The Ethics of Collecting and Preserving Cultural Property in an Age of Terror

By Martin, Michael | East-West Connections, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Collecting and Preserving Cultural Property in an Age of Terror


Martin, Michael, East-West Connections


Public art museums as well as private collectors have been regarded traditionally as playing valuable and indeed essential roles in preserving the world's cultural heritage, and enhancing the appreciation of it. In recent years, however, the transfer of cultural property--the art trade in particular--has come under vociferous attack, to the point of being likened to drug running and arms dealing. (1) Collectors and museums have been denigrated as "the real looters" of the world's cultural heritage and they find themselves under increasing pressure from leading archaeologists, such as Colin Renfrew of Cambridge, as well as international organizations such as UNESCO, to adopt ever stricter codes of ethics. (2) In some areas, particularly with regard to antiquities and ethnographic material, collectors and museums have been pressed to give up collecting virtually altogether. Whether based on principles of sound archaeological practice, cultural sophistication, national pride, envy or greed, claims are made in ever widening circles that art and archaeological material is best left in its place of origin. (3)

I believe that such claims need to be seriously re-examined in light of the growing terrorist threats and activities the world has experienced in recent years. With particular reference to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by terrorist groups in Afghanistan, in what follows I look at some of the ethical issues at stake, with a view to finding an ethically appropriate balance between the various legitimate interests of museums, collectors, archaeologists, nations, religions, ethnic groups and others concerned with art and the wider issues of protecting cultural heritage.

The Buddhist art located in modern Afghanistan provides a striking case study not only because of the extent and notoriety of the destruction, which was well publicized, but also, and especially, because of the enormous religious and historical importance of the artworks themselves. Much of modern Afghanistan coincides geographically with the ancient region of Gandhara, which extended beyond present day Afghanistran into what is now Pakistan and parts of India as well. Buddhist sculpture began in Gandhara, influenced in part by the classical Hellenistic tradition. Alexander the Great had conquered the area in 329 BCE and his Greek followers had ruled the territory for a century thereafter. Trade routes became well established. The early human figures in Gandharan art show a unique blending of eastern and western aesthetic features, a synthesis which was lost as the sculptural tradition later moved inward back to India and then on to China and Japan.

In recent years Islamic fighters wrestled control from Soviet forces in 1992, only to become enmeshed in a vicious war amongst themselves over control of Kabul. In 1996 an Afghan Islamic fundamentalist group, the Taliban, took control of Kabul. By 2001 the Taliban had consolidated power and domination in the country. In an effort to rid the Afghan citizens of pre-Islamic influences and destroy all "false idols" the Taliban destroyed the famous Bamiyan Buddhas, the two largest stone Buddhas in the world. These Buddhas were so sacred that the Afghan soldiers themselves refused to carry out the destruction, but the Taliban managed to bring in non-Afghan troops from their allies in Al Qaeda, who carried out the task. In addition, the Kabul Museum, one of the world's greatest storehouses of Gandharan Buddhist art, was ransacked and an untold number of artworks destroyed. (4)

The outside world knew in advance that these actions were likely to take place, but did little to prevent the destruction beyond making diplomatic representations. While world opinion went largely against the Taliban, the Taliban was nevertheless supported by a fundamentalist Islamic core. A summary reconstruction of some of the main arguments, for and against what happened, might go as follows:

Pro-Taliban Claim.

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