This Isn’t the Whole Picture: What We Lack Because We Lack Criminologists

For the last fifty years, the overriding discourse on the illicit antiquities trade as a criminal enterprise has been held by archaeologists, journalists, lawyers, and, sometimes, museum professionals – people with great academic credentials, sound voices, and significant contributions. But almost none of them criminologists. Statistically, criminologists probably make up 1% or less of the people in academia and news media who have been publishing on the illicit antiquities trade for the last few decades. A crude count off the top of my head elicits, at most, ten names, including my own. Definitely less if we’re not including art crime. Less than that if we’re not including current students (though I think we should).

Frankly, this is alarming. How is it that a field of criminal behaviour has been dominated by people who don’t specialise in crime? It’s like we’ve been relying on a plumber to describe our electrical problems for the last five decades. As a result, our collective consciousness about what’s going on, who is responsible, and how to stop it lacks language and concepts that have been created exactly for these kinds of situations. A whole bunch of us have essentially been trying to break ground on issues that have already been explored and constructed in other fields. The few criminological voices out there have not been enough to reverse a discourse that is settled in its legal, overwhelmingly archaeological ways, leading to an incomplete dialogue, flawed legislation, and misguided lines of questioning in the media.

Why is this important? We need archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals to say what they’re seeing on the ground, how it affects them, how it affects our understanding of human history, and why it’s important to us to preserve what’s being destroyed. We need journalists to blow the whistle on corruption, investigate the truth in hard-to-reach places, and report on it with unbiased integrity. We need lawyers to interpret existing law and policy, identify weakness and loopholes, and to help construct more effective legislation. But in between, we need criminologists to tell us where exactly things have gone wrong and why. We need criminologists to illuminate how complex deviance and wrongdoing can be, and that it’s rarely as simple as baddies and heroes. We need them to explore and explain how some environments might be more conducive to criminality than others, whether certain people are more likely to commit crimes, what incentivises people to deviate, and what deterrence methods might be most effective. We need them to identify the very human problems at the root of the trade, and demonstrate how policymakers can write the most effective legislation, how the licit market might better regulate itself, how museums might better understand their crucial role in fighting these problems, and even how archaeologists might become more aware of the pockets of deviance within their own discipline.

I’m not saying that all the work done up to now is useless crap. Far from it. But because so few criminologists are focused on the illicit antiquities trade, there are two primary issues with the way we discuss and conceptualise it.

1) The Language We Use

There is an entire list of vocabulary missing from our discourse that would help us to better identify, contextualise, and understand the issues and phenomena we’re dealing with. For example, when we discuss issues surrounding corrupt curators, dealers, and collectors, we’re very adept at painting individuals with a broad, criminalising brush. They’re the bad guys, we say, and this is how they ruin things for all humanity, past and present. But, when we discuss Marion True or Dietrich von Bothmer for example, what most of us don’t ask is, “Is this an example of organisational crime, in which the act was committed in order to benefit the organisation, or more an occupational crime, in which the act was committed to benefit the individual?” We don’t question whether normalisation or techniques of neutralisation are being employed in the accounts given by deviant curators and dealers. We don’t consider how we might use situational crime prevention in organisational contexts as well as field contexts. We don’t say that conscious collecting of illicit material is a crime of the powerful. We don’t consider how retaining cultural material that was legally acquired but of dubious ethical origins (say, war booty from 1897, or Nok terracottas acquired before a certain date) might constitute a harm of the powerful. In fact, we don’t distinguish between crime and harm at all because we don’t have that distinction in our collective toolbox yet.

These distinctions and terms are important. Employing them would help us to better characterise the issues we see and deal with on a daily basis.

2) The Questions We Ask

Our conversations on regulation, enforcement, and policy-making, on punishment, judgment, and forgiveness, on organisation, trafficking, and security, are all too often coloured by our opinions as laypeople or lawyers. The questions we ask reflect our preoccupation with finding, as quickly as possible, the ideal solutions: How big is the trade? How do we stop it? How do we change ineffective legislation? Who is responsible? How do we hold them accountable? These are not bad questions by any means, but they reflect our political infrastructures’ current focus on short-term solutions. Longitudinal analysis is an unheard-of luxury these days. People are looking for immediate fixes to problems that are multi-faceted, tenacious, and old as dirt. Obviously, cutting off one head of the beast isn’t going to kill it if it has other heads, but that doesn’t stop the current political environment from trying.

