Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

What’s it Worth Part 3: Cultural Value

March 23rd, 2015
Comments Off

What’s it Worth Part 3: Cultural Value

William Fleming

Last time, I discussed the monetary value of artifacts, and the various effects that particular number can have associated with it. While monetary value is typically the first (and often the only) concern when artifacts are considered for recovery or conservation, it is definitely not the only value that should be taken into account. Cultural value is another important aspect of an artifact’s worth, and one that can be quite complex.

The cultural value of an artifact is, as the name somewhat implies, the value placed on an artifact by a specific culture. Often times, this can be intertwined with the monetary value of the artifact, as artifacts bearing a greater significance to a society tend to be worth more money to that society or even others. Indeed, cultural value often mirrors the cyclical nature of monetary value, and is rather subjective. An excellent example of this can be seen in the tombs of Egypt. Built thousands of years ago during the reigns of the various pharaohs, the tombs contain artifacts of great significance. It was believed that the men and women buried within these tombs would require these items in the afterlife, and while some of the items may seem rather mundane (jars, plates, etc.) they would not have been chosen by the Egyptians if they were not culturally important. From that period, flash-forward to the nineteenth century and the birth of modern Egyptology, and the cultural value of these artifacts seems to have dwindled among the Egyptian people. However, their significance has greatly increased to foreign explorers, particularly the leading academics of British culture. During this time the artifacts, while displayed in the British Museum, were not only a symbol of ancient Egypt and the mystery it held to modern society, but they also served as a symbol of Britain’s heritage and colonial power (Tuan 1980). Now, if we jump forward again to the past few decades, we see a resurgence of the artifact’s importance to the Egyptian people. Egyptian leaders constantly call for artifacts to be returned to their country from the British Museum, such as the Rosetta Stone. This example holds true for many other countries, as well, not just Egypt; Greece, Nigeria, and China are among several other nations with claims to artifacts within the British Museum collection. It is clear, then, that cultural value can vary widely depending on the object and who claims its ownership, and that is why it often gets overlooked. It is much easier for a nation or society to place a price tag on an object, thereby creating an argument that they can afford to retain and conserve the artifact, while others cannot. Or, even worse, these countries can demand compensation or a fair value trade from other countries claiming ownership in order to hand it over (Henry 2013). Many of the claiming countries are under-developed or in dire economic straits and cannot “afford” the ransoms demanded (not to mention the ethical quagmire of overriding cultural value to make a profit).

Due to this generally capitalistic nature of society today, the notion of cultural value has essentially (and unfortunately) become impractical and outdated. It is important, however, that professional archaeologists and conservators continue to keep cultural value in mind when working with artifacts. Artifacts are the remaining vestiges of past civilizations and can tell us so much about the people and their values. When it comes down to preserving these artifacts, conservators must carefully decide which artifacts are worth their time and effort. Is a common household spoon, of which there are thousands of examples, worth conserving as opposed to a temple deity figurine, of which of a few are known? Both have cultural value, but to different degrees and regarding different information. In any event, conserving and studying an artifact is the best way to learn about a culture and share their values (Brumfiel 2003).



Brumfiel, E. M. 2003. “It’s A Material World: History, Artifacts, and Anthropology.” Annual review of Anthropology 32:205-223.

Henry, R., T. Otto, and M. Wood. 2013. “Ethnographic artifacts and value transformations.” Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(2):33-51.

Tuan, Y. 1980. “The Significance of the Artifact.” Geographical

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies , , , , , , , , ,

Missing Artwork

March 23rd, 2015
Comments Off

Missing Artwork

James Kinsella

During World War II (WWII) many cherished works of art were either lost or stolen. Several great pieces of art were deliberately destroyed during the war and there is also the high likelihood that a good portion was destroyed during acts of war or in battle. This blog is going to focus on the art that was stolen during this period of history.

The Nazi party rose to power in the early 1930’s under Adolf Hitler. During the Third Reich’s regime of power they confiscated twenty percent of all artwork in existence and plundered hundreds of thousands of pieces (History of Nazi Plunder 2013). By some accounts about, one-third of all art works in Europe were acquired by the Nazis (Marchesano 1999). This act coined the term Nazi plunder which refers to the art theft and organized looting of European countries during WWII by military units known as Kunstschutz (History of Nazi Plunder 2013).

This occurred because of Nazi ideologies and beliefs during this time, which were influenced by Hitler. In some cases the Nazi’s did this because they believed these to be cultural artifacts that had been stolen from them. The other reason for their looting and plundering behavior was because they felt certain types of art were offensive. They wanted to stop these pieces of art which they termed “degenerate” from entering the country (Grimes 2010).

The Nazi’s not only looted artwork, they also looted and plundered other items such as gold, silver, and ceramics. Many of these items that were stolen by the Nazi’s during the war were actually recovered by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA). They later became known as the Monuments Men. This group was comprised of volunteer agents who were tasked with locating these items. They consisted of museum employees, curators, art professors and architects whose goal it was to inspect, repair, and prevent looting from Allied troops (History of Nazi Plunder 2013). Even today, there is an ongoing effort to locate pieces of artwork that have not been accounted for. Many of these could very well be in private hands as thousands of looted objects were never properly returned to their lawful owners (Marchesano 1999). There is a high likelihood they are scattered all over the world.

Now that I have given somewhat of a synopsis on the issue of lost artwork I would like to address the danger this artwork is in. When I say danger, I am referring to the effects of time and deterioration. Several of the pieces of art are historic and date to hundreds of years old. I would assume that the individuals that have these pieces of art are not well versed in art or artifact conservation. This brings up other questions as well. How are they currently displayed? Are they in proper cases to protect them from the elements? Is a painting just carelessly hung on a wall? If these individuals are concerned about conservation do they have the money to afford it? If they can afford conservation, how can they do it and stay under the radar?

I wonder if any of these individuals would even come forward. If I was in that situation I would be worried of potential legal action being taken against me or my family. Another concern would be the family name being tarnished and losing credibility. Hopefully this lost artwork can be found and properly conserved. This would allow others to enjoy them.


