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Economic pressures, both internal and external, greatly affect the way in which antiquities are preserved and managed in societies undergoing significant social change. Speakers addressing issues pertaining to three very different societies-Russia, China and Iraq-reiterated this point in their presentations at the symposium, "Art Treasures and Social Transitions: Cultural Preservation and Economic Imperatives."
Russian museum specialist Mikhail Rodionov described the long and significant presence of the Peter the Great Museum and the St. Petersburg Theatrical Library in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, these institutions have experienced a significant decline in support from the federal level of government.
Under the Soviets, the Peter the Great Museum became a section of the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Ethnography with its headquarters in Moscow. The Institute of Ethnography was, in turn, part of the USSR Academy of Science, which supported it. However, since 1991 the Museum has been independent of the Institute, and although it was officially proclaimed an institution of national importance, it has received only meager financial support from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Currently, a staff of 200, earning an average monthly salary of $40, works to maintain the Museum and its collections, conduct research, restore works of art and publish materials. Although it charges an admission fee, the Museum is a non-profi, scientific research institute and is not licensed for commercial activities.
According to Dr. Rodionov, the only hope for more funding to support the Museum is through international contacts, foreign and Russian federal grant foundations, and to a lesser extent, the city government. The Museum has two main priorities under the current system of support: repairing the building, which has not been renovated since the 18th century, and modernizing and equipping the restoration workshop. The first step towards the latter goal has been completed recently with the help of the Smithsonian Institution and its Fund for Arts and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.
The St. Petersburg Theatrical Library faces similar financial problems. The Library is supported by the city and the primary concern of the Library's administration nowadays is the repair and maintenance of the building. Recent grants from outside sources have allowed for the implementation of important projects. A grant from the Soros Open Society Foundation has provided funding to create an on-line catalog and produce electronic copies of pictorial data, and a grant from the Russian Federation for the Development of Culture has supported restoration of damaged materials. However, the situation remains critical. Both the Peter the Great Museum and the St. Petersburg Theatrical Library continue to struggle to maintain their buildings and their collections with little government support, and efforts to recruit the help of private donors has so far failed to generate additional financial support for either institution.
The Chinese government's role in regulating the antiques market in China was the focus of Song Xiang-guang's paper. According to Professor Song, two factors have had a major influence on the antiques market in China: the social and economic situation and the national policy for antiques trade. The later factor, he argued, reflects both a concern for preserving works of art and for benefiting the antiques trade. Through this policy, China's central government defines the aim of the antiques business and sets the standards for who is qualified to conduct business, what kind of antiques can be traded and when or where trading activities can take place.
China began the process of transition to a market economy in the early '80s. Private trading businesses gradually developed alongside the already sanctioned government controlled antiques businesses. As a result, the current antiques market in China can now be divided into four types of enterprises: 1) government antiques stores and authorized non-governmental antiques stores, 2) auction houses licensed for trading antiques, 3) non-governmental antiques markets under government inspection and 4) the underground antiques trade.
Auction houses and private, government approved markets have become the main conduit for the development of private collections both inside and outside of China. A number of independent museums have also opened in China. However, Professor Song noted, the regulations and management procedures established during the planned economy (1950s-1980s) are ill adapted for the new economy in China. Along with the development of the legitimate antiques market has been the growth of illicit antiques trading and the fabrication of fake artifacts. Despite these problems, the Bureau of Cultural Relics has recently drafted a revised Cultural Relics Act and has built closer relationships with international organizations and foreign governments to promote the preservation and protection of their cultural heritage more effectively.
While Song's and Rodionov's presentations concentrated largely on the ways in which internal economic conditions affect the preservation and management of antiquities in their respective countries, Zainab Bahrani's presentation dealt primarily with economic factors external to Iraq. She also challenged the ideology behind Western museums' acquisitions of antiquities from the Middle East, and the "politics of the idea of a global cultural heritage." There is a commonly held belief that museums today are disinterested keepers of culture and history and that an autonomous and universal aesthetic governs the display of antiquities in museums. However, Bahrani argued, the autonomy of aesthetic experience is still in the service of the not-so-apolitical notion of global cultural heritage. Museums are the self-appointed guardians of global cultural heritage, while developing countries are portrayed as irresponsible or philistine in the management of their cultural heritage. To Bahrani, this situation is simply a continuation of a colonial relationship between "First and Third Worlds." It is essential, she feels, to articulate this exploitation and consumption of Other peoples' cultural heritage in political and economic terms.
As an example, she cited the vast increase in the appearance of Mesopotamian antiquities on the market as a direct result of the economic embargo of the UN Security Council. This plunder of ancient sites in the Middle East serves a primarily Western European and North American antiquities market, and the consumption end of the market-the collectors, dealers and museums here-must bear the greater part of the responsibility for the looting of ancient Middle Eastern sites. Therefore, reforms must start in the museums themselves.
Claire Lyons made several observations in her response and tied together some common threads of the papers presented. The act of preservation, she noted, is not a simple scientific intervention, but rather an interpretive act that takes place at the intersection of resources and priorities. Moreover, economics involves not just the laws of the market place; it is contingent on management of available funds, personnel, technology and legal mandates. When all of these factors balance, there exists a viable method for dealing with treasures in the midst of social transformation. In the case of Iraq, damage to the management infrastructure has resulted in a polarization of stakeholder interests. Policy makers foreground heritage as an instrument of nationalist rhetoric, citizens in need exploit the economic opportunities of theft and looting, and collectors are all too happy to "liberate" Iraq's heritage.
In Russia, economics have demanded painful choices, but economic solutions such as collaborative ventures must be sought as long as they are value-driven and the "price of the priceless" is measured in cultural and not solely in market terms. In China, the government has taken numerous positive steps to rationalize legislation, explore international exchanges and promote education about the value of preservation. However, illicit trade in antiquities continues and major dealers throughout the world have been caught with objects plundered from China. Moreover, the government's policy of sanctioning trade in minor or duplicate objects disperses items that could be of vital importance to interpreting the archaeological record, while at the same time inventing and cultivating a demand for them. What is clear, Dr. Lyons noted, is that the process of saving the treasures of our artistic and cultural heritage will play out very differently according to the values, interests and resources brought to bear on it. Engaging in a thoughtful dialogue about how best to integrate these factors is a necessary first step.
Roberta Nerison-Low is a program associate for CREES.