Most of us are not trained to analyse our own preconceptions about crime and punishment. Except for occasional ruminations on capital punishment, it’s not something we generally have to think about on a day-to-day basis. But the same way most of us in the art field have to slog through the “What is art?” debate at one point or another, maybe more of us should be forced to confront the “What is crime?” debate. I’ve seen many people complain that Marion True didn’t get what she really deserved. After the Washington Post interview, there were grumblings of dissatisfaction and snorts of amused disbelief that she was so quick to point out that she wasn’t the only person engaging in illicit behaviour. Some of us were particularly eager to reassert that Marion True doesn’t deserve our sympathy. Why? Because she’s a baddy. Baddies don’t deserve sympathy. In the minds of many people, the trial should have resulted in her conviction and subsequent incarceration. This is a normal thing to think, because it’s the kind of criminal justice system we’ve been assured is most effective.

However, as a criminologist, it’s not ridiculous to me that True was quick to note that no other curators or collectors were publicly disgraced in the same way she was. This is an entirely valid thing to point out. It is not ridiculous to say, “Only one curator in the whole of the United States was prosecuted, roundly condemned, and cast out for participating in certain illegal endeavours. We know more than one curator in the United States participated in these same endeavours. Why were no other curators in the United States put on trial and publically humiliated for their role in this business?” Singling out Marion True fails to acknowledge the work culture and organisational systems that inform individuals’ perceptions and behaviour. If there were more criminologists talking about the illicit antiquities trade, more of us might consider that organisational structure is crucial to consider when dealing with crimes of the powerful. Behaviours can be normalised through repeated use and responsibility can be diffused among numerous people. Wrongdoing or harm, whether intentional or accidental, can be linked to multiple actors through multiple decision-making levels and processes.

So instead of asking myself whether Marion True was let off easy, I’m more likely to ask things like:

  • Assuming that objects were casually acquired without consideration of provenance or findspot prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention as part of a long-term museum culture rooted in colonial expansion and ethnocentric scientific exploration, what sort of effect did the criminalisation of this culture’s collection practices have on the culture itself?
  • Did most organisations consciously continue to violate the law?
  • Are these violations accompanied by other crimes like fraud or embezzlement?
  • Is one kind of person more likely than another to have engaged in this behaviour?
  • What are the exact justifications or rationalisations of this behaviour?
  • Does participation in illicit behaviour vary by area of expertise, i.e. are curators of classical Greek and Roman art more likely to engage in illicit behaviour to acquire objects than curators of African art?
  • What effect have all the recent scandals had on how curators conceptualise issues of looting and collecting and their role in them?
  • What has contributed most to deterrence of participation in illicit behaviour?
  • Is this illicit behaviour actually the exception, rather than the norm?
  • Was it the norm in the past, and only the exception now?
  • Should deviant curators be incarcerated for their actions?
  • Is there a more effective way to address and reverse criminogenic behaviours and environments within educational institutions?

When we ask, “How big is the trade?” the root of that question is really, “How big is the demand from people of power?” When we ask, “How do we stop it?” we should also ask, “How do we address the criminogenic environments in all the many different fields that contribute to the trade’s success?” With “How do we change ineffective legislation?” it’s, “Do we know enough about the trade from scholarly studies, and if not, how do we get those studies funded so we can create the most informed legislation?” With, “Who is responsible?” it’s, “How and why are they responsible? What system are they a part of? How do their perspective and their environment influence their behaviour?” And with, “How do we hold them accountable?” it’s honestly still just a question of, “How do we hold them accountable?”

The reason why we need these perspectives, terms, and concepts is, I believe, because criminology is a very humanising discipline. There’s nothing quite like studying criminology to make you realise that everyone is a criminal deviant at one point or another. Depending on the crime, being able to empathise or sympathise with a criminal actor over their feelings leading up to, during, or following their actions is not a bad thing. It can be a tremendous asset in understanding that type of behaviour from both a personal and a scholarly point of view. However, it can also lead to ideas about how to alter environments or perspectives so that it doesn’t recur. It can lead to communication that breaks down misleading and harmful assumptions about both the victim of the act and the actor. Even in the most extreme cases (like genocide), it can lead to forgiveness. On all sides of the debate, we need this. We need more powerful words to make more powerful arguments about the crime, harm, and deviance we witness, and we need the understanding we could get from certain theories and concepts to help us more patiently and cleverly figure out what’s going on in the minds of powerful actors.