“Nazi Plunder of Art During World War II: Resources.” History of Nazi Plunder. December 9, 2013. Accessed February 18, 2015.

Grimes, J. 2010. “Forgotten Prisoners of War: Returning Nazi-Looted Art By Relaxing the National Stolen Property Act.” Roger Williams University Law Review 15(2): 521-536. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic. Accessed February 18, 2015.

Marchesano, L. “An Art Historian’s Perspective.” National Archives and Records Administration. Revised June 24, 1999. Accessed February 18, 2015.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Warbirds, etc., Part II

February 26th, 2015
Comments Off

Warbirds, etc., Part II

James Pruitt

            Last blog, I examined the case of two PB2Y Coronado aircraft, and their very different methods of preservation. Both belonged to the US Navy, and the handling of both was legal as defined by the SMCA. Although the restored Coronado at the National Naval Aviation Museum brought up questions about whether it is “right” to erase years of history by restoring an object to like-new condition, the decision to restore it was carefully considered and the restoration expertly completed, and can thus be described as ethical. This post, I will examine the cases of two B-29 Superfortress bombers, and where they fall in the ethical spectrum.

First, however, it is worthwhile discussing restoration as it applies to aircraft. Much like automobiles, restoration of aircraft (especially to flyable condition) is generally undertaken by mechanics as opposed to conservators. A quick internet search for aircraft restoration returns dozens of companies specializing in aircraft repair, maintenance, and restoration. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website does not list any conservators with the specialty of “aircraft” (AIC 2015). This leaves the conservation and restoration of aircraft in a gray area—those people who work on aircraft do not seem to be registered with conservation-oriented professional societies (although likely registered with professional societies related to aircraft repair or engineering), and thus may not share the same ethical code we do. This situation is not universal; the United Kingdom-based Institute of Conservation (ICON) Conservation Register lists three companies In the UK that have “professionally qualified conservator-restorers” specializing in aircraft (ICON 2015).

Figure 1_FIFI

Figure 1. B-29 Superfortress FIFI.


            FIFI (Figure 1), the only flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress, is owned and operated by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF, formerly the Confederate Air Force) (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The US Air Force, and former Army Air Force, enforces the SMCA quite differently than the US Navy. The USAF declared, “aircraft that crashed before 19 November 1961, and that remain wholly or partially unrecovered, are considered formally abandoned. The AF neither maintains title to, nor has property interest in, these aircraft” (AFI 23-101 2013: 165). This means that groups like the CAF can legally recover or purchase former USAF aircraft. Is the restoration of them ethical, though? FIFI was recovered from the US Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, where it was being used as a missile target (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The restoration of this aircraft, and subsequent display through tours and flying shows, certainly brought greater exposure to this rare aircraft. Further, the airshows “allow you to honor the sacrifices of countless men and women who fought and died for our freedoms” (CAF Bombers 2014). This sounds like an honorable, and ethical, cause, and the CAF is chartered as a nonprofit organization (CAF Mission and History 2014). However, they also offer rides in their aircraft at airshows—for a price (ranging from $600 to $1600 for a ride in FIFI). This seems unethical. How can a NPO ethically charge that amount of money to experience something listed as an objective in their charter? Moreover, how is that ethically different than performing conservation work on the Mona Lisa (for which the Louvre Museum charges admission)?

Figure 2_KeeBirdBefore

Figure 2. Kee Bird before recovery efforts, in situ.


            While the case of “rescuing” and restoring FIFI raises ethical concerns about conserving objects that will be used later to raise money, the case of Kee Bird is very different. Kee Bird, another B-29 Superfortress, crash-landed on the Greenland icecap in 1947 after getting lost on a mission (Figure 2). Forgotten to time, a team of mechanics, test pilots, and adventurers set out in 1994 to repair the aircraft in situ to flying condition, fly it out, and later completely restore the plane for a client (PBS Nova 2015). They completely replaced the engines, propellers, and much of the electrical system, making the plane flyable. Then they crashed it (Figure 3). The efforts to recover and restore what would have been the second flyable B-29 in the world resulted in its complete destruction. Ethically, this was a disaster, made more poignant by the fact that it was made by adventurers and warbird hunters. Looking at it in perspective, though, brings up interesting questions. Artifacts are occasionally destroyed by accident on archaeological sites, and not through malice or malpractice by the archaeologists and conservators. Is this different, then? Can all artifacts be successfully recovered, 100% of the time? With great risk comes great reward, but when is the risk of recovering and restoring an artifact greater than the reward?

Ruins of Kee Bird

Figure 3. Kee Bird after recovery efforts.


            These two B-29s highlighted cases that were legal, yet unethical. As conservators, the use of restored items for profit, and the complete destruction of an object through recovery and restoration efforts, seem unacceptable. Are these cases different because those responsible for the restoration were not necessarily conservators but rather mechanics? Is it a difference in fields? Or are they obvious to us because the objects in question, aircraft, are normally outside of the purview of our work; perhaps using examples of artworks, or historical artifacts, would change our viewpoints?



American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

2015 AIC. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2014.


Commemorative Air Force

2014 CAF Bombers. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2014 CAF Mission and History. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2015 CAF Airpower History Tour.!history/c66t. Accessed 4 February 2015.


Institute of Conservation

2015 ICON Conservation Register. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2015.


PBS Nova

2015 B-29: Frozen in Time. Accessed 3 February 2015.


United States Air Force

2013 Air Force Instruction 23-101. Accessed 3 February 2014.


Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Research and Experiments , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Differences and similarities between the AIC’s Code of Ethics and the E.C.C.O. Professional Guidelines

February 26th, 2015
Comments Off

Differences and similarities between the AIC’s Code of Ethics and the E.C.C.O. Professional Guidelines

 Chelsea Head

            Conservators around the world have guidelines and codes of ethics to lead them in their professional lives. These documents hold the conservator to certain standards and promote the protection and preservation of historical objects and places. In The United States, the Code of Ethics that conservators follow is outlined by the professionals of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). In Europe, conservators follow guidelines set up for their profession by the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisations (ECCO). These organizations and other professionals in the field, hold conservators to these rules and guidelines. Conservators are mainly judged by their peers and their clients, and it is most beneficial for conservators to stick to the rules of conservation.

