Repatriation and “Blackmail”

Imagine that thieves force their way into your house and steal all the paintings off of the walls.  You know who the thieves are, but they are rude and uncooperative and the police are ineffectual.  But get this, the thieves then ask to borrow some more of your things: a vase, perhaps a nice tapestry.  You refuse to make the loan unless the thief returns the paintings they stole.  The thieves yell “Blackmail!! I’m being blackmailed!”

This is roughly the narrative that Newsweek endorses in a piece on their ArtBeast blog about tough tactics Turkey has been using of late to guarantee the return of looted artifacts: Turkey’s Archaeology Blackmail – The Daily Beast.

There are things to be concerned about in Turkey’s approach.  For one thing, it seems at best unwise to punish archaeologists for a fight that is largely with art institutions.  Archaeologists as a community have generally been supportive of all claims to repatriation as part of the discipline’s intellectual commitment to context and political commitment to the communities in which they work.  Aside from being unfair, it is likely an ineffectual strategy since archaeologists have little sway over the policies of the art museums that are Turkey’s main targets.

But Turkey is absolutely right to promote its indigenous archaeological community over the interests of creaky  old foreign archaeological concessions that are more part of the 19th century than the 21st.  Substantive collaboration between foreign and local archaeologists, with locals leading the way, is how a truly cosmopolitan archaeology can and should be organized.

This approach makes demands on all parties.  Local archaeologists must be substantively engaged in all aspects of the project and cannot just be nannies to foreign teams.  Similarly, foreign archaeologists must be eager and ready to learn from local collaborators, giving them the power to shape the recovery and interpretation of what is their nation’s responsibility: the slice of human heritage now within the territorial borders of Turkey.

It is not nationalism to assume responsibility for the archaeological record.  Turkey has not demanded a specific interpretation of the archaeological past, merely that its exploration, maintenance, and preservation be taken over by local scholars.  This is an extremely positive development.  Over the last century and a half, European and American institutions have justified the appropriation of artifacts from countries throughout the Mediterranean and Near East on the grounds that they did not possess the talents and resources necessary to properly care for the remains of humanity’s past.  Now that they do have the talents and resources, their efforts are derided as nationalism.

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