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January 26, 2011

Profile: ARCA Lecturer Valerie Higgins to Teach "Archaeology and Antiquities" in Amelia This Summer

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Valerie Higgins of the American University of Rome will teach “Archaeology and Antiquities” this summer as part of ARCA’s Postgraduate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies in Amelia this summer.

Ms. Higgins is Associate Professor and Chair of Archaeology and Classics at The American University of Rome. She gained her Ph.D. in archaeology at the University of Sheffield, Great Britain. She currently researches the impact of war on heritage and communal memory and changing attitudes to the excavation of human remains in contemporary society.

At the International Art Crime Conference held last July, Ms. Higgins delivered a presentation: “Archaeology and War: the Importance of Protecting Identity.” She wrote in her abstract:
“Trafficking in art and cultural heritage can be seen primarily as an activity undertaken for profit and governed by short-term objectives. However, underpinning trafficking is the notion that these objects have an intrinsic value that can ultimately be realized in financial terms, and in this regard, the illegal trafficker is equally as concerned as the most fastidious museum curator in the authenticity of the object. Yet these objects can only have value if society decides that they do, if there is a widely held belief in the importance of preserving objects from the past. The last two decades have seen an exponential growth in heritage, in both practitioners and consumers - indeed heritage has become literally an “industry”. What is it about our contemporary society that makes heritage so important to a current sense of identity? This paper will explore this issue with particular reference to recent areas of conflict and the impact on the trafficking market.”
ARCA blog: Welcome to the program, Dr. Higgins. For those of our readers who didn’t attend the conference in July, how would you explain to them here what it is about our society that makes heritage so important to a current sense of identity?
Dr. Higgins: The last decade has seen an explosion of interest in the past from the general public. Archaeology and history used to be something largely confined to academics but now many different types of people engage in investigating the past and they often have different priorities from academics. Overall, the past has become incredibly important to many people’s sense of identity. Some social scientists have linked this to the way we live today. People move around a lot, they often don’t have much contact with their family and, unlike in previous eras, their environment is changing all the time. We are the first generation where the lifespan of the average person is longer than the lifespan of the average building. Locating yourself within a historical context can be a way of gaining a personal sense of identity. You only have to think of the massive number of people who research their own ancestors to realize how important this has become. This great expansion of interest in the past also impacts on the trafficking of antiquities because it changes the market for illegal antiquities. I am currently preparing an article on this for submission to the Journal of Art Crime, where I will go into this in more detail.
ARCA blog: What areas will you focus on in your course “Archaeology and Antiquities”?
Dr. Higgins: In my course I will look at the changing attitudes to antiquities. What we define now as trafficking was seen in previous eras as legitimate, even philanthropic. I will attempt to put our current attitudes in a historical context. That will be the easy bit! The more difficult part is to address the ethical issues of collections acquired in the past by means that today would be illegal. What do we do about those and what would be the consequences of dismantling those collections? We will hold some debates over particular case studies and hope that everyone will join in and make it a lively discussion!
ARCA blog: What do you mean in saying “the illegal trafficker is equally concerned as the most fastidious museum curator in the authenticity of the object”?
Dr. Higgins: ‘Authenticity’ is a major preoccupation of our society. We need to know we have the “real thing”, even if we wouldn’t personally be able to tell the difference between the genuine article and a good fake. Obviously a museum curator is bound by professional integrity to ensure the veracity of the museum collection. Illegal traffickers know that whilst a genuine 5th century BC Attic vase will be worth millions, a fake will be worth only a few dollars, so they are equally concerned with authenticity. Unless, of course, they are the ones making the fakes!
ARCA blog: How would you explain your current research of war, communal memory and excavation of human remains to someone who is unfamiliar with the field?
Dr. Higgins: The expansion of interest in the past from different sectors of the public has thrown up some very heated debates. My research looks at the impact of this both on how we interpret the past and how our perceptions of our own history affect our attitudes today. Rome, where I live and work, is an excellent place to study these trends. The centre of Rome looks like it has stayed the same since antiquity but, in fact, it has been changed a lot by different regimes to support their political programs. I recently gave a conference paper (available on ) on how Rome’s ancient past was drawn on by both Fascists and Rome’s Jewish population in very different ways. Wars highlight these disparities because, of course, the conflict will be seen differently depending on what side you were on. Another area of intense debate at the moment is how to deal with human remains. Many people find the way graves are dug up by archaeologists and the skeletons examined disrespectful. Archaeologists have had to fundamentally change their practice over the last decade to address public concerns.