In the American Code of Ethics and European Professional Guidelines, there are similarities and differences to the rules that conservators must uphold in their professions. Susan I. Rotroff states in her article that, “No society is an island, however, and often the codes of one set of professionals have important implications for members of another. Such is the case with conservators and archaeologists. Conservators have their own ethical guidelines and standards of practice, but they work within a variety of frameworks, and the standards of those frameworks inevitably have an impact on how effectively conservators can practice their profession” (Rotroff 2001). Conservators hold themselves and others accountable for their professional lives by acting within the guidelines and codes.

One of the differences between the AIC’s Code of Ethics and the E.C.C.O. Professional Guidelines is that in the E.C.C.O. guidelines, they point out that in order “to maintain the standards of the profession, the Conservator-Restorer’s professional education and training shall be at the level of a university Master’s degree ( or recognised equivalent ) in conservation-restoration” (ECCO). The AIC never mentions that a conservator has to have professional education and training at a Master’s degree level. Many American conservation specialists are professionally educated, but there are still some conservators who have been self-taught or have apprenticed. Many conservators would not be included in the AIC if there was a rule that stated that conservators had to be formally educated with a Master’s degree.

It is also interesting to note the first rule or guideline listed for conservators for the AIC or E.C.C.O. In the AIC it is stated that, “The conservation professional shall strive to attain the highest possible standards in all aspects of conservation, including, but not limited to, preventive conservation, examination, documentation, treatment, research, and education” (AIC). The first guideline according to the E.C.C.O. is, “The Code of Ethics embodies the principles, obligations and behaviour which every Conservator-Restorer belonging to a member organisation of E.C.C.O. should strive for in the practice of the profession” (ECCO). Both principles enforce the idea that conservators maintain professionalism and that they strive to meet all the standards that are required of them.

Overall, both the AIC and the E.C.C.O. have similar guidelines and codes of ethics that conservators must follow in order to be considered a conservation specialist. The main point is that conservators in America and Europe have to maintain respect for themselves, others, and the objects that they are entrusted to preserve and restore. If conservators do not adhere to these codes of ethics, then they are doing a disservice to our history, our cultures, and historical artifacts that need to be preserved for future generations.




“Code of Ethics,” American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: 2014.         Accessed February 2, 2015.  documents/      code-of-ethics#.VNFcilfF9Fp

“E.C.C.O. PROFESSIONAL GUIDELINES,”European Confederation of Conservator-    Restorers’ Organisations: 2011. Accessed February 2, 2015. http://www.ecco- about-e.c.c.o./professional-guidelines.html

Rotroff, Susan I., “Archaeologists on Conservation: How Codes of Archaeological Ethics and       Professional Standards Treat Conservation,” Journal of the American Institute for        Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 137-146



Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies , , , ,

Public Conservation

February 26th, 2015
Comments Off

Public Conservation

Amy Dubis

Educating the public about archaeology and conservation has been gaining popularity the last few decades. In particular, public conservation has become a concern due to the lack of regulations about exactly who can conserve artifacts and how conservation is accomplished. Public conservation involves educating others on how to properly care for artifacts so that they are preserved for future generations, as well as how to display artifacts in order to convey their histories. Depending on what types of artifacts are being discussed, the conservation treatments can include ways to prevent decay through stabilization and other preventative measures, all of which ensure artifacts are preserved. Although there are a number of positive and negative aspects of public conservation, informing the public and others in similar fields about how to better protect artifacts has still been a main goal of conservators.

Advantages from teaching communities conservation techniques include creating comradery in the community, encouraging interdisciplinary studies, and helping create globally-accepted standards in the treatment of artifacts. When the public is educated on the conservation processes and treatment of artifacts, a sense of community can develop. This is because the public is sharing knowledge on how to care for artifacts that connect them to their communities. If conservators work together with the public to demonstrate why preserving artifacts is important, there is a higher chance of the public being responsible with the information. Public conservation also encourages interdisciplinary studies. For example, archaeologists who have background knowledge in conservation and history are more aware of the importance of artifact conservation. Sharing treatment methods might carry the risk of being mistreated by archaeologists, but if the information is shared in an academic atmosphere that risk is greatly diminished. As long as conservation methods are taught in a positive learning environment, the benefits of the information far exceed the harm caused by doing so. Sharing information with the public can also help develop artifact treatment standards worldwide. The most obvious example of this can be seen in Egypt, where Egyptians are now starting to conserve their artifacts after years of British archaeologists dominating the archaeology and museum scene (de Guichen 1999).

Including communities in projects where they can learn conservation methods and treatments could also result in a number of disadvantages. One of these disadvantages is that those outside the field of conservation could have difficulty ascertaining the authenticity of an artifact (Jones & Yarrow 2013). Conservators have the knowledge and training to determine if artifacts are authentic or not, while others might only have a portion of that training. This is especially true when non-conservators lack an interdisciplinary background. Even amongst themselves, conservators commonly disagree about the authenticity of particular artifacts (Jones & Yarrow 2013). Another disadvantage of public conservation is deciding which history to tell about an artifact when displaying it to the public (Barker 2010). Until recently, only the more positive histories of artifacts were on display in museums. Artifacts whose histories heavily featured minority groups and women were left in storage or downplayed to a smaller role (Barker 2010). Also, those outside the field of conservation might only want to tell a particular history about an artifact in order to turn public opinion in their favor. Although, using only a portion of information about a subject so that a particular point of view is more dominant is not restricted to conservation.

The decision of whether or not to educate those outside the conservation field will likely never be agreed upon, but there is at least a consensus about the need to conserve artifacts. New conservation treatments continue to be created, as do the interdisciplinary skills of archaeologists and conservators. This interdisciplinary aspect might help lead to an amiable solution about how and how much to educate the public regarding the conservation of artifacts.


