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.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Unholy Business

Over the past two years, I have commented on a number of books about the looting of antiquities and the ethical and legal challenges and troubles in the marketplace for art, including Peter Watson, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York: Public Affairs, 2006); Lawrence Rothfield, ed., Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2008); Michael J. Bazyler and Roger P. Alford, eds., Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Cynthia Saltzman, Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures 1880-World War I (New York: Viking, 2008); James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); and Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (London: Verso, 2008). My hope in reading such studies is to, first, learn what role archives and records (and the professionals who manage them) play in such situations, and, second, what archivists can learn about the implications of these cases on their own collections and collecting. Generally, we don’t learn a lot about the roles of archives and archivists, but we certainly can gain an understanding about how and why archival documents are valued, traded, and acquired.

Nina Burleigh, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2008) is a lively account of the forged James Ossuary, purported to be the first direct physical evidence of Jesus Christ (James being the brother of Jesus). Burleigh, in analyzing this case, reveals the underbelly of the market in ancient relics, the role of religion and nationalism in this market, and, of course, provides another study in the age-old art of forgery and the reasons why forgery seems ever to be with us. She ends the book with this assessment of the nature of forgery: “The forger or forgers had more personal motives than national pride or blind faith. Greed was part of it, surely, but something else was at work too. Human life is finite, while history is, if not eternal, relatively so. To create bits of the ancient past is to become, perhaps, something more than mortal. For some of those who can, it might be impossible to resist the temptation to sneak a tiny yet indelible fingerprint onto the vast canvas of yesteryear, and forge a personal link with an ancient temple priest or pharaoh, before our short time on earth comes to an end” (p. 256). Other studies of forgery have come to similar conclusions about its motivations.

There isn’t much in the book about the role of archives or records, although occasionally we catch a glimpse of how such evidence is useful. A description of the role of an expert in ancient Semitic epigraphy reveals her reliance on her own diaries: “Ada is the sort of woman who keeps detailed records of her days in small annual diaries. At the end of each year, she tucks them – filled with her tiny Hebrew script, tied with a white ribbon – into a cardboard box, and these boxes are now the piled-up story of her years. Opening a box, she easily found the diaries she needed, because they bristled with yellow Post-it notes, marking the pages she had referred to during interviews with the police and then at the court. She proceeded to leaf through each page, reading from right to left, entries highlighted with pink highlighter” (p. 4). There are allusions to the gathering of other evidence, comparisons of ancient texts and the materials used in the creation of ancient sources, and so forth. However, it is in such references to the Semitic expert’s diaries that we see the manner in which records are created and used even by those who are both fabricating antiquities and assessing their veracity.

While Burleigh examines in detail one case about how the market for antiquities creates the opportunities for forgers to operate, Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle Over Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (New York: Times Books, 2008) provides a sweeping view of the race to acquire objects extracted illegally from archaeological sites and stolen from museums and private collections. Waxman asserts right from the start that this illicit trade is the result of a complex set of issues regarding national identities. While in the past European colonizers carried off artworks and archaeological artifacts to demonstrate their power or to develop theories of cultural domination, today “once-colonized nations seek to stand on their own, the countries once denuded of their past seek to assert their independent identities through the objects that tie them to it. The demand for restitution is a way to reclaim history, to assert a moral imperative over those who were once overlords. Those countries still in the shadow of more powerful empires seek to claim the symbols of antiquity and colonialism to burnish their own national mythmaking” (p. 4).

Waxman’s book is a complete dialogue about the variety of perspectives about the role of museums, the restitution of art and archaeological materials, the laws and nature of the marketplace influencing what happens with these ancient treasures, and the sometimes bizarre stories and personalities that emerge in these debates. She ranges over cases in Egypt, France, Greece, Turkey, Italy, England, and the United States, and, along the way, Waxman has some critical things to say about the role of museums and their curators and benefactors in creating an environment where the international looting is encouraged. Some of the evidence about the difficulties in the antiquities trade concerns the reluctance of both cultural institutions and governments to open their records that ought to document the provenance of the acquisition of the artifacts. Waxman states, “There is no simple way to track the source of these acquisitions or tally their provenances, no database for the public to consult. In the age of computers, this seems a strange lapse of information and one that denies the public the benefit of transparency” (p. 220).

Contemporary archivists who have become well versed in the role of power in the creation of records and the establishment and maintenance of archives will find it interesting to read about the role of power in the museum world in Waxman’s book. “So while humanism may indeed have motivated the founding notion of the museum,” Waxman reflects, “there were other forces at play in the eighteenth century, namely a notion of culture that was not so much universalist as imperialist. In this view, the creation of Western museums like the British Museum – whatever the official philosophy – was actually informed by power, by empires that felt entitled to occupy distant lands and claim their cultural patrimony along with their natural resources, to take the symbols of ancient civilizations from elsewhere and fill their own museums with trophies that confirmed their power in the world” (p. 268). The point she makes is that in the present debates about the ownership, display, and research of the remains of the ancient world, it is difficult to separate the contemporary roles of the museums from their origins. Waxman urges the museums to be up front about their past activities: “The history of plunder and appropriation must be acknowledged and aired for the public to understand the true origins of these great works of antiquity. No museum can legitimately claim to be a custodian of history if it ignores the history of its own objects for reasons of personal convenience” (p. 373). Such sentiments apply equally to archives today as museums.