Thursday, June 19, 2014

Power of the Media in 'Monuments Movements': NY Times article inspires American to return antiquities to Egypt

This week, the Antiquities Coalition and the Embassy of Egypt in Washington, DC announced the return of a small collection of ancient Egyptian ushabtis by an American woman and her family. After reading a New York Times piece in March 2014 that outlined the efforts of Egypt’s Ministry of antiquities to combat cultural racketeering – systematic theft of art and antiquities by organized crime syndicates - through their MoU with the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA), one reader felt compelled to return Egyptian artifacts (which her family legally owned) to their homeland.

Egypt’s cultural heritage has been in peril facing threats of looting and destruction since the rise of the Arab Spring in January 2011. Pleas for help have reverberated through social media and press coverage on behalf of
Some of the ushabtis returned to Egypt
by Ms. Croasdaile.
Credit: The Antiquities Coalition
citizens archaeologists and heritage advocates - #ArchaeoActivtsts - both inside and out of Egypt.  But the cries for the return of artifacts taken from Egypt have not gone unheard. 

Ms. Cynthia Croasdaile, who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt in the 1970s, was inspired to repatriate her family’s antiquities after reading the NY Times article by Tom Mashberg.

Headlines regarding the besieged historical sites in Egypt, Syria, Libya – and now, sadly Iraq again - have been splashed across the news with increasing frequency as the months since the Arab Spring revolutions have passed. The power of the media to raise awareness about the loss of our heritage has proven time and again to be a strong contender in the ability to make ‘monumental’ movements (of course pun is intended!) in terms of policy and public awareness.

Ms. Croasdaile was not the first to be impacted by the press around cultural racketeering, or even one of Tom Mashberg’s articles focusing awareness on antiquities theft.  A piece he wrote in Winter 2013 regarding Sotheby’s sale of an illegal artifact followed a multi million dollar court case which Sotheby’s subsequently lost, losing both the valued statue, and millions in court and legal fees.

Furthermore, the timing of the returns that followed (ie the Norton Simon Museum and Christie’s Cambodian statues) fell coincidently close to the report of Sotheby’s higher than expected quarterly expenses – due in large part to their losses from the Cambodian statue legal case, which was spearheaded by Tess Davis, a Counselor at the Antiquities Coalition and Researcher for Trafficking Culture.  More likely than not Christie’s and Norton Simon saw the writing on the wall and cut their losses before enduring the same costs.  But it’s not the finances of a single legal case alone that are placing fear in these auction houses - but the massive media attention and subsequent social movements that accompany the issues of culture heritage in the current era.
Protesters gathered near Dahshur. Credit: Observer France 24 
I could (and probably will – so get ready) write a blog post once a week for months about local populations, young people, and average citizens taking risks and making social movements happen out of broken
monuments.  Many of these efforts are achieved with the use of media and social media to spread awareness quickly in these extremely fast moving volatile environments - creating #MonumentsMovements in communities that now have a way to voice their thoughts on heritage to the global community. 

We can only hope that like the Cambodian statue returns, Ms. Croasdaile’s selfless return of a family heirloom is only the beginning of a larger trend.  Not only of repatriating antiquities, but of reaching an awareness that our history is as endangered as our environment and many of the animals we fight earnestly to protect.  There are many important resources that keep the world together – and preservation of society and its history are among the most important.

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All of the thoughts and opinions on the AnthroPaulicy blog are my own and do not represent that of any organization or group.

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