Works Cited

Barker, Alex W. 2010. Exhibiting Archaeology: Archaeology and Museums. Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 293-308.

de Guichen, Gaël. 1999. Preventive conservation: a mere fad or far-reaching change? Museum International 51.1: 4-6.

Jones, Siân and Thomas Yarrow. 2013. Crafting authenticity: An ethnography of conservation practice. Journal of Material Culture 18.1: 3-26.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation , , ,

“What is eating the Titanic?”

February 11th, 2015
Comments Off

“What is eating the Titanic?”

James Kinsella

The story of the RMS Titanic is one of the most fascinating yet tragic events of the 20th century.  The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sunk off the coast of Newfoundland after she struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912 during her maiden voyage.  She remained lost for the next seventy-four years until she was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard.  This was touted as one of the greatest maritime discoveries of all time.  The discovery of the Titanic also brought about quite a bit of controversy.  The controversy ranged from who owned the wreck, jurisdiction of different nations, and whether or not any part of the wreck should be salvaged.

After the discovery, Dr. Ballard and crew spent time meticulously documenting and recording the wreck.  Once they left they had agreed that this should be a protected site and that no artifact recovery should take place.  In the years following this would become a topic of great debate.  There are many like Dr. Ballard that agree this should be a protected site and that it should remain undisturbed.  They feel that it is a tomb of all that were lost.  Then there are several who feel that there should be a recovery effort on Titanic and the artifacts.  The reason behind this thought is that the ship is deteriorating at an alarming rate and the feel that undertaking a recovery effort will preserve this part of history.

As the development of iron and steam maritime archaeology have emerged so has new areas of research, particularly the development of corrosion science and the understanding of the disintegration process of iron shipwrecks (Green 2004).  With new research, the individuals who want to recover part of the wreck feel that time is running out.  This is due to the fact that the deterioration of Titanic is actually a destructive bacteria that is eating away at it.  There are some that speculate a rust stain is all that will remain of the Titanic in 15 to 20 years, according to new research into the submerged ocean liner wreck (News Discovery 2013).  According to this source the science behind the deterioration is the bacteria which was isolated from rust samples appears to be accelerating the Titanic’s deterioration.  The bacteria are eating the wreck’s metal and leaving behind “rusticles.” The rusticles look like icicles; however are just deposits of rust.  Sooner or later these rusticles will dissolve into a powdery substance leaving behind just a stain of rust.  This was bacteria was analyzed by samples taken from a 1991 expedition to the wreck.  The researchers proposed a name for the bacteria; Halomonas titanicae (Ventosa 1991).

One of the biggest parts of the debate on whether or not to recover parts of Titanic is that in addition to those that feel it is disturbing a gravesite, there are others that feel that people looking to recover wreckage are just looking into it for financial gain.  There has been considerable debate within the maritime archaeological circles over codes of ethics (Green 2004).  The debate centers on whether or not it is appropriate to excavate a site and then sell the collection.

I can respect that there are those who wish Titanic remain as an undisturbed grave site.  I agree with their motives and feel that the site should be left alone.  I do not think that any personal artifacts should be brought up.  This is a grave site and there could be human remains left down there.  On the flip side however, I feel that an effort should be made to recover portions of the ship itself.  I understand that this would be huge undertaking and possibly cost prohibitive but the fact is that in 25 years the wreck will be gone.  All that will be left is rust stain on the ocean floor.  I firmly believe that there is enough science and technology to successfully recover a portion of the wreck and properly conserve it for future generations to enjoy in a museum setting.



“Titanic Being Eaten by Destructive Bacteria: DNews.” DNews. February 11, 2013. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Sanchez-Porro, C., Kaur, B., Mann, H., and Ventosa, A. “Halomonas Titanicae Sp. Nov., a Halophilic Bacterium Isolated from the RMS Titanic.” IJSEM. January 8, 2010. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Green, J.  2004.  Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook. 2nd ed.


General Conservation, Research and Experiments, Science , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature

February 11th, 2015
Comments Off

Archaeology and Conservation, An Uphill Battle Against Human Nature

Will Creech

Anthropologists often face a grave threat to their research and even to their profession at large, from renegade amateurs, history enthusiasts, and rampant treasure hunters.  Treasure hunting in particular has become a problem in the United States where cemeteries and ruins are at the mercy of locals, especially because many of these sites are not properly recognized and protected by state and federal law.  Often, anthropologists and others seeking to protect sites have to rely more on the contents of a site rather than obtaining recognition for the site as a whole.   At the same time, anthropologists are required to back track the claims of some of these amateurs and re-evaluate sites that were partially destroyed and misrepresented or misunderstood.  These two problems are by no means a recent problem only, even during the last hundred years, where supposedly modern scientific methods and responsible science was being done; there have been cases of gross neglect.



(Hanson/Fort Craig): Torn cup left by looter in exposed grave at Fort Craig. Sourced from works cited below.


Anthropologist Jeffery R. Hanson’s article in American Antiquity is centered on the cultural interest in treasure hunting and amateur archeology, both of which he claims is causing significant damage to historical sites both discovered and undiscovered.  In the article, Hanson discusses the story of a man nick-named Gravedigger, who was an amateur archeologist and treasure hunter with many ties to the archeological community in the American South West.  From these ties, he acquired tactics, skills, and general information that aided his efforts in pillaging a civil war fort, Fort Craig, its neighboring cemetery, and possibly other sites in the area.

According to Hanson, archeologists at the site discovered enormous amounts of damage and evidence that the site had been pilfered many times over the last five decades.  Archaeologists had to spend a great deal of time and effort, not to restore the site, which was destroyed not just by local treasure hunters in addition to Gravedigger, but to reclaim the remains of soldiers and other artifacts.  There is a National law that Hanson refers to which gives the government authority to relocate the remains of military personnel to national cemeteries regardless of where they are buried.  A number of legal matters still had to be dealt with despite the fact that the government technically owned the land on which the fort and cemetery stood.  Archaeologists excavating the site were able to recover the remains of many soldiers, however the site had been looted of most artifacts, and it was discovered that many graves had been disturbed and their entire contents removed.

