Under the Biden administration, can American cultural policy better reflect American values?

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There is an opportunity for America’s cultural policy to be retooled. US President Joseph Biden has appointed Lee Satterfield, a career diplomat, as deputy secretary of the State Department’s Office of Educational and Cultural Affairs. If confirmed, she will become the official who decides on memoranda of understanding (MOU), agreements with foreign countries that allow US restrictions on the import of cultural goods.

These restrictions are of great concern to collectors and commerce as they do not focus only on artifacts that are proven to be illegally exported, but also on any item of a similar type entering the United States from legitimate markets, especially those from Europe. And recent memoranda of understanding with some governments in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Turkey and Egypt, have angered representatives of displaced ethnic and religious minority groups, whose personal and community assets have been seized by these same authoritarian governments.

Extensive embargoes do not help protect archaeological sites in foreign countries from looting

The United States is one of the biggest markets for cultural goods, so it makes sense that our country has played a leading role in the fight against the looting of cultural artifacts. But it is imperative that we consider the interests of American collectors, museums, and dealers, whose small businesses depend on importing antiques, ethnographic arts, and coins. We must also respect the ethnic and religious minorities in these foreign countries which are too often neglected.

Lee Satterfield, US President Joe Biden’s choice for deputy secretary of the Office of Educational and Cultural Affairs

So how can Satterfield ensure that American cultural policy better reflects the intention of lawmakers and American values? First, it should ensure that the Advisory Committee on Cultural Property (CPAC), the body responsible for advising the executive branch on memoranda of understanding and the types of cultural property to be restricted, fully represents the interests of the public. , archaeologists, museums and international trade. . Today, the only trade representative is a collector, and no dealer has been appointed to the committee for years. CPAC needs such expertise to ensure that its advice incorporates their in-depth knowledge of how international exchanges of cultural goods work.

Second, Satterfield should refocus current import restrictions on narrow ranges of culturally important items that have been found to be illegally exported. Extremely broad embargoes – such as the one authorized by a memorandum of understanding signed with Turkey in January and implemented in June – on all items imported into the United States that “look like” those on extensive “designated lists” , do not help protect archaeological sites in foreign countries from looting. But they do have an impact on the legal trade in cultural objects of the type widely collected here and abroad, in particular imports from our main trading partners, the UK and the EU.

Finally, the State Department needs to do a much better job taking into account not only the interests of foreign governments, but also those of religious and ethnic minorities living in those countries and in exile abroad. The assumption that nations are great protectors of cultural property is too often wrong. In countries where minorities have been forced into exile by authoritarian governments, it makes no sense to recognize the rights of those governments to the material culture of displaced communities. Instead, the US government should have a strong policy recognizing the private and community property rights of these individuals.

It is hoped that these suggestions will be seen as constructive and not ignored simply because they challenge the current status quo. To be effective and fair, any cultural policy must take into account and respect all interests, not just those of archaeologist advocacy groups aligned with foreign bureaucracies.

Peter K. Tompa is a cultural heritage lawyer and the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Alliance


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