Shared Ownership of Archeological Sites?
Just before the holidays my son returned from a Latin class high school trip to Italy (where were these marvelous excursions when we were kids?!). The trip focused on Rome and Sorrento, with the Sorrento portion providing a base for a range of archeological sites, including Pompeii. Coincidentally Pompeii was much in the news here at exactly the same time. Apparently Pompeii is crumbling – this time not under the weight of volcanic ash but mere human neglect. A recent article in Newsweek notes that since early November “ structures have been tumbling down at an astonishing rate.” The eye witness account of my son was “Pompeii was the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen; an entire Roman city preserved! But it was sad some portions were off limits because the structures were unstable.”
As someone who has taught and written about some of the legal issues surrounding preservation I’m not certain our obsession with preservation is always a positive thing. But there is little doubt that a site like Pompeii is hugely significant and worthy of our best preservation efforts. Perhaps in our efforts to cast our preservation net wide – very, very wide (it’s remarkable to me that something as organic as the ivy on the wall of Wrigley Field is protected by historic preservation status) – we diminish our attention on truly remarkable, irreplaceable, and historically significant sites around the world. To this end Bernard Frischer suggested in a December 22nd NYT Op-Ed that museums return to the business of supporting and undertaking excavations. At the heart of this idea is the legal separation of ownership and possession. Unlike the 19th century approach in which possession was assumed to carry with it ownership, thus filling up the display cases of institutions such as the Louvre and the British Museum, Frischer’s idea is that archeologically rich nations such as Greece, Turkey and Italy, would enter into partnerships with major museums on specific archeological projects. By virtue of these agreements, source-nations would retain something akin to ownership rights but museums would be guaranteed specifically negotiated access and display rights. In short source nations and museums would share both rights and responsibilities in archeological sites and excavated antiquities.
Frischer sees this as a split between ownership and possession but in reality it is simply spreading rights of possession while simultaneously expanding the number of responsible stewards. Given the international interest in important archeological sites, such as Pompeii, this sort of diffusion of involvement and its corresponding promise of increased access seems right, even if it risks some of the classic inefficiencies of shared ownership. Perhaps vesting ownership and all related rights in a single institution such as the British Museum was the most logical and efficient approach in the 19th c. when source nations lacked interest and/or the necessary funds to undertake major excavations. But now that educational and scientific interest in important sires is nearly universal, Frishman’s approach might in fact bridge the cultural nationalist/internationalist divide that has dominated discourse in this area for nearly a generation.