Hanson believes this a typical example of how a historical site can be ruined and history lost because of untrained hands in the field that may just be looking for souvenirs.  He argues, quite effectively, for a greater amount of wariness in the archeological community and more stringent laws for the destruction of historical sites.


    (James/DuraEuropos): Overhead of Tunnel under Tower 19 showing features at Dura-­Europos. Sourced from works cited below.


A separate article written by Simon James on the pitfalls of early archeology and the excavation of sites led to wrong conclusions and even potential damage to historical sites.  The example used for both of these subjects is a Graeco-Roman fort on the Syrian Euphrates River that was under attack sometime in the year 256 C.E. from the Partho-Sasanian (Persian) Empire.  Around what is known as Tower 19, an excavation began in the late 1920’s by amateur archeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson.  The Persians attempted to bring down the tower from underground and open a hole in the wall to bypass the Roman defenses.  When excavated, du Buisson discovered 21 bodies in a preserved state within a tunnel that had been dug underneath the tower from outside and inside the fort.  Twenty of the bodies were found to be Roman soldiers and servants wearing traditional armor, weapons, and many even had coins in their purses, while the remaining corpse apparently belonged to a single Persian soldier. Du Buisson correctly made the assumption that the Persians had attempted to tunnel under the tower from a nearby temple and that the Romans had discovered their efforts and carved a second tunnel from their side of the tower in order to meet the Persians head on and stop them.

Du Buisson believed that the Roman soldiers were trapped in a cave-in during the battle, but James re-interprets the site based on a re-examination of the tower, the tunnel, and the remains.  Unfortunately, much of the data was lost over the years or not recorded, and some of the site was destroyed by du Buisson’s team.  However, the re-examination found traces of the chemicals bitumen, or pitch, and sulphur in the tunnel around the bodies and noted the odd positions of the corpses.  It seemed from the evidence that the Roman soldiers had fallen on top of each other in a weird pattern that could not be explained by simply concluding that a cave-in was the cause of death.  Instead it became apparent that the corpses had been stacked into a crude wall around the Roman side of the tunnel.  James believes the evidence indicates there was conflict when the Romans met the Persians.  Du Buisson, decided the Romans likely retreated and attempted to collapse the tunnel in response to the Persians, sealing off the tunnel with a wall of Roman bodies.  The absence of Persian bodies suggests they were removed from the tunnel and the Persians attempted to create an explosion that would bring down Tower 19.  James’ believes the single Persian corpse was a soldier who either started the blast or failed to retreat in time before the explosion.

James uses this modern re-examination of evidence from the original evidence collected in 1920 as an example of the potential pitfalls facing early archaeologists, many of whom were untrained and ill-prepared for the complexities of a site like Tower 19.  In the article, James goes further by pointing out where the original team went wrong, not just in their understanding of what happened, but in how they handled the evidence, much of which was destroyed in the haphazard excavation of the fort.  Granted that much of the fort had been destroyed by numerous attacks both by man and by nature, but the treatment of the site and its artifacts was ill-managed to the point of nearly ruining it for other anthropologists who might come later to verify the findings.



 (Karmon/Rome):  Ruins in central Rome, old sketch. Sourced from works cited below.


While the problems anthropologists face with preserving sites and artifacts of importance in this modern age are significant, they pale in comparison to the problems of Renaissance Rome.   Since Christianity came to Rome the Emperors, Popes, nobles, and even the common man have been blamed for the systematic destruction of artifacts, buildings, and significant locations.  In his recently published article, anthropologist and historian David Karmon is attempting to combat the arguments and complaints of historians and other important persons decrying the destruction of Rome at the hands of its leaders and citizens for the last thousand years.  In his arguments he draws comparisons between the historical protests and writings of past important figures with documentation supporting his claims that the leaders of Rome took many actions in an effort to preserve the ancient glory of the city.

Karmon draws attention to the practices from the early reign of the popes in Italy where it is known that countless temples, palaces, and monuments were scavenged for their marble and stone in order to build palaces and churches for the Catholic Church and Roman nobles.  In some cases, so called pagan temples were destroyed outright in order to crush resistance against the Church, though some of these were rebuilt and converted into churches.  However, the most egregious crime was the construction of the Vatican and St. Paul’s Basilica almost entirely from marble and stone taken from the Roman Coliseum and the Forum.  Karmon does not deny these horrendous acts, but argues that very early on the citizens of Rome made known their disgruntled feelings over the ravaging of old Roman glory to the Popes and nobles.  He points to documentation found among surviving documents that suggest the leaders of Rome were well aware of these complaints and took action to preserve as much of the ancient city as possible.

Archaeologists continue fighting the growing demands of human civilization and a lack of interest in preserving historical sites.  More extensive laws might curb the tide of destruction, but at some point laws aimed at conservation can be detrimental to excavations with no certainty of preventing all crimes. It has become a struggle to balance the interests of conservation against human interests, though as Karmon demonstrates, there have long been parties interested in preserving history.  In conclusion, hopefully, despite criminal behavior and human error always being present, society will strive to preserve as much of its history as possible.








Works Cited


2011       “LOOTING OF THE FORT CRAIG CEMETERY: DAMAGE DONE AND LESSONS LEARNED.” American Antiquity 76.3 (2011): 429-445. PRINT.



2011       “STRATAGEMS, COMBAT, AND ‘CHEMICAL WARFARE’ IN THE SIEGE MINES OF DURA-EUROPOS.” American Journal of Archaeology 115.1 (2011): 69-101. PRINT.



115. 2 (April 2011): 159-174. PRINT.



