In Amelia, a small, hilltop town that overlooks the dark hills of Umbria, Italy, experts convened from around the world for the fourth annual ARCA (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art) conference from June 22nd to the 24th. “The interdisciplinary event brings together those who have an interest in the responsible stewardship of our collective cultural heritage,” conference organizer Derek Fincham wrote. Interdisciplinary it was, with those attending coming from a wide-range of fields including law, criminology, journalism, art history, museology, archaeology, and historic preservation to discuss the preservation and protection of our global cultural heritage.
How do we best preserve the world’s cultural heritage, whether master painting, shipwrecked treasure, or archaeological site? Throughout the various case studies, history, and data presented, one word in particular drew SPI’s (unsurprised) attention: local. Local communities, local partnerships, and local economy.
Italian journalist Fabio Isman started the conference off on Saturday morning lamenting the plunder of Italian antiquities during the 1960s and 1970s. As he listed treasure after treasure that had been looted from Italian soil—from the Dionysian Kylix to the Morgantina acroliths (looted fromMorgantina,Sicily)—almost all by local looters, the emphasis on local communities stormed to the forefront of the discussion. Why are they looting their own cultural heritage sites? Without another economic alternative, many communities—not just the impoverished ones SPI works with—resort to looting. His parting words, “Italyis still too quiet about it [past looting],” only emphasized the fact that prevention of cultural heritage destruction needs to start at the local level.
Dr. Laurie Rush continued the local thread, discussing her work with the military and preventing wartime looting. What allows for successful preservation, she stressed, “is finding the shared interests of the parties involved.” “There must be a shared incentive for the local community,” Rush said, pointing to international examples of local partnerships as models. One example she gave was at the archaeological site of Uruk, the ancient city ofSumer, located in present-dayIraq. “In Uruk, they’re paying local families to protect sites and it’s keeping criminals out,” she reported.
The importance of the local was also present in a discussion of the archaeological site of Morgantina, Sicily, which yielded the famous “Morgantina Venus” that was the subject of Chasing Aphrodite, a book co-authored by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, that details the perilous journey of this statue from the black market in Sicily to its purchase by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA. Malcolm Bell III, Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Virginia, who led excavations at the site since 1979, noted over email correspondence that “up to the 1980s the site was the scene of looting by some local people.” Such an event emphasizes how important it is for the local community to view its cultural heritage site as a long-term economic asset. If they do not see it as a source of sustainable income, the risk of looting or alternative destructive use (grazing cattle, planting crops on the site) grows. In the case of Morgantina, the story appears to have a positive ending: “In the past twenty-five years the situation at the site has greatly improved. Specifically, looting is much diminished, security is much better, and the local population now defends the site,”Bell remarked. Here at SPI, we want to provide local communities with the entrepreneurial opportunities to create sustainable income from their cultural heritage; income that is dependent on the preservation of the site.
SPI left Amelia with the conviction that focus on the local is imperative to success, and that, now more than ever, the development of local economies is instrumental in saving the world’s cultural heritage for future generations to study and enjoy.
A big thank you to ARCA (specifically Lynda Albertson and Derek and Joni Fincham) for organizing the event.