Cultural Loss: Past and Future
Two stories from NPR struck me today:
- An interview with Baghdad National Museum director Donny George in response to the publication of a new book on the treasures lost in the looting. There was a lot of debate, in the wake of the US-led invasion, about the extent of the looting and destruction. Any looting in Iraq is a substantial loss of the record of earliest human civilization, and what is still lost at this point is indeed significant. One caller claims that there's a tablet showing a proof of the Pythagorean theorem a millenium before Pythagoras, which doesn't really surprise me: we never really know who is the first, only the first to make it stick.
- A report about a trend in the direction of dramatic licensing companies putting restrictions on the creativity of productions: specifically, the charge that an all-female production of"Grease" violated the license contract. The story cites other examples:"Big River" with Huck and Jim's race reversed is the most striking. The idea that the owner of cultural property (OK, we can talk about the idea of"ownership" of cultural property later) can control the form of presentation will have a substantial chilling effect.
I'm particularly concerned about this because I have personal experience: I was in a musical version of"The Hobbit" (I was Bilbo Baggins) in which the shortage of male actors was such that we used female actors in a number of crucial roles, including both Gandalf and most of the dwarves (Thorin was played by a guy, but should have been played by the much better female actor who played his second-in-command), and my brother was forced to play Gollum, a troll, an elf, and a village hobbit. If the owner of the rights had insisted ....
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mark safranski - 5/29/2005
Ha ! I'm glad to see that I am not the only veteran of JRR Tolkien 's work being set to music.
John H. Lederer - 5/28/2005
Not true in regard to many of the artifacts. They were removed prior to the invasion. Some went home with employees for "safekeeping".
here is part of a Reuters report:
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad's famed antiquities museum, ransacked by looters as Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s rule crumbled, will reopen next month after many of the treasures feared lost forever were found stashed in secret vaults around the city.
Museum research director Donny George said Sunday that among the items on show would be the Treasure of Nimrud, a priceless set of gem-studded gold Assyrian jewelry that has been displayed only once, briefly, in the last 3,000 years.
The treasure was recovered Thursday from flooded vaults below the gutted shell of the looted central bank.
Discovered between 1988 and 1990 in ancient royal tombs below an Assyrian palace dating from the ninth century BC, it was exhibited in the Baghdad Museum before being hidden in the central bank ahead of the 1991 Gulf War (news - web sites).
The treasure will be on show from July 3, when the museum's large Assyrian gallery will also reopen.
Besides the Nimrud artifacts, U.S. investigators also recovered thousands of items from the museum's main exhibition collection last week when employees led them to a secret vault somewhere in Baghdad. The items had been taken there for safekeeping ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (news - web sites).
"It's a secret place where we still have the whole collection of the museum that was displayed and it's safe," said George, standing among debris in the wrecked museum.
Asked by Reuters where the secret vault was, he said: "If I tell you, it will not be a secret."
I recall hearing an interview with a US officer appointed to investigate. As I recall he reported some of the more valuable pieces were taken from a locked vault -- which had not been forcibly entered.
Was there some looting? Undoubtedly. Was there some professional non-looter type theft? Yes. Were many objects initially reported stolen, not stolen? Yes.
Are the reports inconsistent? Yes. Very.
That is why I say it is cloudy.
Did we meet our responsibilites? I don't know -if the obligation is absolute, obviously we did not. I do not think our obligation is absolute -- resources are always limited and one has to choose between securing a water plant, maintaining an adequate striking force to defend from enemy remnants, searching for threats, guarding forces, resting exhausted troops, etc., etc., etc.,
Jonathan Dresner - 5/28/2005
It's called "looting" not "deacquisition" for a reason. It's called "chaos" and not "order" for a reason. We don't know the answers to those questions because the US-led forces in Iraq did not plan the protection of cultural treasures (as was their responsibility), did not respond adequately to known attacks on cultural sites (as was their responsibility) and have not adequately supported relevant authorities in cataloging and protecting cultural sites (as is their responsibility). So I take back what I said about responsibility: if nothing else is clear, it is clear that the responsibility for these losses is ours.
John H. Lederer - 5/28/2005
Which cold hard fact?
We don't know how much is missing.
We don't know what is missing.
We don't know when it went missing.
We don't know the circumstance of its removal.
We don't know who removed it.
We don't know whether/which articles were stolen from the museum or removed under authority and not returned.
The statements by those with putative authority have been wildly contradictory both among themselves and over time.
Other than that the cold hard facts are crystal clear.
Ralph E. Luker - 5/27/2005
It's just that John Lederer sees some cold, hard facts through a glass darkly.
Jonathan Dresner - 5/27/2005
No, it's not. Responsibility might be cloudy, but the looting and destruction of both the museum and the vast archeaological treasures of Iraq generally are cold, hard facts.
Oscar Chamberlain - 5/27/2005
Parodies are acceptable because they are not sold as the original. If Shakespeare had been alive he probably would have been upset at "MacBird," (a nasty little play that assumed that LBJ did in JFK), but he could not have stopped it because it was clearly not MacBeth.
John H. Lederer - 5/27/2005
The looting of the museum seems very cloudy.
Andre Mayer - 5/27/2005
The issue becomes clearer when we consider the rights of the author him/herself -- for whom the company is a surrogate. The late Samuel Beckett, for example, was in his lifetime very restrictive with regard to proposed productions of his plays. But, after all, his name was on them.
Parody is a different matter.
Jonathan Dresner - 5/27/2005
Hmmm. It strikes me that the right to parody -- protected speech, as the Supreme Court has recently ruled -- would also protect the right to produce with modification. Perhaps contract law would supercede it, but someone is then going to try to explain to me why dramatic licensing is handled differently than music licensing....
Never mind. I clearly don't get it.
Best Shakespeare comedy production I ever saw was an all-female college version of .... I think it was As You Like It (one of the ones where you've got people crossdressing and falling in love; no magic potions) ... really nicely done, and the added layer of gender oddities didn't hurt.
Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 5/26/2005
That's not a "trend"--it's a longstanding practice, and one that, in some cases (famously, Porgy and Bess), goes back decades. See, for example, the explanation in the licensing procedures for MTI, the company which manages the rights for just about every musical under the sun. These requirements are not necessarily inflexible--for example, in the 1990s, a couple of women's colleges apparently managed to get approval for all-female productions of 1776!--but MTI's permission must be obtained before the show begins its run.
David Timothy Beito - 5/26/2005
Someone should tell the coservative bloggers who seem to be believe this is all greatly overstated.
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