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Posts Tagged ‘public outreach’

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). http://www.sha.org/about/ethics.cfm

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

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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

old_shoeVase

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

Vase: https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/painters/keypieces/redfigure/niobid.htm

Shoe: http://www.armenianow.com/features/25224/world_s_oldest_leather_shoe

 

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. <http://www.sha.org/blog/index.php/2013/02/national-geographics-diggers-is-it-better/>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

 

Kloor, Keith 2012    Archaeologists Protest ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV. Science Insider, Washington, D.C. <http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/03/archaeologists-protest-glamorization-looting-tv>. Accessed 18 March 2014.

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What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

February 24th, 2014

What Can be Learned from the Swedish Heritage Conservation Model

 Allison Miller

            Kristin Huld Sigurdardottir’s article (2003) on the conservation-education challenges facing archaeologists and conservators today, led to an exploration of the laws governing archaeological finds and excavations in the Scandinavian countries. In her article, Sigurdardottir stated that the five Scandinavian countries all have well-developed laws governing archaeological heritage management with strong systems of enforcement in place. In a broader statement, she claimed that within these countries “all excavated objects are the property of the nation” (2003:221), which sounds like an ideal environment to deter treasure hunters and salvers, both on land and sea, especially with an effective penalization system in place. The investigation into these Scandinavian laws and what archaeologists and conservators might learn from them began with Sweden.

In Sweden, cultural environment and cultural heritage sites are overseen by the National Heritage Board, which in turn answers to the Ministry of Culture. The current legislation stems from the Heritage Conservation Act of 1988 (Europae Archaeologiae Consilium 2011:1). Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Act begins with, “The care and preservation of our cultural environment is a matter of national concern” (Swedish National Heritage Board [SNHB] 1988:1). This is a telling statement, which many countries, particularly America, could take a lesson from.

Recognizing the cultural heritage that belongs to people as individuals and as a nation should be at the forefront of the minds of archaeologists and conservators as they seek to protect the sites and artifacts that can be used to learn about the past. The support of the government and politicians is crucial in assisting with this effort. Without adequate laws and the enforcement of them to prevent the destruction and looting of archaeological sites, and to protect those sites and artifacts that have been properly excavated, archaeologists and conservators are fighting a losing battle. There will always be individuals who seek to gain from the selling of artifacts , but minimalizing their effects would provide a more solid foundation on which to develop our views of the past.

Sweden’s Heritage Conservation Act helps to prevent such looting and selling of artifacts by providing reimbursement to individuals who report their finds to the state (SNHB 1988). Though some information may be lost from the artifact not being found in context and with its provenience, it is not without value of its own. The practice of paying for such artifacts may encourage individuals to report their finds to the state, rather than selling them illicitly. The Act outlines measures against such illicit trade activities as well, detailing fines and punishment for various offenses, including the exportation of Swedish cultural goods from the country. Unfortunately, these laws do not protect against the trade of cultural goods from other nations, and such trade, particularly in Chinese artifacts, is quite rampant throughout the country (Lunden 2004).

In conclusion, though the Swedish heritage conservation model is not without its flaws, it has taken many progressive steps towards providing archaeologists and conservators with a well-structured legal guideline in which to work. The National Heritage Board details who is to care for archaeological sites and finds, and cooperates with several other state authorities to protect these sites.  These established avenues serve to protect the sites and finds, as well as the valuable work of archaeologists and conservators.

References

Europae Archaeologiae Consilium

2011    Archaeological heritage management in Sweden. Archaeological Heritage Management in Europe, Europae Archaeologiae Consilium <http://www.european-archaeological-council.org/files/archaeological_heritage_management_in_sweden.doc>. Accessed 10 February 2014.

 

Lunden, Staffan

2004    The Scholar and the Market. De nasjonale forskningsetiske komiteene <https://www.etikkom.no/Documents/PDF/stefanart.pdf>. Accessed 10 February 2014.

 

Sigurdardottir, Kristin Huld

2003    Challenges in Conserving Archaeological Collections. In Of the Past, For the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland, editors, pp.220-223. Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA.

 

Swedish National Heritage Board

1988    Heritage Conservation Act (1988:950). UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws  <http://www.unesco.org/culture/natlaws/media/pdf/sweden/se_ordincehertgeconservat 1998_engtno.pdf>. Accessed 10 February 2014.

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“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

January 28th, 2013

“Ethnographic Conservation?”: Public Participation in Conservation Decisions

Stephanie Croatt

            When considering working with ethnographic materials, one should consider, should conservators take non-technical expertise into consideration while preserving objects for a community or ethnic group? Some in the conservation field argue that “opening the door to non-professional participants may erode professional authority, and can lead to decisions that contradict conservation principles such as honoring artists’ intent and other versions of a settled ‘historic’ value” (Wharton 2008, 170). But successful attempts at gathering community input on communal objects have demonstrated that the practice is, in fact, a wonderfully effective tool at not only educating the public about conservation and its importance, but also facilitating the community’s investment in the continued maintenance of the objects, which would almost ensure the object’s stability and safety in the future.

One example of a successful “ethnographic conservation” project is Glen Wharton’s conservation of the Kamehameha I sculpture in North Kohala, Hawaii. During the course of this project, Wharton solicited public opinions about whether the brass sculpture should be gilded or painted. There was also community discussion about what colors to paint the statue’s clothing and skin. During the course of this project, Wharton effectively opened up community discourse that allowed the public to think about the conservation project and what impact their decisions might have on the outcome. Wharton was also able to share what steps he was taking to stabilize the statue and prepare it to be finished with gilding or paint (Wharton 2008).

Through the community’s involvement, Wharton was able to respect the significance the object held for the community. Furthermore, because Wharton did not hide the conservation process from the public, the community was able to see how important proper conservation was for the statue and the important symbolism it held.  This not only made conservation visible to the public, it also gave the community a sense of ownership of the process. This in turn would make the continued maintenance of the statue an important priority for the community.

From the success of Wharton’s project, it is clear that projects that take into consideration an object’s importance to the community from which it comes, and seeks to include the community in the decision making process (if at all possible) enriches the field of conservation. No doubt, adding this facet to conservation decision making raises concerns about who in heterogeneous communities should make the decisions presented to the conservator, and what should be done if the community does not want the object conserved or makes demands of the conservator that would run counter to the object’s benefit. These difficulties, however, should not be shied away from. Although this particular approach may be costly and require more time on the conservator’s part, it goes a long way to ensuring the continued stability of the objects for generations to come.

References

Wharton, G. 2008. Dynamics of Participatory Conservation: The Kamehameha I Sculpture Project. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 47(3): 159-173.

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