“It belongs in a museum”… or does it?

Beit Junblatt damaged and looted during the Syrian war

Beit Junblatt damaged and looted during the Syrian war (C) Wissam Youssef, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Cecilia Palombo and Birte Kristiansen

Imagine you are a graduate student who just heard about some fascinating document kept in a private collection. Thanks to the right introduction, and after gently pulling some strings, you are welcome to study the document. Excitedly, you start inquiring a little bit about the object’s origins, for your own record. The story, however, turns out to be murkier than you had expected. The object’s provenance—where it comes from and how exactly it reached the cabinet where it now sits—is unclear. After some background research, you realize there are worrying signs that this artifact might have been trafficked out of its country of origin. On the other hand, the collector assures you that their end of the deal was entirely transparent. Something feels off, but you are unprepared to deal with questions of provenance. Even in the scenario that the object really was trafficked, you couldn’t tell where the responsibility lies at this point. Is it even your problem after all?

You can easily push aside your doubts about its acquisition. But apart from the moral issues involved, what makes things worse for you, an unprovenanced piece is a suspended piece; it has lost most of the historical information it could have given you if you had known the context in which it was found. And because you don’t know the context, you might even start doubting its authenticity. Could it be a fake? You reach out to colleagues who might know better. Disappointingly, the person you ask for an opinion refuses to help you: they cannot offer evaluations on unprovenanced artifacts. You are eager to get your bit of research going. Could a footnote just do the trick?

Provenance is at the heart of many of the problems our hypothetical student tried to skirt: accessibility, transparency, loss of historical information. But the student is not alone in being confused. Scholars at every level might at some point find themselves similarly perplexed. An unprovenanced artifact is an object that might have been removed illegally from its country of origin, including by looting or stealing. Even though at least since 1970 there is a shared international legal framework for protecting cultural property, the market for looted and forged artifacts is still thriving and, as researchers have shown, it flows decidedly towards the Global North. On its path, it enriches not only the collectors who invest in it, but also criminal organizations, war profiteers, armed militias, and some state sectors in various parts of the world. Auction houses and art dealers play a part in this, but occasionally libraries and museums are also willing to swim in muddy waters. Growing efforts at curbing the trade have not been enough to stop the plundering. On their part, scholars working with documents and artifacts disagree on whether they are responsible for the objects they study at all, or if they may transfer that responsibility conveniently onto collectors and governments. While there are national and international laws as well as regulations in place, ultimately how far we push them in our academic work boils down to moral principles, and in practice, individual scholars are often left to their own judgment. There is no univocal code of conduct.

As a team of researchers working full-time with documents and material culture, we have decided to broaden our scope and ask our colleagues for suggestions. At the roundtable “Working with Collections,” our guests told us about their own codes. We listened to many eye-opening presentations regarding the professional use of documents, each one stemming from the participants’ own experiences. For two days, we shared our individual attempts at raising the bar of professional standards in our fields. We discussed a variety of topics, but we often came back to the problem of provenance. As our fictional graduate student found out, the documents’ provenance directly affects how we access them, how much we can learn from them, how we should handle them, and what real consequences our work can have for other people. The question of provenance is not just a theoretical debate; without exaggerating, it puts lives in danger. As such, it should not only be a side-question about scholarship and legality; it is, rather, a central question of positionality in our fields.

All participants agreed that, indeed, we do need to share responsibility for the collections we use. How we go about it, however, covers a wider range of concerns and strategies. What follows is a collection of thoughts which were raised at the roundtable, but not one that is exhaustive of all the subjects presented. For the interested readers, various publications by the speakers are included as hyperlinks in this blog. We will continue writing on these topics and disseminating our guests’ research in the following months, as we continue also our own research on Islamicate documentary cultures.

Donna Yates and Luise Loges kick-started the roundtable highlighting one key contradiction: the trade in unprovenanced artifacts both determines cultural destruction and allows for the preservation of historical knowledge that, in some cases, would be otherwise lost. The illegal trade is linked to a whole cycle of exploitation, violence, and cultural loss. It does, however, also permit the circulation of historical materials in contexts in which there cannot be a legal market. The student in our example might be thinking that, even if there are doubts about the item’s provenance, it is nonetheless important to give a voice to the people and communities that created that artifact in the past. Yet again, academic interest in historical documents might incentivize the trade and thus promote further destruction. Scholars contribute to the trade directly, as collectors who might be willing to purchase unprovenanced documents, or by accepting to publish unprovenanced texts, but also indirectly, by creating interest in ancient artifacts. Ironically, the value we attach to the artifacts also raises their market price. Whether scholars are willing to publish unprovenanced items and decontextualized texts, thus, largely depends on how they for themselves resolve our student’s dilemma: no sources, no information.

