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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