Points of You - Volume 4

The forum that could not wait for a year to happen.

A very interesting reflection by Yannis Hamilakis, that will be our 'Points of You' for volume 4. What do you think?

"Friends asked me to elaborate on my suggestion for an Occupy movement, not only for art museums and galleries but also archaeological museums, archaeological sites/projects and other culture/heritage institutions that rely on cheap, un-insured, non-unionised labour, or on sponsorship from corrupt corporations.

We in archaeology, art and heritage domains have been for far too long, oblivious, tolerant, if not complicit to a regime of work and political economy which is not sustainable; they tell us about expansion, new markets, new wings for our museums, new museums elsewhere, mega-projects with hundreds of specialists which are going to last for a quarter of a century, and we think: great! Lots of jobs for us and others, more heritage, more culture, more archaeology, that’s good all round, right?

Well, no it’s not right: who is building that museum, heritage center or your university branch in the Gulf country ruled by a dictatorship? What are their conditions of work and pay, and how many have been killed in workplace accidents, and why? And once that museum or university branch has been built, how can they establish a culture of critique and open dialogue, how can they challenge power and authority, in a context where even the most basic rights of free expression are denied?

Why is beneficial for archaeology and for society to stage mega-field projects relying on the funding by corporations such as Shell, with its own dismal record of environmental destruction, and human rights abuse? And how much potential archaeological knowledge has been lost elsewhere (due to oil drilling, and the destruction of habitats), for the archaeological knowledge gained in one specific site?

Why is it great for art and archaeology to stage blockbuster exhibitions at the British Museum or the Tate (and I say this as a member), sponsored by BP and other similar companies, with their logos prominently exhibited everywhere? Why are we allowing archaeological and art objects to act as participants in this gigantic theatre of green-washing and complicity?

Where are the new creative, life-transforming and challenging ideas going to come from, if we dance to the tune of our sponsors, and design our research questions, our discussion frames and our rhetoric according to their profile and philosophy?

How many more volumes do we need on “religion” in the Near-eastern Neolithic, all funded by the Templeton Foundation?

These are extra-ordinary times. They demand extra-ordinary actions. Hence my suggestion. Occupy Museums in the US is already making a difference. Occupy in archaeological and art museums, galleries and archaeological projects is the next step."


I have discussed this issue a bit myself in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/nujbr3h) here is my point:

The recent experiment brought about by activists at the Guggenheim Museum represents an interesting attempt and a model for future forms of activism within cultural institutions.
The action/boycott was aimed at making visitors aware of the new expansion plans fostered by the Guggenheim which included the realisation of a new museum in Abu Dhabi that according to Hyperallergic activists, will be constructed through the use of infamous debt peonage agreements.

The initiative is beyond any doubt laudable; an excellent starting point which can be fruitfully repeated in other Museums and/or cultural institutions. Yet, at the same time, while effective for very specific aims (Guggenheim direction felt immediately the need to respond to protests and clarify the position of the institution), this kind of action falls short of addressing some basic issues that cultural workers really need to start to tackle. In my view the main point is, to put it bluntly, the amount of resources that are allocated to culture. As long as within national budgets of countries public expenditure for culture continue to stay at the current level (e.g. in European countries 0.55% is the current median value attested) infiltration of 'corporate logic', so to speak, will ineluctably (but not without responsibility) drive policy of cultural institutions toward the kind of misbehaviour denounced by activists.

This is the real elephant in the room. Can we lobby and together push to have greater public resources for culture within modern 'democratic' states? I believe that as long as we do not address this, problems similar to those addressed by activists will cyclically emerge. With this, of course, I am not stating that we have to cease to work on the specific, but rather that along with commitment on individual issues, we need to start to deal also with the set of conditions from which these problems stem. To this extent, the first step is to create a real class-consciousness among cultural workers. Whether archaeologists on the field, curators, museum workers, gallery assistants and so on, we are all part of a broad cultural sector with many common interests, and above all, we are all too aware that the amount of resources allocated to culture is growing increasingly scarce. Such a class-consciousness, in turn, needs to be able to win a large consensus and hegemonise public opinion in broader international settings as well as, more traditionally, within each state. Cultural workers must start to address policy-making and advocate for greater resources. Or else they will perish and/or the whole sector will become increasingly the court jester of corporate power.

In short what we need, I think, is some sort of global campaign aimed at making people aware of how much culture matters in their life and, at the same time, a transnational organism able to influence states and supra-national institutions alike about the fundamental need for more resources (a good old-fashioned syndicate?).

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