there has not been a final decision, the exhibition is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2012. The company  is said to have sold the salvaged material to the Singapore government. It is worth to note that Indonesia has not ratified the 2001 UNESCO convention, therefore, this kind of operation is considered legal.

This has generated a lot of concern in the last few weeks and the Smithsonian is being asked to terminate the collaboration. The NYT, for example, reports that the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology said that by proceeding with the exhibition the Smithsonian would be violating its own set of professional ethics and promoting the looting of archaeological sites. Various archaeological organizations have expressed similar views.

The board of directors for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is said to be studying the case and a final decision is expected for May. Given the amount of planning necessary for an exhibition of this scale I cannot even begin to think of how much pressure this is generating for the conservators behind the scenes!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Painting conservation materializes 'warming ties' between China and Taiwan

A report at theThe Independent shows how conservation may mean much more than the mere physical reintegration of a painting. 

Two pieces of "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains", a 660-year-old painting  by Huang Gongwang have been held in separate institutions since1949 - one piece in Taipei, another in the Zhejiang province of China. They are about to be reunited for a 40-day exhibit in Taiwan, as a signal of warming ties between the governments of China and Taiwan. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Development x Conservation

Aynak, Afghanistan, located about 20 miles from Kabul holds one of the country’s most important Buddhist sites (comparable to Hadda and Bamiyan). However, it is currently under threat because it sits on a large copper deposit -- for which a Chinese state-owned company agreed to pay £1.9bn for the extraction rights.  For details, see the excellent article by Jon Boone, published by the Guardian in November 2010.

The Art Newspaper tells of a rescue excavation in operation right now. Intricate stupas have been revealed, with vaulted corredor and various important finds, such as a 7 metre-long reclining Buddha, wall paintings, a pair of large feet, an ancient wooden (!) Buddha, among other things. Some of these finds have been transferred to the National Museum in Kabul, where they were on display. The site suffered from widespread looting in the early 2000s, hence the statues with missing heads, or feet without bodies.

Although the mining project will bring significant revenue to the country it is not clear how much sustainable development it will bring to the region. Or, for that matter, how much of it will revert into actual improvements for the local population. There are, however, reports of governmental plans to build a new museum near Aynak, and of moving some of the stupa bases and reconstructing them in the new museum.

Despite the imminent loss of important archaeological remains, not to mention the overall impact on the environment, the mining project has not received much international attention.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Cultural Weapon, by Mike van Graan

The Cultural Weapon, by Mike van Graan

The following was written by Mike van Graan. 
He presents strong views about how development may impact on museums and cultural heritage in general. 

The Cultural Weapon

Development as a destroyer of Culture

The Government of Uganda has decided that the Uganda National Museum - the country’s only national museum - will be demolished to make way for a 60-storey East Africa Trade Centre. The proposed “ultramodern” building – which politicians suggest will take 3-5 years to complete but which will take closer to 30 years according to civil society activists and commentators familiar with such Ugandan projects - will house the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, commercial retail outlets and office space. Oh, and two floors will be allocated to a new national museum.

Established in 1908, the Museum is more than one-hundred years old and is thus itself a heritage site. 

This is a classic case of “development” versus “culture”, in much the same way as “development” has often destroyed the natural environment in the name of economic growth and social progress. For those who advocate “culture as a vector of development”, this particular case presents a major challenge, both philosophically and strategically.

Increasingly, “culture as a vector of development” has come to mean the catalysing and support of the creative industries as economic drivers, as job-creation mechanisms, as generators of the financial resources that will be used to address major social and human development needs in the areas of health, education and the eradication of poverty, all important in the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.

This is particularly relevant to Uganda whose per capita income is a mere $460 and which is ranked a lowly 143 on the Human Development Index.

What the Ugandan government is saying is that the Ugandan National Museum – a national heritage site and the primary repository of the nation’s historical artefacts - is not a vector of development in that it is poorly attended by locals and tourists; it does not generate income; it serves no real economic purpose, and, if anything, it consumes limited public resources. From their point of view then, it is a no-brainer to demolish the museum in favour of a building that will generate substantial income through more commercially viable uses, and which could then very well contribute to economic, social and human development in Uganda.

By the same logic, the Ugandan government can next make a move on the National Theatre. Why bother to have a National Theatre – even if it is better used than the National Museum – when the economy can benefit more from a shopping mall or prestigious office block or apartment building in its place?

Therein lies the philosophical challenge to the “culture as a vector of development” proponents i.e. by making the case for the arts primarily on the basis of their economic contribution, the corollary is that where cultural institutions or the arts do not make an economic contribution or make an economic contribution that is substantially less than another option, then politicians and bureaucrats feel justified in destroying culture in favour of a better “development” option.

And yet, the proposed 60-storey building does not simply represent the destruction of culture in the form of the possible demolition of the National Museum; in truth, it represents a culture that is different, even foreign to the one represented by the Museum. The 60-storey building represents a culture of materialism, an elitist culture of ostentation, a globalised culture with a building and the values that it represents that could be in any major city of the world. The National Museum on the other hand – the one destined for destruction – is about Ugandan identity; unique Ugandan history; values, traditions and worldviews that are peculiar to Uganda, a building and content that celebrates cultural diversity as envisaged by UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

Uganda is not a signatory to the Convention. Not yet anyway.

And herein lies the strategic challenge to proponents of “culture as a vector of development”: to mobilise an international movement to prevent the destruction of the National Ugandan Museum, thus preserving cultural diversity in a globalised world, and contributing to a richer understanding of the relationship between culture and social, human and economic development. 

1. The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer and are necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which he is involved. 
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Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent. He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector. He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

For further information, see,

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Donny George's obituary - from The Telegraph

Donny George
Iraqi archaeologist who fought to prevent looting of the Iraq National Museum died in March 2011.
Published 15 Mar 2011

When the Allies invaded Iraq, George was director of research at the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Subsequently, the Iraq National Museum was looted and around 15,000 objects were stolen or destroyed. George and his staff worked with locals and managed to recover about half of the objects. George subsequently became head of the museum. "He worked to repair the damage, installing guard houses and building concrete barriers. He obtained aid from Italy to build a new Assyrian hall and started a conservation training programme. He also moved to protect Iraq’s many archaeological sites, establishing an archaeological police force, though the difficult security situation in the countryside means that its effectiveness has been limited."

See the whole obituary here: