When global leaders from the public and private sectors collaborate with their American counterparts through international exchange, their coordination can become a critical tool in addressing some of the greatest challenges faced by the international community. Global Ties U.S., a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Department of State, is working to foster this international collaboration by bringing the next generation of global leaders to communities throughout the United States.
The February 2017 Global Ties U.S. National Meeting “Unity in Community” incorporated workshops and panels tackling some of the most pressing global challenges today, including the many threats facing our shared world heritage. One of the panels at this year’s annual meeting was organized by the U.S. Department of State and focused on cultural heritage protection efforts by the U.S. government as well as independent institutions. This panel was meant not just to introduce future global leaders and exchange program organizers to threats facing our world heritage, but also to engage them in the ways that #CultureUnderThreat can be protected in their own communities. Antiquities Coalition’s Chief of Staff Katie Paul participated along with recognized experts from the FBI, the Smithsonian, and the U.S. Department of State.
The panel began with Martin Peschler, Program Director from the Cultural Heritage Office in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His discussion touched upon the tools used by this office to protect cultural heritage in peril. One of these tools, bilateral cultural agreements, was highlighted by Peschler as a vital component in both keeping illicit artifacts from entering U.S. borders as well as enhancing transnational cooperation on cultural projects. The U.S. has signed 16 of these bilateral agreements, also known as cultural memoranda of understanding (MOU), the most recent being with Egypt, which was the first agreement between the U.S. and a country from the Middle East or North Africa.
Shortly after the signing of this historic U.S.-Egypt MOU, the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation announced a cooperative project between U.S. and Egyptian institutions to restore 600 pharaonic era coffins. The coffin restoration project is the first project announced since the signing of the MOU and shines light on the increased international cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt.
The panel also featured efforts on conservation, heritage protection, and training for foreign conservators through the work of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Alexander Nagel, Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discussed some of the Smithsonian’s state of the art preservation techniques, many of which are shared with foreign visitors through cooperative training programs. Dr. Nagel also focused on some of the critical threats to heritage occurring in Yemen, where culture is under multiple threats, including destruction as a result of conflict and unchecked looting which is surging during the current crisis. Dr. Nagel is working to track the looting and the global market in Yemeni antiquities to develop solutions to combat this crime in Yemen.
The transnational and criminal nature of looting and trafficking requires a robust response from law enforcement. Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, Program Manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, addressed the work of the Art Theft unit in combatting cultural property trafficking crimes within the United States. She also discussed how the FBI works together with international law enforcement on transnational investigations. The FBI’s Art Crime Team investigates and recovers illicit antiquities and stolen works of art. The Team works to share their experience and best practices with international counterparts by providing training programs for international law enforcement in the investigation and recovery of stolen art. The investigation into stolen and trafficked artworks does not end with the recovery of the pieces. Once the Art Crime Team recovers illicit works that have been smuggled into the United States, the pieces are returned to their nation of origin when possible.
However, this process of returning recovered works is not without its challenges. Magness-Gardiner noted that one of the biggest hurdles in repatriating objects is that oftentimes the countries of suspected origin are not well versed in the types of documentation required by U.S. law to support the FBI’s investigation. As the FBI continues to coordinate with international law enforcement through training programs and investigations, educating foreign governments on the repatriation process is vital to aid in the fight to combat looting and ensure artifacts are returned to their rightful homes.
The importance of the involvement of U.S. government entities to combat threats to cultural heritage is paramount to protecting the past, but independent institutions and nonprofit organizations also have a role to play in developing innovative responses to pressing heritage crimes. Katie Paul, Chief of Staff at the Antiquities Coalition, highlighted the role of the non-profit organization’s work to #CombatLooting. By focusing efforts in areas such as advocacy, outreach, and convening with purpose, the Antiquities Coalition has worked with a wide range of partners to develop innovative tools and solutions in the fight against cultural racketeering.
Paul discussed three examples of the organization’s recent work in these areas of focus. The AC’s #CultureUnderThreat Task Force Report is one of the centerpieces of the organization’s collaborative advocacy efforts. The #CultureUnderThreat Task Force brought together leaders from the heritage, law enforcement, legal, military, and security communities to provide a comprehensive set of recommendations for the U.S. government to take in their efforts to combat looting and destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa.
While the AC’s advocacy efforts have focused on actions that can be taken by government, their outreach efforts are geared toward raising awareness among the public on these pressing issues. One of the organization’s key outreach tools has been the #CultureUnderThreat Map, an interactive tool that illustrates the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage across the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. This outreach tool is fully interactive and open to the public to help educate communities through technology on some of the critical threats facing heritage in the MENA region.
The final pillar of the AC’s work that Paul focused on was the AC’s efforts to convene leaders from the Arab World to address these threats regionally. Highlighting the first #CultureUnderThreat Conference held in Cairo in 2015 and the second #CultureUnderThreat Conference held in Amman in 2016, Paul discussed the efforts being taken by MENA leaders as outlined in the Amman Communiqué and Action Plan. These nations are now working in coordination with the Antiquities Coalition and its partners to implement innovative solutions to combat cultural racketeering.
One of the common themes among the members of this panel is that all of these experts’ efforts cross into sectors that have not traditionally been considered part of archaeology or cultural heritage studies. But it is these cross-disciplinary efforts—not just in the MENA region, but in any nation facing heritage threats—that are the most essential element to developing solutions that work because they engage all parties that have a stake in these issues. Only with collaborative efforts will we be able to address these crimes in a way that has significant impacts on the illicit trade now and in the future.