The most effective way to achieve this in the long term is simply to encourage interested students to get their degrees in criminology. Until recently, those interested in studying the trade most commonly went through archaeology or law, with supplementary guidance from some of the brilliant art law and art crime courses out there. But criminology offers what law and archaeology cannot, which is a much more detailed and complete understanding of why people do what they do in this field and how it’s possible to fix what’s broken. It’s the middle road, with access to the people and problems at all levels of the market. And most importantly, it’s a road we critically need travelled if we want to see meaningful progress in fighting the trade in the next decade.

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Introducing the Trafficking Culture Society Seminar Series (and my triumphant return to blogging)

If it wasn’t already obvious based on my total neglect of this blog, I’ve been on the fence about blogging over the last couple years. Getting swallowed ever deeper by the beast of academia has radically altered the function blogging serves for me. The purpose of my previous blog was simple: to get me heard by important academics, set my voice apart from other undergraduates, and prove my worth to the people I wanted to take me on as a postgraduate. But once that had been achieved, the incentive for using that platform diminished. The feeling that I should be blogging, however, never abated. I should be setting my voice apart as an academic, I should be making myself a bit more hireable, I should be speaking about these issues again. Should should should. But coming back has not felt simple. A new perspective means an entirely new landscape and new challenges to navigate. On top of the usual insecurities, the increasing reliance on our ideas as our currency brings a whole host of new anxieties as we encounter casual plagiarism and creative theft within our fields. We become protective and hoarder-like, preferring to save the best ideas for peer reviewed journals, rather than immediately disseminating them among the audiences we’re supposed to serve. Additionally, this whole academic blogging thing is still relatively new as a medium, so even though postgraduates are constantly being encouraged/hassled to publish all over the place, it’s often unclear what’s safest to publish on a blog versus what’s safest to publish in a journal. And let’s not forget major identity shifts surrounding the reformation of yourself as a brand and being unsure what your own voice on these things sounds like or what it should say.

But as I enter the third year of my PhD, I feel much more ready to confront that hoarding mentality and start some disseminating. I think I’ve found my voice again, and I’m a lot clearer about what I want it to say. So hi, I’m back.

A big aspect of my readiness in returning to social media has been about creating platforms for other peoples’ voices. It’s a constant goal in my work to find venues for important voices to reach audiences that might not hear them otherwise. On that theme, I’m excited to announce the Trafficking Culture Society Seminar Series, premiering this fall!


Titled, “What’s It To Me? Relevancy and Impact of Doing Research on the Illicit Antiquities Trade”, this series features members and friends of the Trafficking Culture Project at the University of Glasgow. Not only are we super excited to be hosting it in the beautiful Hunterian Museum, literally right next to the amazing Trafficking Culture exhibition, but we will also be LIVE STREAMING THIS ISH! That’s right, thanks to the power that is Periscope, you too can tune in in real time to hear some of the best researchers in this field discuss the opportunities, challenges, and issues facing students, researchers, and professionals whose work is affected by the illicit trafficking of cultural and art objects.

As you can see, our first talk THIS THURSDAY AT 4 PM. We’ll be featuring the lovely co-organiser and Trafficking Culture PhD candidate Christine Weirich, who will be giving a lovely introductory run down of the issues as they apply to certain researchers and professionals, setting the groundwork for the talks to follow!

At the time of the events, I’ll be posting the link to live stream on my Twitter and the Facebook page for the series. No sign up required, just click and you’re in! We look forward to seeing you there!

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The Month in African Art News – July

I may have taken a hiatus from work-related social media for the month of July (the closest to a vacation that a PhD student can get?), but African art in the news sure didn’t.

Masks by artist Bema Coulibaly, by Yaëlle Biro (links to page)

Masks by artist Bema Coulibaly, by Yaëlle Biro (links to page)

A major highlight of coming back online was catching up with the amazing photos and videos on Twitter from New York-based African art scholars/curators Yaëlle Biro, Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Roger D. Arnold, and Emma Wingfield during their trip to Cote d’Ivoire. Lucky for us, they’ve made it super easy to live vicariously through them via  Twitter hashtag #CIVTrip2014.

Once again, if you see anything I’ve missed, let me know!

