The Whole Cultural Record
By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting
In the latest issue of Archaeology magazine (Nov-Dec 2010) AIA President Brian Rose proposes an intriguing professional goal, saying — “We must preserve the whole cultural record.” By “We”, I presume that he means archaeologists, since nobody else on the planet would dare to dream so big. We need not guess about what he means by the “whole” record. Dr. Rose decries a series of events from the Damnatio Memoriae of Nero to the anti-Saddam activities of president day Iraqis and views a panoply of destructive events in history as examples of “Iconoclasm”. He makes the interesting statement that “For me, as an archaeologist, there is no excuse for the destruction of cultural property…” he goes on to say “We may never be able to temper the passion for destruction, but we can at least situate those passions in historical perspective and ensure that today’s historical evidence will still be here tomorrow.”
The logic itself escapes me because the “iconoclastic” events mentioned were in themselves cultural acts and just as historical and important as the events they reacted to. Deplorable and despicable as their destruction may have been, are the empty niches of the Bamiyan Buddhas any less a cultural record than the statues that once stood there? His statement is all the more remarkable since some archaeologists have openly advocated destroying cultural property recovered from their excavations, rather than allowing it to fall into private collector hands—and who in fact followed through with the deed.
How, I have to wonder, could everything listed in the UNESCO resolution as “cultural property” be stewarded by archaeologists ad aeternum? Here is the laundry list of items so defined in that resolution—I’ve posted it before, but it’s worth another look:
(a) Rare collections and specimens of fauna, flora, minerals and anatomy, and objects of palaeontological interest;
(b) property relating to history, including the history of science and technology and military and social history, to the life of national leaders, thinkers, scientists and artist and to events of national importance;
(c) products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine)
or of archaeological discoveries ;
(d) elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered;
(e) antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals;
(f) objects of ethnological interest;
(g) property of artistic interest, such as:
(i) pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material (excluding industrial designs and manu-factured articles decorated by hand);
(ii) original works of statuary art and sculpture in any material;
(iii) original engravings, prints and lithographs ;
(iv) original artistic assemblages and montages in any material;
(h) rare manuscripts and incunabula, old books, documents and publications of special interest (historical, artistic, scientific, literary, etc.) singly or in collections ;
(i) postage, revenue and similar stamps, singly or in collections;
(j) archives, including sound, photographic and cinematographic archives;
(k) articles of furniture more than one hundred years old and old musical instruments.
It’s a sobering thought. If none of the items listed above are ever destroyed, nor preserved in private hands, and each year the 100 year rolling window adds another layer of qualifying objects, then global warming will quickly become a very small issue in comparison to the space problem at institutional repositories. Of course, the notion of saving “everything” is so preposterous that we automatically assume that Dr. Rose does not really mean what he said. What then does he mean? One is tempted to conclude that he means any object within this vast group can at will be considered cultural property and therefore be placed under state controls. That quickly leads to the obvious follow-on: Who shall decide what is significant and “on the list” at any point in time? We all know the answer to that question — it shall be vested within the authority and power of the state. And who shall exercise that authority and power? The ever-benevolent and omniscient bureaucracy.
This scenario seems vaguely reminiscent of governmental models that permeated the mid 20th century and whose benevolence and wisdom wreaked havoc upon the world at large. They were called “Nationalists” and the common thread among them was total state dominance over people and property. I really doubt that this is what Dr. Rose advocates, and he probably meant to imply something other than what leaps boldly from the page. Still, we have little choice but to take the words of an esteemed academic at face value. It would be infinitely better for society if the past were preserved as a cooperative venture of private and public entities. In my view, acknowledging private collectors as legitimate stewards of the past makes considerably more sense than trying to build enough institutional warehouses to store every cultural object found around the world—or in the alternative destroying them.
Perhaps Dr. Rose will weigh in on this and enlighten the discussion.