Archaeological Conservation , , ,

Ethics in Conservation and Archaeology

February 4th, 2015

Ethics in Conservation and Archaeology

Kathryn Parker

 Ethics, a concept of recommending right and wrong, is essential to all fields of study. In the United States, a standardized set of ethics has been published for both conservators and archaeologists by their respective professional bodies (American Institute of Conservation and Society for American Archaeology). While Conservation in the United States began with an archaeologist, few American archaeologists have worked frequently with conservators. As a student of both fields, it is important to understand where the two codes are similar and different.

From the start, there is a difference in the length of both: the Principles of Archaeological Ethics adopted in 1996 by the SAA Executive Board has eight Principals, while the Code of Ethics published by AIC in May 1994, has thirteen codes. However, do these ethics significantly diverge?

In short, the answer is no. The SAA’s first principal, Stewardship, underlies multiple of the AIC’s codes, and the SAA’s Stewardship principle even calls for “long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record” (Society for American Archaeology 1996). This principle of Stewardship can be seen in II, III, and IV. Code II calls for an “an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it,” code III calls for conservators to recognize society’s right to the use of the cultural heritage, but for conservators to also advocate for the preservation of cultural property, and code four calls for practice within “personal competence and education” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). The Principle of Stewardship also calls for archaeologists to advocate for the archaeological record, the use of specialized knowledge, and long term preservation.

Principal No. 4 of the SAA Principles of Ethics, and Code IX of AIC’s Code of Ethics. This places an emphasis on educating the public about modern methods of archaeology and conservation, but also staying in contact with the “owners” of the cultural property or heritage, whether that be the general public, the owner a of specific artifact, the owner of a farm which contains an important site, the Native American tribe that can be traced back to the archaeological site, or any other entity. Activities can also extend to “promoting awareness” (American Institute for Conservation 1994).This could be as simple as an educational talk open to the public, to a blog post about conserving a Civil War-era rifle.

The SAA’s Principle No. 6 overlaps with AIC’s Code VII, as both call for documentation of the process undertaken by the professional. However, while the SAA Principles explicitly call for publication of these records in “an accessible form,” the AIC Code does not go this far. AIC’s Code X could be interpreted to also overlap her, as it calls for contribution “to the evolution and growth of the profession…adding to the profession’s written body of knowledge…” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Additionally, the SAA calls for the publication to be available to “as wide a range of interested publics as possible” (Society for American Archaeology 1996), though how this is to be done and how often it is fully followed through on continues to be hotly debated. The SAA’s Principal No. 7 also overlaps here, as it calls for the recording of the archaeological record, and for other students and professionals of the field to make use of it. This also allows future archaeologists to know what has already occurred at a site, just as documentation of the process undertaken by the conservator is preserved for a future conservator, should the need arise for more preservation of the object.

Both professional organizations also call for education and training of their members, Principle No. 8 and Codes I, IV, X, XI. This calls for the members to assure not only that they have proper, up-to-date education on methods, techniques, and the science of the field. The SAA also explicitly calls for “other support necessary to conduct any program of research,” often interpreted as calling for archaeologists to hire the correct professional for the job (such as a zooarcaheologist, bioarchaeologists, or conservator). While the AIC implies this with multiple statements telling their members to practice within “professional competence,” it does not say to hire someone else.

There are additional Codes put forth by AIC not found in the SAA’s Principles. This is due to the nature of the professions. Conservators must work with many different groups of people in multiple facets, as well as with other conservators. Additionally, conservators do work with dangerous chemicals, and Code XII calls for a minimization of “personal risks and hazards to co-workers, the public, and the environment” (American Institute for Conservation 1994). Code IX also states in very clear language how to conduct professional relationships, something not found in the SAA’s Principles. Code V from the AIC also deals with the realities of conservators being hired by anyone, be they a woman trying to preserve her grandmothers wedding dress to a museum in charge of the preservation of a thousand piece shoe collection. As such, Code V calls for the quality of a conservators work to not change with the amount of resources provided by those who hired the professional.

These published ethics guide both professions today. While extremely similar documents, they both have some ethics that are particular to their profession, especially conservation. Of all the declared codes and principles, it is helpfully to remember that the concept of stewardship can be seen to underlie the majority, if not all, of the ethics. As professionals who work in close contact with cultural heritage it is important to remember this, and to always take this into account when beginning a new research program or conservation process. As Hamilakis (2009) notes, all archaeologists must critical of their own cultures history and how they define “archaeological material” past.




American Institute for Conservation

1992 Code of Ethics. Electronic Document,, accessed January 20, 2015.


Hamilakis, Yannis

2009 The “War on Terror” and the Military-Arcaheology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonism. Arcaehologies 5:1):36-65


Society for American Archaeology

1996 Principles of Archaeological Ethics. Electronic Document,, accessed January 20, 2015.


Ethics and Theory, General Conservation , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What’s it Worth?

February 4th, 2015

What’s it Worth?

William Fleming

Every object has some sort of value to someone, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. In general,
the value of an object is the highest right after it is produced, though some objects (such as
family heirlooms) can increase in value over time, especially if they stay in excellent condition
through the generations. However, while the value of the object can increase or decrease, it can
also change from one form to another. There are three principle forms of value an object can
hold: monetary, cultural, and personal. This post will provide a general overview of these values,
but each type will be examined in more detail in the coming weeks.

Monetary Value
Monetary value is usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks “What is
this item worth?” In fact, archaeologists are often presented artifacts by the general public and
asked to appraise them. However, monetary value should be the least important form of value
placed on an object, and true archaeologists should know that to place such a value on any item
is considered unethical within the field. That being said, monetary value does end up playing a
significant role in the history of an artifact. monetary value generally depreciates over time, but
certain factors can make this value increase. Historic artifacts in excellent condition, such as
family heirlooms handled appropriately through the generations, or well-preserved
archaeological discoveries, can be worth thousands of dollars to collectors, despite their initial
cost after production (Read 2009:280). Also, as other examples of the same artifact disappear,
increasing the rarity of the artifact, the monetary values increase as well. Finally, as an artifact
continues to change hands, the monetary value increases as each successive collector must sell
the artifact at a higher price in order to make a profit.Regardless of how this value increases, it
becomes harder for archaeologists and conservators to acquire artifacts, as the lack of funding
(and the greed of humanity) keeps artifacts out of reach.

