Who Owns the Past?

I went to a lecture at the Weisman Museum tonight during my supper break. It was co-sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America Minnesota Chapter and also goes along with a new exhibit at the Weisman. The talk was “Who Owns the Past? Competing Claims for Antiquities from the Holy Land” by Morag Kersel.

It was an interesting lecture and posed some good and equally hard questions that are being asked when dealing with antiquities.  Kersel’s talked focused on Israel where its legal to buy and sell artifacts from legitimate dealers if the artifact was found before 1978. She discussed the 90 interviews she had done with people for her PhD: the archaeologist, government employees, dealers, collectors, tourists, museum professionals, architects, conservators, engineers and buyers (plus the odd looter here and there), as well as other things that came up during her research. Besides taking an archaeological and anthropological approach, she also used an ethnographic analysis and even a dash of criminal psychology (for the idea: if 3 people all give the same information it must be a fact).

Other things she talked about:

Why should we care about looting?
-lost knowledge, big business, link to people that also deal with people trafficking, drugs and weapons

Things smuggled out via diplomatic pouches (pouches these days are no longer expensive leather bags, but shipping containers), via UN Aid trucks and other Aid vehicles

Sold in legitimate and expensive art gallery’s, tourists shops, cabinet of curiosities shops, museum shops, and from dealers homes

Who is the real looter? The people that collect or the people that dig it up?

Why do people loot? Gainful employment – feed their families, leisure activities, traditional activity, and resistance (to get rid of a troubled past-such as Christian, Jewish or Muslim history) and as a was to rebel against the occupying government

I really liked how she discussed the ethical aspects and how she always mentioned when interviewing people that she told them she was a PhD candidate doing research. She was also mentioned how she was also following the ethical guidelines of the AIA and the AAA. She also mentioned knowing Nina Burleigh and her book “Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land.” This was a book I reviewed back in 2008 and really liked. Kersel mentioned how they had access to different people due to the ethical standards each one was following. Scientists and reporters tend to view things differently.