Post Office Workers Curb Illicit Smuggling of Peru’s National Cultural Heritage

This article was prominently featured in the The New York Times Americas section on June 14th.  Self-proclaimed “defenders” of their nation’s history, an art historian and an archaeologist have joined together to safeguard Peruvian cultural heritage from illicit smuggling.  Trafficking in cultural artifacts has long plagued Peru, beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Inca over five centuries ago, and continuing today through a vibrant global black market in stolen antiquities.  These illegal goods, bound for destinations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, are stolen property of the Peruvian government and its people, whether a pre-Hispanic textile or 18th-Century saber.  “No matter how small a piece is,” Gladiz Collatupa, the archaeologist, affirms, “they are part of our identity.”

Postal workers in Peru opening packages of suspected illegally smuggled cultural treasures

Postal workers in Peru opening packages of suspected illegally smuggled cultural treasures (Photo credit: Tomas Munita, The New York Times)

Particularly alarming is the fact that, according to the article, many of the items are mailed by tourists “unaware they are breaking the law.”  Cultural tourists may purchase what they know to be a traditional craft manufactured as a souvenir; in reality, the artisan may have altered the object with an authentic and illicit object.  Otherwise, they may be sending home coins to their children, or masks to the auction block.  The presumed innocence of the tourist remains, and it is unlikely anybody would face serious repercussions.  (“Since 2007, no one has been sent to prison for cultural trafficking in Peru.”)  Perhaps this is because the words of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 are not printed at the Lima post office.  But also, more likely, it is the relative disconnectedness or ignorance by the average cultural tourist of international regulations on cultural property.

Posted in archaeology, art trade, cultural conservation, cultural property, culture, endangered sites, heritage, identity, looting, Peru | Leave a comment

Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY

Yesterday I visited for the first time the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY.  Founded in 1897 but relocated from nearby South Hampton last year, the Parrish focuses on American art, with a particular emphasis on work from the artist colony on Long Island’s picturesque North and South Shores.  Like the area around it, the structure itself is absolutely stunning.  The museum was designed by Basel-based Pritzker Prize winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed or repurposed, among other  prominent cultural institutions, the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN) and Tate Modern (London).  As you can see, the 615-foot “barn” fits perfectly within it’s surroundings of tall grasses and wide vistas, the same environment which inspired the likes of William Merritt Chase, Fairfield Porter, and Childe Hassam.  (Indeed, it was Chase who, in the late-19th century, founded the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.  The school’s students, observing scenes of changing daylight over eastern Long Island waters, became pioneers of American Impressionism; their work can be found in the museum’s permanent collection.)
Visible through the museum building is the rural “countryside” of eastern Long Island

In contrast to the maze-like layouts of other museums–which, to me, feel confining and confusing, as I wander in and out of galleries with seemingly no exit (or natural light!)–I found the central corridor layout of the Parrish especially inviting.  No sense of “Did I already walk in there?” (or worse, “Did I not walk in there?”), and no chance of missing the exhibition you actually wanted to see.  All of the major display areas are clearly identified, as in the collection highlights hall found in the Harriet and Esteban Vicente Gallery, seen below.

Galleries radiate out from the central “spine” of the barn-like museum
John Chamberlain’s monumental “Tambourinefrappe” (2010)
dominates the Harriet and Esteban Vicente Gallery at the Parrish Art Museum

Here are the exhibitions currently open at the Museum, and here are the hours visitors are welcome.

(All photo credits belong to Nicholas Merkelson.)