Cultural Value
Another type of value applied to artifacts is cultural value. Cultural value is the value
placed on an object by a society. This society can be the one that created the artifact, or an
entirely separate one that finds the artifact. An excellent example of cultural value are the tombs
of Egypt; the ancient Egyptians held these people and artifacts in high regard at the time they
were buried, and when they were later exhumed by British archaeologists, they became
significantly important to the British people. The problem here is that conflicts can (and very
often do) arise as to who such artifacts belong, and who has the right to display or conserve them
(Henry et. al. 2013:43-45).

Personal Value
The final type of value applied to artifacts is personal value. Personal value, obviously,
varies between individuals, and is purely subjective. The same object can mean everything to one
person, and absolutely nothing to a different person. The most interesting aspect of personal
value is that it can easily influence the design and use of the artifact, which later affects the other
types of values (Fleming 1997:64). This can have varying effects on the preservation of artifacts,
as some people want their treasures preserved professionally and will willingly donate them to
museums, while others can be cautious or over-protective and unwilling to let the artifacts go.

Three forms of value can be placed on any object. These values are monetary, cultural,
and personal, and the three are inter-related. This is especially true when it comes to preserving
and displaying artifacts; the three values discussed all affect the ease with which artifacts can be
acquired by professionals, as well as who those professionals are and the importance with which
the artifacts must be treated when put on display. Unfortunately, the monetary value of an
artifact is typically the defining factor in the display of an artifact. More valuable artifacts must
be placed in more secure displays, separated and protected from the public.

Fleming, D. (1997). Learning to link artifact and value: The arguments of student designers.
Language and learning across the disciplines, 2(1), 58-84.

Henry, R., T. Otto., and M. Wood. (2013). Ethnographic artifacts and value transformations.
HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3(2), 33-51.

Read, D.W. (2009). Artifact Classification: A conceptual and methodological approach. Walnut
Creek, CA. Left Coast Press.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation , , , , ,

Placing a Value on the Past

April 6th, 2014

Placing a Value on the Past

Alex Garcia-Putnam 

As archaeologists we place certain values on the objects we work with; these values often differ with those placed on artifacts by the public.  Archaeologists and conservators do not place monetary value on artifacts and objects, instead, we value objects from the past based on the information we can gain from them about the people who used them.  The public often values objects from the past based on their monetary value. Examples of this can be seen on popular television programs across numerous networks.  Many of these programs ‘dig’ for artifacts and give dollar amounts to the objects they remove, with little to no regard for the valuable data that can be gained by the less glamorous analysis involved in the archaeological and conservation process.

As previously discussed in my blog “Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology”, the Society for Historical Archaeology sets out a number of ethical principles to guide its members.  One of the critical components of this document is Principle Six, which states that archaeologists must not profit monetarily from the sale or trade of artifacts, and should discourage the placing of financial values on archaeological specimens (Ethics Statement, SHA 2007).  We have a duty to protect the past, and placing financial values on artifacts could easily contribute to the illicit antiquities trade. Archaeologists and conservators desire to learn about past cultures through an analysis of the material remains they left behind.  We value artifacts not for their rarity or beauty, but for their ability to better inform our interpretations of the past.

Contrary to reality, television shows and films portray archaeology as a financially driven hunt for artifacts, skewing the public’s perspective of what professionals do. This extends back to the founding of archaeology in popular culture: Indian Jones, where he is shown as essentially a glorified looter, plundering ancient sites for treasure to put in a museum (Hall 2004).  This trend is upsetting, and made tougher to stomach by current programs that follow television personalities with metal detectors that hunt for artifacts.  Inserting a measure of true archaeology into these programs, although not as glamorous, could really help alter the public’s evaluation of archaeological sites and specimens.

All that being said, these programs do provide a crucial service to archaeology: public awareness.  That value cannot be overlooked.  The public is at least being made aware of archaeology, even if it is a skewed version.  Archaeologists and conservators should strive to work with these programs to insert as much actual archaeology into them as possible, while maintaining viewership and interest.  In this way we can attempt to alter the public’s interpretation of archaeology, and potentially get our values all in line: to help understand and preserve the past.

Work Cited

“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007).

Hall, M.A., 2004. “Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema” in European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 7(2): 159–176.

Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price


Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits




References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , ,

Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

April 3rd, 2014

Ethics of Artifact Hunting Reality TV Shows

 Allison Miller

With the rise of popular reality TV programs showcasing artifact hunting, such as Spike TV’s American Diggers, The Travel Channel’s Dig Wars, and National Geographic’s Diggers, a new venue for ethical concerns from the archaeological community has been created. Questions arise not only about the artifact damage the individuals on these shows are directly causing, but also about the damage these shows could be creating by failing to inform the public of proper excavation processes and the legalities surrounding such searches (Kloor 2012; Ewen et al. 2013). These shows, particularly American Diggers, highlight the monetary value of such “found” artifacts, as well. It would seem that this placement of a dollar value on artifacts could only further encourage amateur enthusiasts to begin their own searches for artifacts. “Diggers” searching only for items of value will discard items, such as nails, that could lead to larger finds for archaeologists. How much of our cultural heritage is being lost because of these shows and the individuals they are encouraging, inadvertently or not, to search for artifacts of their own?

Once these valued items have been unearthed, it also raises questions for conservators. Whether or not these artifacts have been obtained illegally, or at least unethically, the conservator must then make the choice on whether or not to conserve such an item. An artifact that has been illegally retrieved can create legal questions for the conservator. If he/she chooses to conserve an object that has been illegally obtained, the conservator can be considered an accessory to the crime. The conservator also has an ethical responsibility of reporting any artifacts they know to have been illegally excavated. Many of artifact hunters may know that their artifact has been unearthed illegally, and therefore do not take it to a conservator. Instead, they will attempt their own conservation methods, which may ultimately create more damage to the item.

