Cultural policy Heritage Comment USA

America’s agreement with China creates opportunities as well as challenges

If the US leaves the bargaining table, it could lose leverage in the cultural policy arena

The article “US-China renew import deal” in The Art Newspaper’s March 2014 issue misleads in two important ways. First, this agreement with China goes far beyond import restrictions. It is one in a series of five-year long bilateral accords on cultural property, termed Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), that the US currently has with 15 nations. Its terms call for improvement in conservation and other museum programs in China, increased education in cultural resource management, longer-term loans of Chinese objects to American museums, and the fostering of student and institutional exchanges. Also included in this renewed MOU is China’s agreement to streamline the process for American archaeologists to obtain excavation permits. As part of the deal, the US agreed to restrict the import into this country of undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials whose pillage threatens the cultural patrimony of the requesting nation.

The second fallacy is that this aims “to curb smuggling”. No one expects any single agreement will completely “stop the looting of archaeological sites and illegal trafficking”. Studies have shown that the modern trade in stolen works of art involves a complex economic network.

As tools of cultural diplomacy, however, these MOUs have had a discernable impact, and not just in China. The MOU with Italy induced that country to quadruple the timeframe for museum loans to the US from one to four years. The MOUs with Central and South American nations—the oldest and most numerous of these agreements—boast an impressive track record of furthering collaboration among North American scholars, students, museums and educational institutions and their Latin American counterparts.

The first agreement with China was signed in 2009. In addition to the measurable effect it has had on curbing looting (cited in the article), it has also yielded unprecedented, bilateral educational opportunities for both countries. Dr. Anne Underhill of Yale, who has worked in China for over 20 years, detailed these in her letter, which is a matter of public record.

Of course, more work remains to be done: all of this takes time. But the public debate these agreements inspire every five years help art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and museum professionals among others, and their national organisations like the American Alliance of Museums, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, push successfully for better law enforcement, conservation efforts, and opportunities for the American public to learn about the heritage of these countries through loans and exchanges.

The readers of The Art Newspaper can access all the public comments for the China hearing via the portal, (the China docket is DOS-2013-0008). They can also access the terms of the renewed extension of MOU to see its emphasis on public awareness (points 1-2), protection and conservation (3-6), collaboration and exchange (7-8), law enforcement (9-12) and information sharing (13). This is posted along with the other bilateral agreements by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State.

In the last decade, the global political landscape has shifted. Restrictions on the trade in cultural artefacts are increasingly commonplace, as countries seek better control over their cultural heritage and the economic and educational benefits that preserving that heritage can bring. Bilateral agreements like the one forged with China in 2009 and renewed early this year present challenges but also great opportunities. To leave the bargaining table and abandon these agreements, as those who oppose them prefer, is to forfeit the leverage the US can have in this important arena.

Laetitia La Follette, the editor of Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property (2013), teaches Greek and Roman art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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6 Mar 14
21:0 CET


Peter Tompa, paid lobbyist for the trade in dugup antiquities suggests: "Laeticia LaFolette [...] has conceded that MOUs do not curb looting ", no that is not what she said. The point she made is that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property exists to define "the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property", the word looting does not appear in any of its 26 articles. It is individuals in the US who read that interpretation into a document which has a specific purpose (see the title) - one that it looks like dealers and collectors of dugup antiquities find difficult to accept.

6 Mar 14
19:48 CET


Laeticia LaFolette, the Archaeological Institute of America's point person on MOUs, has conceded that MOUs do not curb looting in an opinion piece published on line in the Art Newspaper. In particular, she states, "The second fallacy is that this aims “to curb smuggling”. No one expects any single agreement will completely “stop the looting of archaeological sites and illegal trafficking.'" If so, why then does the AIA support restrictions on the import of cultural goods that only harm the interests of American collectors, museums and the small businesses of the antiquities and numismatic trade? Why shouldn't MOUs instead be limited to encouraging cultural exchanges of the sort normally promoted by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs? Is it truly about cultural heritage preservation as the AIA and the State Department cultural bureaucracy maintain or is it really about control?

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