Call for papers

African Archaeology Research Day 2014, November 21-22 at Bristol University 
African Heritage Challenges: Development and Sustainability, 15-16 May 2015


Local art collection featured at Maryhill Museum, Washington state, August 9-November 15.
–  African Art @ Hite Art Institute , Kentucky, July 25-September 13.
–  Eastern Shore AFRAM Festival set for Aug. 8 and 9 in Seaford, Maryland

General News

31 July
Fort Wayne’s African/African-American Museum moving forward

30 July
–  Boston MFA’s Provenance Research Reveals the Illicit Trade in African Antiquities: Jason Felch has provided an intriguing look at some of the people and collections behind the Boston MFA objects that were recently repatriated to Nigeria.

29 July
– African art collection found in stairwell ‘tomb’ at MSSU

28 July
–  How Benin Recovered Stolen Artefacts: an illuminating interview with Prince Edun Akenzua of Benin, in which he discusses the Benin understanding of the events leading up to the 1897 Punitive Expedition, what has been done in the past to encourage repatriation of objects, and the unlikelihood of taking the issue to the Hague.
Africa’s top ten World Heritage sites 

27 July
–  Walker and the Restitution of Two Benin Bronzes by Peju Layiwola: a personal account of the repatriation ceremony in Benin city last month.

25 July
–  Price associate mentioned in affidavit left out of indictments: African art gallery at centre of Dallas County Commissioner indictment
–  Walter Battiss: Back to the past for the future

24 July
–  Cantor Arts Center Appoints New Curator of the Arts of Africa, Native America and Ancient America 

23 July
–  Museum for African Art Scales Back Construction Plans
–  Two Prominent Museum Directors Encourage ‘New Ways of Thinking’ : including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s Johnetta B. Cole.

22 July
–  When a Museum’s Big Dreams Prove Too Ambitious 

20 July
Ghent University’s ‘Cabinet of Wonder’ exhibition: While the exhibition is now over, Bruno Claessens has some photos and footage of what looked to be an intriguing exhibition.

19 July
 Nail-studded ‘voodoo’ dolls go under the hammer 

15 July
–  ‘Hats Off’ to Africa and Beyond for 25 Years in La Jolla
–  How to Make It: 10 Rules for Success to Work at a Museum: featuring Brooklyn Museum curator Kevin D. Dumouchelle

11 July
–  Nigeria: Reps Urge UK to Repatriate Stolen Artefacts 

10 July
African art the Louvre Abu Dhabi: Bruno Claessens overview of the nascent museum, which will be the first encyclopedic museum in the Middle East.

8 July
UNESCO Warns Nigeria Against Cultural Extinction 

7 July
–  Out of Africa: tribal art comes of age. African Tribal art, or Art Premier, is soaring in popularity as a recent Sotheby’s Paris world record auction proved. 

4 July
A Season of “Miracles”? Boston Museum Returns Looted Nigerian Artefacts: Kwame Opoku explores his surprise at the MFA repatriation, the policy history behind it, and his hope that other museums will follow suit.

3 July
–  Workshop aims to preserve photographs of African history 

2 July
A mystery figure form the Vérité Collection: Bruno Claessens has posted an object of unknown ethnic origin in order to crowd source possible answers. Not really news, but an excellent example of the kind of academic blogging I love.

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The Month in African Art News – June

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

I did promise you long periods of neglect, so I think that three months between posts is sufficient. In retrospect, launching a new blog while preparing for my first year review wasn’t the best idea. However, you can dry your eyes now. In addition to cobbling together proper bloggy material, I’m stealing a page from Donna Yates’s book and beginning a monthly news roundup of everything I’ve seen on African art and cultural heritage in the previous four weeks. Due to the focus of my research, it will mostly be West African in nature, pertain to “traditional” arts or cultural heritage (as opposed to including contemporary art), involve museums and exhibitions, seek out issues regarding theft/looting/illicit export, and definitely include student-centric opportunities when I come across them.

If you’ve seen anything I’ve missed, do let me know!

General News

2 June
– ‘Africa Beyond Africa: The Future of Cultural, Social and Scientific Research’ International Conference

7 June
Museums: Rotting Away Across the States (Nigeria)

8 June
UK Culture Community Celebrates Nigeria at 100

12 June
Nkishi Power Figure from Liberia Brings Record Price at Kaminski Auctions

14 June
Ugandan king battles Oxford museum over lost throne

16 June
Burkina Faso: New facts reveal the contribution of culture to development
 Nigeria pays over $1m to 37 antiquities vendors (Most articles I’ve seen on this all look like this, with no explanation whatsoever for WHY. Details covered on 20 June.)

