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July 14, 2012

ARCA’s Best Kept Secret: Views from the Early Career Panel

Meg Lambert in Amelia (Photo by Alesia Koush)
by Meg Lambert

A couple weeks ago I returned home from Amelia, Italy, where I presented in the early career panel at the fourth annual ARCA conference. All the typical things you might expect about attending a conference in late June in a beautiful Umbrian hillside town are true: the scenery was fantastic, the food was glorious, and the unparalleled espresso gave me heart palpitations. But in the weeks since I’ve come home, I have gained yet more appreciation for what I believe might be ARCA’s best kept (or least publicized) secret: ARCA has a particularly excited place in its heart for young students just finding their way into the field of art crime, and they support student work in a way few other organizations do. 

We already know that ARCA is making tremendous strides for education in art crime through the Postgraduate Certificate that is offered every year. However, it is in the small actions and words of ARCA directors and members that this support and excitement is most evident. I was lucky enough to experience this firsthand last weekend, when I traveled from Massachusetts to Italy (just for the weekend, never again) to give my first major presentation on my work to a room full of distinguished scholars and professionals in this field. One fourth of my way through the Friday night cocktails that kicked off the conference, I was fairly star struck from meeting so many influential and passionate people and having such earnest conversations with them. Never once did I feel like “just a student”. At any other conference, where academic hierarchy and competition determines your relationships with elder and younger colleagues alike, I might have had a much harder time finding my place as a newcomer. But at ARCA, there was only a great deal of excitement and anticipation for what my co-panelist, Aaron Haines, and I would bring to the bigger conversation of the conference as a whole. At every step of the way, we, and our significant number of under-30s peers, were treated as equals in the collective struggle to understand and address art crime.

This was true even during the many humbling times I realized just how new I still am in this field after three years of study. (Jason Felch, writer of Chasing Aphrodite, mentioned a few times how he considers himself a rookie after having been immersed in it for seven years.) For example, I shared the taxi from the train station to Amelia with George Abungu, a veritable giant in this field and this year’s recipient of the ARCA Lifetime Achievement Award. But since Dr. Abungu’s description of his work on our cab ride consisted solely of, “I’m an archaeologist, but these days I am doing mostly cultural heritage management”, I had no idea that he was so influential until his work was described during the awards. When I mentioned this to someone from ARCA, they responded in a kind of excited, “I know, right?!” demeanor. No unpleasant surprise or haughty sniffing that I didn’t already know Dr. Abungu’s work. Just a shared excitement that George could be with us in Amelia and speak so passionately and generously about his current work protecting Africa’s ancient rock art. (And boogie so hard at La Laconda to all the best of Italian techno-pop/Abba.)

I most warmly felt the support of ARCA as a whole during and after my presentation on Sunday morning. At any other conference, I might have been challenged or confronted on aspects of my research during the question and answer session. But at the ARCA conference, Aaron and I both had only the most benevolent support and a number of very friendly queries about our presentations. I had only one archaeologist challenge me on the difference between looting, commercial salvaging, and treasure hunting, and that was very productively resolved through good-natured explanation and discussion. Afterward, I was approached and congratulated by many of the most interesting, generous, and influential individuals in this field, all of whom were simply excited to see fresh faces studying these issues and to speak as equals about their own work. The whole experience was an exercise in keeping my cool as these people whose books I had read (or whom I had read about in books) congratulated me on my work and gave me their card to keep in touch. Or encouraged me to do my PhD in Australia. Or asked me to send along my thesis for a read. Heady stuff for the new kid.

After the conference had officially ended and a handful of us were enjoying drinks during the Italy vs. England game, it was somehow unanimously decided that just a weekend in Italy is not enough (it really isn’t) and that I should stay to audit the criminology session of the Postgraduate Certificate course, especially considering I will be pursuing a Master of Research in Criminology this fall. It had been only two days of sitting in the same sweaty room listening to the same amazing speakers, and already we had sized each other up as pretty cool and were ready to keep learning together. Although it ended up being too expensive to change plane tickets, it was astounding to have such an opportunity arise at the last minute and to have new friends eagerly inviting me to crash on the empty bed they had wherever they were living.

In the summer between my undergraduate graduation and the beginning of my graduate work, I could not have asked for a warmer, more exciting welcome into the academic community of art crime. Students, take note: ARCA is looking for your passion and excitement about these issues so they can help introduce you to all the right people to make your dream career a reality. You couldn’t ask for a greater group of people with whom to begin and sustain your lifelong work.

Meg Lambert writes about the illicit antiquities trade and other cultural heritage issues at and will be pursuing her MRes in Criminology at the University of Glasgow this fall.