Posted in American Impressionism, art, Herzog & de Mueron, John Chamberlain, Long Island, museums, Parrish Art Museum | Leave a comment

Harris Tweed is Back!…or Never Really Went Anywhere

Mills producing Harris Tweed dot the landscape at Ballalan, Outer Hebrides, date unknown
(photo credit: Harris Tweed Authority Archive)
Three years ago I wrote a piece about the apparent decline of the Harris Tweed weaving industry in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (see: “Nike Helps Revitalize Harris Tweed Industry”).  As the number of the islands’ weavers dropped from 2,000 to 200 over a forty year period, and production dwindled to an all time low, it seemed Harris Tweed was losing an important heritage battle.  I touched on a few critical issues such as the commercial commodification of a traditional art form, the preservation of authentic local knowledge in the islanders’ native weaving process, and cultural conservation and identity recognition.
With these issues still relevant, I am humbled to find news of a tweed revival, of sorts.  Donald Martin, Chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority, credits the resurgence of Harris Tweed to a rethinking of market values vis-a-vis heritage and authenticity.  “The main thing to do was to change the image,” he said.  “We started associating with good young Scottish designers.  We started sending out different messages about Harris Tweed, and to some extent we had the luck that it was in line with what the market was doing with an emphasis on heritage and quality.”  Whereas twenty years ago older weavers were walking away from their craft, today, a new generation is weaving just like their ancestors over a century earlier, encompassing the “virtuous circle” of native knowledge and tradition.  Blending versatility and creativity with both formal and informal training, these young, market-savvy weavers are responsible for thousands of new patterns already in wide use, from designs of global fashion giants to upholstered Land Rover interiors to iPad and Kindle covers.
Check out the very cool Harris Tweed Archive to see photographs of early tweed production, vintage advertising, historic labels, and early film.
Posted in authenticity, cultural conservation, culture, Harris Tweed, heritage, intangible cultural heritage, knowledge, preservation, Scotland, weaving | Leave a comment

Ideas Roadshow Interviews Classical Archaeologist

A reader recently pointed me towards “Herculaneum Uncovered,” an interview with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project.  The interview appears in the latest issue of Ideas Roadshow, a multimedia magazine dedicated to the in-depth and accessible exploration of topics ranging from autism and archaeology, to democracy and dark matter.  I watched the hour-long conversation in its entirety with great interest and, admittedly, heavy expectations.
Archaeologists excavate and conserve the ancient site of Herculaneum
(Photo credit: Herculaneum Conservation Project website)
The host, Howard Burton, plays the role of a generally ill-informed appreciator of history and archaeology.  From the outset, Burton offers up a series of misconceptions widely believed as accurate regarding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and the subsequent centuries-long study of the archaeological sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I found this to be a brilliant approach to gleaning an authoritative interpretation from his esteemed guest.  Burton, for example, wonders if Pompeii was a more sexually obscene ancient city than Herculaneum due to a prevalence of sexual imagery and brothels at the site.  An expert in classical archaeology, Wallace-Hadrill remarks coyly that they have not uncovered any evidence because it may have simply yet to be excavated.  “Never assume because it isn’t there that it wasn’t there,” he says.  In any Introduction to Archaeology course, you’ll learn this to be a typical example of absence of evidence versus evidence of absence.  Archaeologists can not readily explain that which they have not found; likewise, they can not find that which they don’t know exists.  The solution, therefore, is to keep digging, keep postulating, in hopes of one day finding all of the puzzle pieces to fit a complete picture.
The conversation turns to the issue of excavation vs. preservation.  To this, Wallace-Hadrill assumes the role of proud archaeologist and storyteller of an ancient historical drama.  While openly admitting that archaeological finds are best preserved underground (“Burial produces stability,” he posits), Wallace-Hadrill dignifies his research — and the field of archaeology, in general — with the assumption that excavation is what makes something accessible and thus restorable.  “The process of excavation,” he offers, “is the process of conservation and restoration.  You must do something with it.”  His position, I think, is a bold but necessary assumption of the merits of archaeological research.  In Italy and other artifact-rich states, where so many sites are in danger of irreparable decay, archaeology is something of a two-headed beast.  On the one hand, major discoveries about the past are not possible without throwing around some dirt.  (So goes, we would never know there was a dinosaur in our backyard if Dad wasn’t trying to dig us a pool.)  On the other, archaeological projects reveal a certain unawareness, ineptitude, and awful hypocrisy concerning public projects.  Wallace-Hadrill laments that the system of winning contracts in Italy rewards “qualified” firms with the lowest bid.  He cites the devastating 2009 L’Aquila earthquake: the elementary school where 26 children perished was constructed with sea sand, a much weaker material than builder’s sand.  These improprieties, he says, occur everywhere, not just Italy.  This is what he means by, “Excavation comes with a very considerable modern intervention.”
On the whole, “Herculaneum Uncovered” is a very informative, lay-accessible introduction to one archaeologist’s experience in the field.  There are insights into a range of issues affecting archaeological research, conservation ethics, and society’s view of the past.  Without being overly political in scope, the conversation reminds us why and how the work of individuals like Wallace-Hadrill is important, both now and in the future.
Posted in archaeology, culture, Herculaneum, heritage, Ideas Roadshow, Pompeii, preservation | Leave a comment

