”[C]ultural heritage that was illegally exported from a country belongs to that country; it always invariably belongs to that country. So it has to return to that country, because it’s part of its tradition and part of its cultural identity.”
As the director of the Ancient Near East Museum at the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, and member of the German commission for UNESCO, Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert is at the frontline in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods. On March 31, he visited Stockholm to talk the international symposium arranged by the Swedish Museums of World Culture and the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO.
We are here today to talk about the illicit trade of cultural goods. What can be done to prevent the illicit trade?
I think one of the biggest and most important things that can be done is to shorten the demand for illegally exported artefacts, because obviously, plundering of archaeological sites is only attractive as long as there is an attractive market, and as long as there is a demand.
What needs to be done, and is being done in the framework of the UNESCO Unite4heritage campaign, is raising awareness of the importance of intact cultural heritage for the societies that live with the cultural heritage, and raising awareness of the detrimental effects of looting, plundering and pillaging.
At the same time, it’s obvious that in order to stop pillaging, you have to change the living conditions in the affected countries. We know that plundering is frequently linked both to a specific security situation, but it’s also linked to a specific economic situation. So you have to make sure that people are not forced to plunder archaeological sites in order to survive.
There is a component of a possible action plan that takes place in the countries that are affected by plundering, as well as another component that takes place in the so called market countries. These countries need to change their legal framework in order to make trafficking of illegally exported archaeological objects unattractive, a framework that imposes strong penal sanctions and that also stipulates a strong due diligence for everybody who wants to sell archaeological objects in the market.
And the third level, obviously, is the international level. Illicit trafficking in cultural property is by definition a transnational crime, so it’s very important that there are networks on the international level that share data and share experience. We also need more research, which is one of the big lessons that we have learned from our national research project ILLICID. The kind of research that we do in Germany needs to be done on an international level as well.
Is there a big market for illicitly trafficked cultural goods in Germany?
There is a considerable market for archaeological objects in Germany, and since we are monitoring the market for objects from the eastern Mediterranean, we can see that there are thousands of objects from the respective countries offered for sale in Germany. All of these countries do not provide for a legal export of archaeological objects. When you look at the prices that are being paid for these objects, you very quickly arrive at a figure of several million euros that are being exchanged for archaeological objects within a relatively short period of time.
I think what we have to take into account right now, since we cannot actually put numbers on what ISIL for example is making out of illicitly trading archaeological objects, is that the market for archaeological objects is considerable. Therefore, if the market is not regulated properly, the potential for money laundering and terrorist financing through selling archaeological objects in the open market is considerable as well. If we take that as a fact, and add to that the observation or the supposition that there is a dark market, then this considerable potential becomes significant.
What can museums do to prevent the illicit trade?
Museums have a very complex role, because they can do many things on many different levels. It starts with being ethical in the way you deal with objects and in the way you deal with acquisitions. My museum stopped acquiring archaeological material in 2014. I don’t think we will go back to doing it, since our focus is on Iraq and Syria, countries which do not provide for a legal export for archaeological objects. Ethically, I don’t think we as a public institution can acquire objects from these regions without setting a precedent that we don’t want to set. It starts with an ethical acquisition practice according to the ICOM code of ethics.
Second, I think archaeological museums are perfectly suited to raise awareness of the double side of the objects that they are showing. They can be beautiful works of art, at the same time they are always cultural heritage, and therefore anchors of cultural identity for the societies they come from. Museums today have to display objects from several perspectives and always point to the fact that what you see here in Stockholm, what you see in Berlin or what you see in London is part of a cultural tradition that comes from outside of Europe. I think this raising of awareness is extremely important. The third thing museums can do is build capacity with the countries that their objects come from. Do research, and be outspoken protagonists of a clean practice of dealing with archaeological objects.
Have you come across objects in your collection that you have sent back?
Not in our collections, but there are things that we get sent by mail. I get things from people saying, “well I took this out of Iraq some 40 years ago, I don’t know what to do with it anymore, I’m giving it to you because you’re a big museum and I think you can put it to better use”.
Obviously, I am not just taking this object and include it in my collection without telling anybody. It’s very important to understand that even if this object was not taken out of Iraq out of ill will, it was taken illegally nonetheless, which means I cannot as a public institution include it in my collection. For me, that is a good example of how a museum should react. Because what would I tell the Iraqi ambassador to Germany when he came to the museum, saw that object and asked me how I acquired it? Should I say “I got it in the mail and now it’s on display”? – I cannot do that.
For me, at this point it is very important to make this point and to say that cultural heritage that was illegally exported from a country belongs to that country; it always invariably belongs to that country. So it has to return to that country, because it’s part of its tradition and part of its cultural identity.
Some people might suggest that it is better to move cultural objects away from their country of origin in order to protect them from war and looting?
I know this argument, and I can understand this line of thinking to some degree, but I think there is a double mistake in there. First of all, we never know how secure our situation is. Believing in eternal peace in Europe is a beautiful dream but still a dream, so I think we cannot use our current advantage of living circumstances to justify the plundering or the illegal excavation and illegal exportation of archaeological objects.
Second, I think we still have to bear in mind that no country can put itself above another country. And cultural heritage protection is part of the sovereignty of countries. I don’t think you or I can decide how to deal with the sovereignty of Iraq. It’s like saying “there are very poor countries that cannot take care of their children because of a famine, so we will just take their children away and take them to Europe.” We would never do that. I hope we would never do that!
I think the same is true here. Without having an international agreement, without having the explicit consent of the concerned country, we cannot decide for them what to do with their cultural property. If they ask us to help them take care of their archaeological property, we will be happy to do that, but we cannot do it without their consent.