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What’s it Worth Part 3: Cultural Value

March 23rd, 2015
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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).

 

References

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

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Question of Salvaged Artifacts

January 30th, 2013

Question of Salvaged Artifacts

Sara Kerfoot 

            The first mention of salvagers in a room full of conservators and archaeologists is sure to bring scowls due to their unethical methods of excavating archaeological sites. Salvagers destroy the context, integrity, and potential that an artifact has to offer to trained professionals; they are more persuaded by what an artifact’s monetary value is on the market than an artifact’s potential to tell about the past. The academic world shuns talk of salvagers in hopes of stamping out the potential allure to budding academics. This piece in no way condones what salvagers do. The reality of the situation is that they destroy numerous sites in search for a couple high profile artifacts; however, they are still part of a site’s history.

            On occasion, salvagers donate a collection to a museum. Some museums reject the offer, while others take the items and put them in museum storage facilities to collect dust. Charlotte Andrews is a museum curator in Bermuda and advocates for collaboration between archaeologists and salvage divers (Andrews 2007). Salvagers in Bermuda are attempting to get rich off Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Museum curators are trying to display a site’s story for the public. These two groups have opposite goals, though there is an opportunity for them to work together for the public and site’s interest. If salvagers choose to donate their collection to a museum, the museum should consider it an opportunity to educate the public (Andrews 2007). Salvagers should be prepared to tell curators and conservators everything they know about the collection donated and curators should do their best in compiling a display of the salvaged items to be viewed close to, but separate from the artifacts ethically recovered by archaeologists.             Salvagers have a chance to share part of a site’s history and the museum has an opportunity to make the salvaged items be viewed separately from the ethically recovered artifacts. In the salvage display, there is ample opportunity to explain how salvaged items are part of a site’s history but can never be as telling as artifacts found in context. The exhibit may go on to explain how information found from salvaged artifacts can only be speculative because a complete record was not obtained while it was first being excavated. Curators can go on to explain how in order to find “tantalizing” artifacts, salvagers destroy numerous sites in the process. This is the perfect way to explain that salvaging is destructive to impressionable children while still allowing all parts of a site’s history to be seen.

            Salvaging is an unfortunate part of many site’s history and while it is considered a “dirty” word by professional archaeologists, that does not mean it should be ignored. Museums come in contact with salvaged collections; since public outreach is goal of museums, they should take salvaged collections as an opportunity to educate the public. Salvagers and archaeologists have occasionally excavated on the same sites. The site’s collections should be divided between ethically recovered and salvaged artifacts. If the public can understand why archaeologists and conservators view salvaging as taboo, maybe then salvagers will lose their public support.

 Reference

 Andrews, C., 2007. Tricky Listening: Museological Inclusion of Archaeologically Alternate Identities relating to Bermuda’s Underwater Cultural Heritage. In: Museological Review 12, pp.17-43.

 

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