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Friday, June 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blame and shame of cultural looting

Seattle Times art critic

Mild-mannered outrage took center stage at the panel discussion "Looting: Price of War or Prize of Victory?" held Wednesday evening at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus.

The six panelists — including three professors, two Burke Museum curators and a UW doctoral student of anthropology — used the recent, heavily publicized looting of Iraqi museums as a jumping-off point for a broader look at the importance of cultural relics. They discussed the massive international trade in stolen antiquities, the way museums cope with looted objects in their collections, why looting is so widespread and how to stop it.

Mostly, though, the panelists represented an allied viewpoint on the complicated issues involved. By the end of the slow-moving two-hour session, few answers emerged.

Moderated by KUOW radio talk-show host Steve Scher, the panelists started off with prepared statements. Keynote speaker Richard Eaton, a specialist in Islamic history at the University of Arizona, Tucson, compared the looting in Iraq to the destruction of Buddhist artworks by the Taliban. Eaton considered the moral issues: Is saving art more important than saving lives?

He also pointed out that although media attention has focused on the loss of major art objects, countless other irreplaceable culture records have also been lost, specifically some 2 million books destroyed at Iraq's National Library. The market for illegal antiquities is like the drug trade, he said: Remove the demand from rich collectors at home, and solve the problem overseas.

Peter Lape and James Nason, both Burke Museum curators, looked at looting from an institutional perspective. Nason stressed the Burke's record for "repatriating" objects, particularly Native American relics, looted from Northwest sites. Lape spoke about finding ways to stop the looting still taking place at archaeological sites in Washington.

An awkward moment arose when an audience member asked, "Where is Kennewick Man?" referring to the ancient skeleton at the center of a dispute between scientists and several Northwest Indian tribes.

Lape reluctantly took the question and replied that though "some consider it looted," the issue resides with the courts and that the skeleton is housed at the Burke. Nason stepped in to call the museum "neutral territory."

Mary Callahan, an assistant professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at UW, taught previously at a military university and has connections in the State Department. She highlighted a "disconnect" between military and political leaders over the cultural issues in Iraq, and lamented the fact that, despite months of advance military planning, there was no plan to protect museums, libraries or similar sites.

She was skeptical about Eaton's suggestion that reducing the demand for stolen artworks would stop looting. Hunger played a role, she said.

"These were desperate people," she said. "Oil fields were looted, too." She blamed the Bush administration for the dire circumstances of the Iraqi people.

Christoph Giebel, UW assistant professor of international studies and history, mentioned "a lopsided balance of power" and the U.S. attitude that "What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine as well." He said he is looking forward to a world of equals, "where treasures of London will be held in a museum in Laos."

So, what about concrete solutions?

Nason suggested "better, stronger international agreements to protect cultural property," though he admitted such treaties were hard to enforce. Lape suggested educating the public to reject stolen antiquities, blaming Internet auction sites for helping the illegal trade.

Eaton closed the panel with concern for how our country will be viewed by future generations for allowing the widespread destruction and theft of such important cultural relics. "We have to hold our elected officials responsible," he said.

Other panelists and special guests included graduate student Philipp Rassmann, and Fawzi Khouri, Gloria London, Judith Henchy, and Mark Jenkins.

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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