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International Cultural Property Protection and the Web: Implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the U.S.

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner , United States Information Agency, USA


Session: Information Policy

National policies concerning the protection of cultural property vary widely throughout the world. Yet between states, a consensus of sorts is building surrounding the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970 Convention). As of July, 1998, eighty-nine states had ratified the 1970 Convention bringing the number of participants to over half the existing recognized states worldwide. However, each country implements the 1970 Convention differently. In the U.S., the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act defines the conditions under which the U.S. will take action to protect the cultural property of other state parties to the 1970 Convention. Essentially, a country makes a request to the U.S. for protection under Article 9 of the 1970 Convention. The U.S. has agreements with or taken emergency action with regard to six countries: Bolivia, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mali, and Peru. With the exception of Bolivia, all agreements are currently in force. The imposition of import restrictions on categories of objects subject to looting in the requesting country is one of the principal U.S. activities under this type of cultural property agreement. This restriction requires that specific categories of objects have export documents from their country of origin before they can be legally imported into the U.S. The intent behind the import restriction is to reduce the market demand for undocumented objects in the U.S. and thereby reduce the incentive for pillage of archaeological sites in the requesting country. Enforcement of the restriction requires U.S. Customs inspectors and other investigators be able to identify the specific materials. In addition, it is desirable that scholars, collectors, dealers, curators, and others seeking to purchase or research materials from a country with which the U.S. has a cultural property agreement have the fullest possible information about precisely which materials are restricted. Although a detailed descriptive list is published in the Federal Register at the time an agreement is reached, words alone cannot adequately describe the range of variation within categories of objects subject to import restriction. Web-based distribution of images illustrating restricted categories of objects is the obvious solution: Customs and law enforcement personnel, museum officials, scholars, archaeologists, collectors, and the interested public in the U.S. and abroad would all have access to the illustrations and other descriptive information regarding restricted artifacts. Design and implementation of this image database presented a number of challenges in:

  1. illustrating categories of objects rather than specific items;

  2. creating a data model that uses an accepted international standard;

  3. using descriptive terms and search mechanisms that meet the needs of the law enforcement community as well as specialists and the general public;

  4. designing an interface that accomodates both high end and low end users.

This paper will indicate how these challenges were met and, to the extent possible after six months online, how the Web site has affected the ability of the U.S. to offer protection to cultural property worldwide.