America’s agreement with China creates opportunities as well as challenges

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If the US leaves the bargaining table, it could lose leverage in the cultural policy arena

By Laetitia La Follette. Web only
Published online: 01 March 2014

The article “US-China renew import deal” in The Art Newspaper’s March 2014 issue misleads in two important ways. First, this agreement with China goes far beyond import restrictions. It is one in a series of five-year long bilateral accords on cultural property, termed Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), that the US currently has with 15 nations. Its terms call for improvement in conservation and other museum programs in China, increased education in cultural resource management, longer-term loans of Chinese objects to American museums, and the fostering of student and institutional exchanges. Also included in this renewed MOU is China’s agreement to streamline the process for American archaeologists to obtain excavation permits. As part of the deal, the US agreed to restrict the import into this country of undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials whose pillage threatens the cultural patrimony of the requesting nation.

The second fallacy is that this aims “to curb smuggling”. No one expects any single agreement will completely “stop the looting of archaeological sites and illegal trafficking”. Studies have shown that the modern trade in stolen works of art involves a complex economic network.

As tools of cultural diplomacy, however, these MOUs have had a discernable impact, and not just in China. The MOU with Italy induced that country to quadruple the timeframe for museum loans to the US from one to four years. The MOUs with Central and South American nations—the oldest and most numerous of these agreements—boast an impressive track record of furthering collaboration among North American scholars, students, museums and educational institutions and their Latin American counterparts.

The first agreement with China was signed in 2009. In addition to the measurable effect it has had on curbing looting (cited in the article), it has also yielded unprecedented, bilateral educational opportunities for both countries. Dr. Anne Underhill of Yale, who has worked in China for over 20 years, detailed these in her letter, which is a matter of public record.

Of course, more work remains to be done: all of this takes time. But the public debate these agreements inspire every five years help art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and museum professionals among others, and their national organisations like the American Alliance of Museums, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, push successfully for better law enforcement, conservation efforts, and opportunities for the American public to learn about the heritage of these countries through loans and exchanges.

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