Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Stealing Stuff

I remain convinced that issues of accountability and ethics will engage archivists to an increasing extent in the next decade and beyond. Lawrence Rothfield, ed., Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2008) provides additional testimony to this trend. Right at the beginning, editor Rothfield sounds the alarm: “Illegal digging on a massive scale continues to this day, virtually unchecked, with Iraq’s ten thousand officially recognized sites being destroyed at a rate of roughly 10 percent per year” (p. xv). This sounds remarkably like the warnings sounded a generation ago about the growth of electronic recordkeeping and our ability to manage the portion possessing archival value.

Some might wonder why archivists should be concerned about such cultural heritage issues. Some of this heritage comes in the form of archival documentation. However, the reasons why archivists should be aware of this realm is that looting, black market networks, and the sometimes-complicit support by repositories such as archives and museums are all elements affecting the archival mission and activity. Antiquities Under Siege focuses on law, public policy, and government response to such issues, and the volume provides useful guidance for archivists to consider. We learn that the United States lacks a cultural policy, that it has not signed onto some important international agreements (such as the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict), and sends the message to the world, in the words of Matthew Bogdanos, that “this failure to protect a rich heritage going back to the dawn of civilization has convinced many in Iraq and the Middle East that we do not care for any culture other than our own” (p. 154). All of these matters endanger archives, some of the most ancient in the world, as well as other aspects of what constitutes the cultural heritage.

This volume provides some of the most detailed and balanced description of the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 and its aftermath. What the contributors do best here is to provide a human portrait of the events surrounding the museum and the extensive archaeological sites. Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly, for example, tries to describe who these looters are and what they represent: “The looters know, as they are told by the traders, that if an object is worth anything at all, it must have an inscription on it. A cylinder seal, a sculpture, or a cuneiform tablet can bring in hard cash. For this, they work all day, hoping to find an artifact that they can sell to the dealer for a mere few dollars. We consider looting dangerous work that is poorly paid. They consider their looting to be part of a normal working day” (p. 50). In this commentary we see a wonderful, and disturbing, contrast between the value of archival materials and the mundane way they can be viewed by those trying to eke out an existence.