Thursday, January 16, 2014

U.S. Renews MOU with China

This week the United States extended the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the People's Republic of China based on Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which states the following:

Any State Party to this Convention whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological or ethnological materials may call upon other States Parties who are affected. The States Parties to this Convention undertake, in these circumstances, to participate in a concerted international effort to determine and to carry out the necessary concrete measures, including the control of exports and imports and international commerce in the specific materials concerned. Pending agreement each State concerned shall take provisional measures to the extent feasible to prevent irremediable injury to the cultural heritage of the requesting State (UNESCO 1970). 
The MOU (which lasts for 5 years) restricts what items can enter into the United States (U.S. Department of State 2009a).  The agreement specifically restricts:

The Government of the United States of America, in accordance with its legislation entitled the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, shall restrict the importation into the United States of archaeological material originating in China and representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and of monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old; including categories of metal, ceramic, stone, textiles, other organic material, glass, and painting identified on a list to be promulgated by the United States Government (hereinafter known as the “Designated List”), unless the Government of the People’s Republic of China issues a license or other documentation which certifies that such exportation was not in violation of its laws. For the purposes of this Memorandum of Understanding, the restricted Paleolithic objects date from approximately 75,000 BC.
Some of the items on the Designated List (U.S. Department of State 2009b) include:
  • Bamboo and Paper
  • Silks and Textiles
  • Bone, Ivory, Horn, and Shell
  • Wall Paintings
The MOU will hopefully  allow cultural exchange between the two countries, which will include loans on antiquity and international collaborative research.
The agreement is not without its critics.  One major criticism is that China does not protect its own cultural and archaeological sites.  Take for example the destruction of ancient tombs dating to about 2000 to 3000 years ago.  A construction company demolished the site while constructing a subway in the summer of 2013 (The Huffington Post 2013). (See the video on the below reporting the destruction)
On a wider scale, some scholars critique any restrictions on cultural property as I described in my thesis.  Two scholars who critiques restrictions and bilateral agreements are John H. Merryman and James Cuno.  I wrote the following:
Merryman equates the 1970 UNESCO Convention to an anti-market bias. As part of his reasoning, he questions the definition of cultural property laid out by, not only the convention, but also the laws of source countries. He writes that "the laws are broadly inclusive, extending to wholesale categories of objects whose retention is clearly inconsistent with the international interest in the circulation of cultural property" (Merryman 2005:274). The UNESCO Convention does list many possible items as cultural property. But it does allow items to be listed from any time period, which could make trade in antiquities nearly impossible. Merryman interprets this position as anti-market.
Merryman‟s argument that laws restrict the circulation of cultural material ties into the belief that antiquity belongs to all humanity. Cuno (2008) furthers this argument by criticizing the use of the term cultural patrimony and its laws, arguing that cultural patrimony is a political construct, as well as a retentionalist policy, because many countries consider all antiquity found within their borders as cultural property that is central to their national identity (Cuno 2005 and 2008). He also questions the idea of national identity and cultural property, mainly because many ancient cultures span the borders of many modern nation-states, which makes the idea of repatriation to a single country difficult in many cases (Cuno 2008).
Do you think that countries should enter into bilateral agreements with each other regarding cultural property, if one of the country demonstrates difficulty with protecting its sites?

Work Cited

Castro, Jennifer
2011  An Analysis of Repatriation: A Study of the "November Collection"At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Master's Thesis, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University.

Cuno, James2005 Museums, Antiquities, Cultural Property, and the US Legal Framework for Making Acquisitions.
In Who Owns the Past? : Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. Kate Fitz Gibbon, ed. Pp. 143-157. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Cuno, James 2008 Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over our Ancient Heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cuno, James, ed.
2009 IntroductionIn Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Pp. 1-38. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.
Merryman, John Henry
2005 A Licit International Trade in Cultural Objects. In Who Owns the Past? : Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. Kate Fitz Gibbon, ed. Pp. 269-289. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

The Huffington Post.
2013  Ancient Chinese Tombs Destroyed By Contractors During Subway Construction: Reports., accessed January 16, 2014.

UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property., accessed January 14, 2014.

U.S. Department of State
2009a Memorandum Of Understanding Between the Government of The United States Of America And The Government of The People’s Republic of China Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archaeological Material From the Paleolithic Period through The Tang Dynasty and Monumental Sculpture and Wall Art at least 250 Years Old., accessed January 15, 2014.

U.S. Department of State
2009b China 2009 Designated List Federal Register Notice. , accessed January 16, 2014.
U.S. Department of State
2014 Agreement Extended To Further Protect Archaeological Heritage of China., accessed January 14, 2014.