Rock Art Vandals Strike Again (and Again) in American Southwest

In December 2010, I focused on a particularly alarming example of cultural heritage destruction striking rock art sites across the American Southwest (“Graffiti Vandals Hit Rock Art Sites in American Southwest”).  Two archaeological and natural sites — Agua Fria National Monument and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area — were found vandalized by suspected gangs.  Very mediocre and unartistic graffiti adorned the same surfaces as centuries-old — and yet unstudied — pictographs, petroglyphs, and etchings.  Remote areas once considered “inaccessible” to the public were hauntingly tainted by the desecration of a few committed vandals; signs pointed to targeted criminal activity.
Restoration of vandalized rock outcrops at Red Rock Canyon
has been ongoing for a year and a half
(Photo credit: K.M. Cannon, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It appears this trend continues, as new instances of graffiti have been reported at some of America’s most iconic parks.  Rangers at Saguaro National Park recently discovered at least 45 tags on rock formations and 150-year-old cacti.  A Canadian man was interrupted by a tour group at Grand Canyon National Park as he attempted to paint his name on the famous ‘Duck on a Rock’ outcrop; upon questioning, the man stated the spot “was so special that if he left his name then his kids would be able to see it 20 years from now.” A popular hiking and day-use area of Joshua Tree National Park was closed indefinitely, as volunteer crews worked to clean multiple locations with painted graffiti; a park alert reminded visitors to dutifully report acts of vandalism or suspicious activity.
Meantime, officials from several vandalized parks have offered a possible motive: social media and the lure of instant recognition/gratification.  Those who have been caught admit to the thrill of having their name known.  One vandal claimed he found it “cool” to scratch his name next to an ancient rock art panel.  (He’s paying monthly installments of $105 in a $10,000 restitution settlement.)  Another wrote the same tag, “Super Duper Dana,” on a treasured panel of etched names of 19th century pioneers and in the visitor center sign-in book; he later posted photos of his work on Facebook.  (He was fined $15,000.)  One 17-year-old vandal known as Pee Wee has been so prolific across Red Rock Canyon that he’s gained a certain “grudging respect” among those who have spent over a year cleaning up his tags.  (Pee Wee is not alone in this corps of graffiti artists at Red Rocks; authorities have been cleaning up paint there since the 1950s.)
Is a slight restitution settlement the only (best?) solution for these crimes?  How much public money goes towards legal proceedings and restoration work year in, year out?  Would this money be better spent on educating a wide audience to the lasting physical effects of painting ancient rocks?  Would it be worth further criminalizing such forms of cultural degradation and natural destruction?  Should vandals, when caught, be obliged to perform community service, such as participating in ongoing clean up?
I think these are interesting questions to ask ourselves in light of the Canadian man’s desire for his children to see his name.  We would all like to be known to future generations, yet preferably for the good and honest efforts to preserve that which is most important: our shared heritage.
Posted in archaeology, cultural conservation, culture, heritage, natural heritage, social media | Leave a comment