Artifacts that have been unearthed within the terms of the law but not with best archaeological practice also create ethical questions for the conservator. It can cause conflicting interests between the desire to conserve the artifact for its own sake and not conserving the artifact in order to not be affiliated with questionable archaeological practices. Ethical codes and guidelines provided for conservators by organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation leave such ethical decisions to the determination of the individual conservator.

Works Cited

Ewen, Charlie, Dan Sivilich, and Paul Mullins 2013    National Geographic’s Diggers: Is It Better? Society for Historical Archaeology Blog, 1 February 2013. <>. Accessed 18 March 2014.


Kloor, Keith 2012    Archaeologists Protest ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV. Science Insider, Washington, D.C. <>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

Ethics and Theory, Public Outreach , , , , , ,

Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

February 19th, 2014

Ethical Principles in Conservation and Archaeology

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

            Every professional society or organization has its own statement of ethics or list of guidelines for its members; archaeology and conservation are no different.  Should conservation, working alongside archaeology, be subject to both archaeological and conservation ethics, and vise versa?  Every archaeological society has its own ethics statement, so for the purposes of this entry, as it is most likely to affect conservation, I will focus on the Society of Historical Archaeology, and their code of ethics.  This particular code is relatively standard amongst the archaeological societies.

The SHA ethics statement calls for its members to follow seven principles of professionalism, detailed here.  Members must behave and work in a professional manner. They have a duty to preserve and protect archaeological sites and collections. They should make their knowledge public through peer-reviewed publications. They have the duty to collect accurate information and data and make it available to future researchers. They must respect the “dignity and human rights of others”.  They cannot profit from the sale of artifacts, nor should they place a monetary value on archaeological specimens. And finally they have a duty for public outreach. (Ethics Statement, Society of Historical Archaeology, 2007).

The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a similar set of ethical statements, compiled on their website.  They too call for professional behavior and work.  They also have a duty to respect and care for archaeological and artistic specimens.  They have a duty to do the best work possible preserving a particular artifact or work of art.  They also have a duty to know the limits of their expertise, in order to best serve the conservation of an object. They have a responsibility to use practices that will not negatively affect the objects they work with, as well as a policy of reversibility and limited alteration in their treatments.  They have a duty to promote the profession, and enforce and promote these ethics.  (Code of Ethics, American Institute for the Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works, 2013).

In general these codes are similar enough that following them both would not be a challenge and would probably be positive for both archaeologists and conservators.  They both stress professionalism, public outreach, and responsibility to the protection and preservation of the past.  Really, both of these codes are standard, and could probably be tweaked for any profession.  But there are particular elements that are crucial to each society and should be strictly adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.  I think public outreach is critical for both groups, for the simple and pragmatic reason of funding.  The more we get the public involved, the more interest we can develop, and hopefully that leads to a more concerned public.  This concern can help in the preservation of sites and artifacts, as well as aid our funding woes.   Also critical for both groups, but not mentioned specifically by the AIC, is the honest and timely publication of results.  It is critically important to produce peer-reviewed works, both for current and future researchers, but also for the public.  It surely seems obvious to those in both fields that a respect for the past and the object we work with is paramount; our ultimate responsibility lies with that, and both codes of ethics make that clear.  In sum, the codes seem to work well with each other and should be, and can easily be, adhered to by both archaeologists and conservators.

Works Cited

“Code of Ethics”, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013).

“Ethics Statement”, Society of Historical Archaeology (2007).


Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory , , , , ,

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

January 30th, 2013

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

Chelsea Freeland

             Christopher Caple briefly discusses the inclusion of Nazi war memorabilia in his book, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making.  He uses the notion as an example of the dangers of using the past as propaganda, asking if the artifacts “celebrate their views or remind of the dangers of a totalitarian regime” (20). 

             When I visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, I was struck by the images of Nazi propaganda throughout the World War II hall: not because I felt they didn’t belong there, but because I had never seen anything like them before.  As a war museum, rather than a history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches has less of responsibility to the overall history of Austria and Vienna, instead focusing on the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars.  In this context, Nazi propaganda greatly explains how and why Austria came under German rule early in the conflict, making it an integral part of Austrian war history.

             What about other places in Europe, or even across the world?  Is it important to include Nazi propaganda in a museum of a country that did not experience the Holocaust, or does it detract valuable time and energy away from a more tragic chapter in world history?  Caple asks two questions in his book:

  1. Should they [Nazi artifacts] be collected and preserved as a record of the period and what happened at that time?
  2. Should they be displayed and brought to the attention of people? (2003: 20)

These are difficult questions, particularly for museums in Europe.  Coming from a background in history, I would argue that collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, regardless of their sensitive nature, is an important job of museums in general.  Whether or not they place those artifacts on display, is another question entirely.

            For countries in Europe, particularly those directly affected by Nazi occupation, these artifacts are a part of their country’s heritage.  They form an integral part of the story of World War II that many people forget, or choose to ignore, giving precedence instead to the tragedy of the Holocaust.  An interesting point to make is that Nazi artifacts and memorabilia are part of the story of the Holocaust as well. 

            For me, the jury is still out on what priority these artifacts should have in a museum.  Should museums withhold limited resources from these types of sensitive artifacts, simply because of their nature?  How do curators decide what percentage of their museum to use for these artifacts?   Are they less important to display because they represent a chapter in history the world would like to forget?  Genocide memorials and exhibits across the world speak to this last question.

            As a world traveler, I remember being shocked that the first, and last, place I saw that much Nazi memorabilia was in Austria.  There were posters, plaques, journals, clothing, and pamphlets: all painstakingly preserved to show part of the story.  I will tell you that they made a huge impact on how I viewed the German conquest of Austria and the subsequent events of World War II.  I believe that is the goal of the museum: to expose the public to things they have never seen or thought about before, and in doing so, give them a broader historical experience.


Caple, C, 2003, Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.


Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,