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Why Does the Past Matter? A Presidential Conversation on the Guiding Principles for Cultural Heritage

December 5, 2017

The Antiquities Coalition’s Executive Director Tess Davis participated in Why Does the Past Matter? A Presidential Conversation on the Guiding Principles for Cultural Heritage at the 116th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in Washington, DC last week. This session asked the following question: what are the most pressing global issues for cultural heritage and what should the role of the AAA be in addressing them? Demonstrating the importance to which the AAA gives these questions, the panel was organized by AAA Executive Board Member Elizabeth Chilton and chaired by outgoing AAA President Alisse Waterston, with the aim of advancing the conversation and consideration of cultural heritage in the world’s largest organization for professional anthropologists. Davis was joined by a wide range of leading experts in anthropology and related disciplines, including Sonya L. Atalay, Joshua Bell, Reidar Kvam and Patty Gerstenblith, the renowned legal scholar who served on the Antiquities Coalition’s #CultureUnderThreat Task Force.

During the nearly two hour session, the panelists framed their discussion around the AAA Guiding Principles on Cultural Heritage, value statements that were developed by the organization to steer its advocacy and outreach efforts. The principles seek to define what cultural heritage is and how the AAA can actively support its “ethical stewardship, study, and safeguarding… for present and future generations.” While the discussion addressed a wide range of current threats to cultural heritage—touching upon climate change, natural disasters, pollution, unchecked development, and tourism—speakers frequently returned to the interconnected challenges posed by the illicit antiquities trade, armed conflict, and violent extremism.  

All agreed that in the face of such dangers, an organization like the AAA, supported by its thousands of individual members, could be a powerful advocate for preservation. It is hoped that the new Guiding Principles will help to target its work and allow the organization to quickly respond in times of crisis. The AAA has been a leader in this field thus far, and the Antiquities Coalition has been honored to partner with it on a number of important initiatives, including the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities, a high level forum to examine terrorist financing from cultural racketeering, and advocating for passage of the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act. We look forward to many more such collaborations in the future, and in the meantime, commend our colleagues at AAA for taking this important step with the new Guiding Principles.