August 3, 2011

Larry Rothfield on What Museums and Archaeological Sites can to do protect themselves during times of upheaval and lessons learned from Cairo

by Jessica Graham Nielsen, ARCA Intern

Larry Rothfield, a writer-in-residence during the ARCA postgraduate program in Art and Crime Studies this year, presented his thoughts on the recent looting during the revolution in Cairo at ARCA’s International Conference in the Study of Art Crime, in Amelia, Italy, on July 10.

"The recent revolution in Egypt provided a natural experiment or stress test of the security system that normally protects antiquities, whether in museums, or on sites or remote storerooms. What can we learn from the looting of the Cairo Museum (and from storerooms and archaeological sites around the country) about how other heritage professionals could and should be planning ahead to cope with similar situations of political instability that might strike their country?"

Rothfield described the failings of security during the recent revolution in Cairo that “allow us to see important things about the structure of heritage protection.” The lack of foresight to establish a contingency plan in the wake of the Tunisian revolution essentially left the Cairo museum unguarded and allowed a mob of one thousand people to break in to the gift shop of the museum, a very few of whom were able to then penetrate the galleries and steal a small number of artifacts. Some of these looters were apprehended by citizens who formed a human chain around the museum to protect it from further thefts.

Rothfield questioned why the “Pharoah of Antiquities,” Zahi Hawass, was not better prepared for the eventuality of the looting, the timeline involving his resignation and subsequent re-instatement after Mubarak’s toppling, the inaccurate reporting on the series of events surrounding the looting, and due to some strange coincidences, whether the thefts could have possibly been an inside job. He went on to list six lessons learned:
1. Contingency plans are needed to assure the safety of museums and cultural heritage sites during times of normal security breakdown.
2. Antiquities ministries are interested in scholarship and excavations and aren’t particularly interested in site security.
3. Well-conserved sites that are not armed are not protected.
4. Sites and museums can be protected by a mobilized public and dedicated civil servants.
5. There is no substitution for police, or militarized police, in general lawlessness.
6. Tourism revenue alone will not provide locals with enough incentive to protect heritage if doing so become too dangerous.
In response to questions regarding the arming of guards he said that he did not believe in simply handing out guns and that a contingency plan, training and an “all hands on deck” approach would have prevented the little looting that did occur. He also stressed that the situation in Cairo was very different than the issues that Donny George at the Baghdad Museum faced during wartime. An article in the Guardian published during the conference discussed Mr. Rothfield’s views in more detail.

Larry Rothfield is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, where he co-founded and directed the Cultural Policy Center from 1999-2008. He has published on a wide array of subjects in cultural policy. His last book, The Rape of Mesopotamia (University of Chicago Press, 2009) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the causes for the failure of US forces to secure the Iraq National Museum and the country's archaeological sites from looters in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

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