We realized that we feel challenged in situations in which there is no unequivocal law violation or when a collection’s legal status has changed. For example, privately-held documents are not always either legal or unprovenanced. When looted objects are passed on in a family, the memory of violence might be washed away with the passing of time. On the other hand, a family’s identity might coalesce around historical documents, protecting them from looting, as we learned from Josef Ženka. It can be particularly difficult to decide how to handle responsibly objects that were acquired generations ago in entirely different political and legal contexts, or by considering the collections organically within the trajectory of our fields’ histories. We could not all agree on the extent to which, going back in time, specific collections are to be considered illicit outside the contemporary illegal trade. Several participants challenged us to think about contemporary and colonial looting as intertwined phenomena. Many of the regions most affected by the illegal trade today are the same regions that suffered the dispersion of their cultural property in the past. Is all colonial collecting looting, or is that too big a leap? Can we get away with acknowledging that our predecessors did wrong and still simply enjoy the collections they created?

Accessibility was among the concerns we discussed. Researchers are left frustrated before lack of funding, unequal access to resources, managerial fallacies, and even mere obstructionism. Could digitization offer a solution? The British Museum, where our guest Zsuzsanna Végh is project curator, has been one of the leading institutions in this respect. But, while democratizing access, digitization can also be a means to wish away uncomfortable questions, as scholars have warned us regarding private initiatives such as the Schøyen Collection’s and research projects such as the Yemeni manuscripts online. Recently, a great number of unprovenanced documents were moved from war-devastated Afghanistan to Israel’s National Library. As their availability in digitized format has opened up exciting opportunities for research, there has been almost no discussion in the scholarly community regarding the ethics of accessing and publishing those materials. Once the documents become available online, one might more easily forget about how they were acquired. Unprovenanced texts, like digital images, can more easily be abstracted from the context than the artifacts physically carrying them.

We know that the aesthetics of collection propagated through pop culture play a role in validating the market. A 95-year-old Australian collector was lovingly nicknamed Indiana Joan, softening her crimes from outright raiding to passionate collecting. Museums around the world try to attract new audiences using the Indiana Jones magic. Some collectors do not seem to realize that buying ‘beautiful old objects’ is not an innocent hobby. It keeps feeding into the myth that archeology is in essence treasure-hunting. For the human costs of the trafficking to take center stage, asking attention for the concrete damage caused to individuals, communities, and archeology itself is essential. At our meeting, Monica Hanna reminded us of the price in lives that the international antiquities market keeps demanding, calling for the repatriation of dispersed heritages as one way forward. Many of today’s looters are children, endangered by the trade, and often dependent on subsistence digging together with their communities. Children are endangered, archaeological sites are destroyed, communities get disrupted; that is the real picture of unauthorized digging.

So what can we concretely do? How can we seriously start engaging with the ethical impact of our work? Suggestions ranged from including detailed disclaimers in our publications to pressuring publishers for stricter policies. A common strategy, often adopted by academic journals, is to follow the UNESCO’s directives by refusing to publish undocumented items which were purchased after certain landmark dates in international legislation, such as 1970 or 1973. But insofar as such important directives have not been ratified everywhere and have not been evenly effective in protecting cultural property, the choice of adopting a year-limit still entails that scholars should willingly prioritize ethical concerns over the goal of broadcasting their research. Our fictional researcher might choose to follow such directives and limit the source material, or not to publish unprovenanced texts at all. Another option we have is that of incorporating into the writing also the violence caused by the documents’ acquisition in contexts of illegality, war, and exploitation, instead of passing it over in silence.

Given the trade’s intricate legal and financial aspects, the most basic and fundamental thing that scholars can do is to educate themselves and each other. The participants to our roundtable have all been dedicating time and energy to raising awareness among professionals and the wider public. They do so through academic articles, magazines, blogs, and online videos. We heard about the ambitious outreach projects of “Himaya,” involving libraries and institutions all over the MENA region. Many of our participants are invested in collaborative work and dialogue with government agencies. Taking a stance against the illegal trade and collaborating with the authorities is not just a rhetorical exercise. Becoming vulnerable to harassment, mobbing, and, in the worst cases, retaliation are among the consequences that our imaginary graduate student probably did not consider when first worrying about the document’s origins.

One ray of hope we agreed on is in the magic words “education” and “dialogue,” exactly the two focal points of our roundtable. We call on universities to invest much more in teaching and training about how to responsibly use historical documents. A student like the one we imagined might complete a whole program without ever once being confronted with the sources’ provenance. As if artifacts and texts were “simply there,” waiting for us to notice them. Paying attention to an object’s layered history, respecting all the subjectivities it represents, reimagining the past, reclaiming cultural property, and being ready to give up our own claims, are some of the strategies at our disposal. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the easiest road for our critical graduate student will not be one that condones the illegal trade in ancient artifacts. To positively subvert our academic practice with collections, we need different kinds of education and of knowledge production; we need to foster discussion, information, mutual respect, and active engagement.