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Building Bridges: A Symposium on Global Cultural Heritage Preservation

November 1, 2018

Last week on October 23 and 24, 2018, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, research institutions, and the private sector came together at the Smithsonian Castle for “Building Bridges: A Symposium on Global Cultural Heritage Preservation.”

The Antiquities Coalition participated in this two-day event, which explored how the U.S. government can better safeguard culture around the world. It included presentations, lightning talks, moderated panels, breakout discussions, and Q&A sessions. While invitation only, it was followed by a panel discussion open to the general public in which leading U.S. diplomats discussed the important role cultural heritage plays in foreign policy.

Building Bridges was organized by the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee (CHCC), an interagency committee established by the 2016 Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act. Its legislative mandate is “to coordinate and advance executive branch efforts to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk from political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters.” Chaired by Marie Royce, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, the CHCC is made up of 12 agencies, including the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, and Federal Bureau of Investigation, among others.

The symposium provided an opportunity for the CHCC to report on its progress to date, as well as cultivate an open dialogue with the many stakeholders who can support its work.

Key takeaways included:

  • Interagency Cooperation is Improving

The CHCC was created by bipartisan legislation in April 2016, and first met in November of that year. It was initially plagued by skepticism and even criticism, including a September 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that despite some achievements, the CHCC suffered from a lack of clear goals, strategy, and agency participation. To its credit, the State Department immediately pledged to fix identified problems, and judging from Building Bridges, it has had much progress.

The growing support for the CHCC was demonstrated by the senior level of those speaking at the event, such as Assistant Secretary Royce, as well as senior officials from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the FBI, and other agencies, many of whom joined the program for its full two days. This increased support was also seen in the content of presentations about the CHCC’s work to-date, especially its three working groups, (technology, public awareness and outreach, and the illicit antiquities trade). Moreover, beyond the podium, the general consensus from participants was that interagency cooperation in cultural heritage is the best that it has ever been.

  • Money Laundering is a Growing Concern

While speakers, particularly those from the military and law enforcement, continued to stress the linkages between cultural racketeering and terrorist financing, their presentations also made clear that money laundering is a growing concern.

For example, Tim Carpenter, the Supervisory Special Agent of the Art Crime Team at the FBI, said that in a post-9/11 world, the “smart criminals are moving art” instead of money. This is because dealers and auction houses are exempt from U.S. laws such as the Bank Secrecy Act and Patriot Act. Joined by speakers from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, Special Agent Carpenter and others warned that law enforcement should be mindful of the risks to American financial institutions and on the lookout for financial crimes involving cultural property.

The same is true of legislators. The Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Prevention Act (H.R. 5886), currently in the U.S. House of Representatives, proposes amending the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to address some of the opaque areas of the art trade. This legislation would end the art market’s exemption from otherwise standard regulations and mundane money laundering rules. This bill represents progress in the U.S., but is one step the U.S. can take to catch up to other regions, where legislation on money laundering and the art trade is comparatively much more robust.

  • The U.S. Has a Major Problem with the Illicit Export of Cultural Property

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have made great progress in shutting the American market to illicit antiquities. However, agents and officials alike voiced frustration at the challenges they face in stopping illicit exports, particularly of Native American cultural heritage. Unfortunately, absent special circumstances, law enforcement only monitors what is coming into — not going out of — the country. Moreover, when Native American artifacts have been illegally exported, tribes have faced great and sometimes insurmountable difficulty in recovering them from overseas art galleries and auction houses due to unfavorable foreign legislation.

A new cultural heritage bill was introduced in the House in October. H.R. 7076, the Native American and Native Hawaiian Cultural Heritage Protection Act of 2018, aims at placing further regulations on the export of Native American and Hawaiian cultural goods.

Stronger legislation in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as greater collaboration with tribes, will help to fill this gap.

  • Public-Private Partnerships

The importance of public-private partnerships was another key theme of Building Bridges. Presenters shared case studies of successful examples from throughout the U.S. and beyond. For example, Jane Zimmerman of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which has partnered with the Antiquities Coalition in the past, spoke about how they successfully work with the private sector in safeguarding Egypt’s cultural heritage. Daniel Reid of the Whiting Foundation also spoke about their support of such partnerships and noted their proud support of the Digital Library of the Middle East (an AC initiative with the Council on Library and Information Resources).

  • Preserving Cultural Heritage is Good U.S. Foreign Policy

Throughout the two day conference, speaker after speaker emphasized how strong cultural heritage protection is strong foreign policy. This idea was hit home by the final session, which was the only panel open to the general public. To a packed room, current and former ambassadors spoke of how they strengthened U.S. relations with our allies through initiatives such as the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and cultural bilateral agreements. In closing, it was clear that this cultural diplomacy allows the U.S. to reach wider audiences, show respect for other nations, facilitate dialogue and reconciliation, build local partnerships, and create sustainable jobs. In doing so, it plays an important role in furthering our national interests, including global security.

To keep up this collaboration and momentum, the Antiquities Coalition hopes that Building Bridges becomes an annual event.