18 June
Step Inside the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s New and Improved African Art Galleries

19 June
On Becoming a National Museum – 50th Anniversary of the National Museum of African Art (cool photos!)

20 June
Why Trafficking of Antiquities Will Continue (more on the payment scheme to Nigeria’s antiquities dealers.)

23 June
Behind-the-scnes tour shows visitors the Appleton Museum they don’t usually see (including the museum’s collection of African art)

24 June
News Items Added to African Art Collection at UT Arlington

29 June
UNESCO: Reconstruction of 2 World Heritage Mausoleums in Timbuktu Completed

Nigeria Repatriations (+ drama)

This month was a mixed bag for Nigeria. On the exciting end of the spectrum, ten looted objects were repatriated: two Benin bronze figures from the British descendent of an 1897 Punitive Expedition soldier, and eight illegally exported artefacts from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. On the awkward end of the spectrum, the relationship between the Oba of Benin and the National Commission for Monuments and Museums (NCMM) appears to have deteriorated following an argument over the location of the repatriation ceremony of the two Benin bronze figures.

5 June
– Nigeria: Benin Monarch, NCMM Disagree Over Reception for Returning Antiquities

19 June
National Museum can’t receive recovered artefacts

21 June
Briton returns looted Benin artefacts after 177 years (Nope, it’s only been 117)

22 June
‘Looted’ Nigerian art returned to traditional ruler

23 June
Oba of Benin Elated over Return of Two Bronze Works

26 June
The Boston MFA Returns 8 Looted Antiquites to Nigeria
Museum of Fine Arts returns artefacts to Nigeria

Events and Exhibitions

June 28 – October 5: “African Masters – Arts from the Ivory Coast” in Bonn, Germany.


The Baltimore Museum of Art is taking a survey on what you care about when you’re look at African art. The museum is currently renovating their African galleries, which will be open again in April 2015.

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The First Post

47851629It’s been a little over a year since my last post on Things You Can’t Take Back, which I unceremoniously abandoned within a few months of settling into Glasgow. In that time, I’ve completed a Master’s degree in criminology, begun my PhD, experienced a drastic evolution in my perspective towards concepts of art, definitions of criminality, and rights of ownership and display, developed a much higher tolerance to large quantities of beer thanks to having a Scot and a Scouse for supervisors, and slowly built a new identity as a researcher and budding expert, rather than as “just” a student. With so much life change stuff and an unfortunate incident in which I lost the domain name “” to someone in Japan, coming back to blogging necessarily required a fresh start.

When I last left blogging, I was at a crossroads in terms of tone, perspective, and audience. My growth as a social scientist saw an increased discomfort with the record of my brash condemnations and embarrassingly strong language. Certain posts became a source of uneasiness as I worried their irreverent contents might prevent access to participants for my postgraduate research. So I abandoned blogging temporarily and used this past year to cobble together a new, more positive idea of what I want to say, who I want to say it to, and the tone I feel most comfortable adopting. While the old blog admirably served its purpose and is responsible for getting me where I am today, I hope this new blog will establish some distance between the researcher I am now and the eager but needlessly aggressive student I was then.

This new venture won’t be so much a news blog as it will be reflective commentaries on my PhD subject, no doubt spurred by recent goings-on. Which is a nice, professional way of saying I will constructively blather about what I think we’re all doing wrong, what I think we’re all doing right, issues of transparency in the market and educational institutions, concepts of authenticity in the production and sale of cultural objects, issues relating to museums and their role in acquiring, exhibiting, and restituting cultural objects, and (due to the nature of my PhD research) topics pertaining to West Africa and the sale, trafficking, movement, collection, exhibition, and appreciation of West African cultural objects. My interest in this field isn’t limited to stopping, condemning, regulating, controlling, or prosecuting the movement of objects and the actors involved. My interest lies principally in how values are formed and labelled, how criminality is perceived and defined, how social harms are measured and weighed, and how our perspective on all of this can help or hinder the problems at hand.

And, not being an idiot, I realise the majority of my audience will likely consist of fellow scholars, experts, journalists, and students who are familiar with these issues to a certain extent. However, my goal is to discuss these issues in such a way that you won’t need to have read all the major literature on the topic beforehand to understand it, but that you might want to when you’re done. On the other side of that spectrum, I’m still learning this stuff too, so if I’ve missed something or you know of a resource I might benefit from, check out my contact details and be sure to enlighten me.

So follow me on Twitter, subscribe by email, and stay tuned for erratic posting and long periods of neglect!

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