If you think museums are just homes for great art, think again. The art, academic and museum worlds have combined forces into activism against theft. They have to since the illegal sale of cultural heritages has become endemic. It is also immensely profitable.
At the seminar at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. were Acting Director of the Freer Gallery, Dr. Richard Kurin and Brigadier Gen. Fabrizio Parrulli of the Italian Carabinieri.
“Museums have become proactive,” Kurin said, “in conservation and cultural heritage.”
Much of the discussion concerned the recovery of stolen art, either after a natural disaster (think the Haitian earthquake) or war (think Iraq and Syria.) During and after the Iraq war, and in particular, with the advent of ISIS, which is adept at selling items stolen from the lands they held, antiquities have flowed into the market. New York’s Manhattan District Attorney‘s office has a new office devoted to it.
The international coalition seems mostly to be Western: US, France, UK, and more. Unesco has the “Blue Helmets for Culture” group. Parrulli mentioned that they spend time with some of the Special Forces groups going into war zones to make them aware of antiquities they might encounter. (Uh, good luck, antiquities.)
There is also now an Internet app, iTPC Carabinieri, if you run across something you think is suspicious on your summer holiday in Europe.
In international efforts, a 2016 conference in Abu Dhabi where there was an effort to create a $100 million fund for “protection of cultural heritage.” Also in 2016 President Obama signed legislation leading to the “Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee.” This committee lies in the purview of the Department of State along with the Cultural antiquities Task Force, the International Council of Museums’ “Red Lists of Cultural Objects at Risk.”
The Q&A included Deborah Lehr, founder of the Antiquities Coalition, a very accomplished woman. https://archaeology.columbian.gwu.edu/deborah-m-lehr
What I came away with is the belief that there’s a lot of action on the cultural heritage field nowadays, happening under the cover of disinterest.
There were two amusing bits. Kurin mentioned that actor Ben Stiller (star of the Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian) was now supporting conservation efforts.
The last question, a young man asked Parrulli about the men arrested for art trafficking photographs. What he was asking was the younger generation as prolific in theft as the photographed men, who he referred to as being “in their fifties and sixties, getting elderly…” His question was drowned in laughter.
The average age of the audience was over 50.