The idea of amnesty or immunity from prosecution for collectors who relinquish artifacts to museums received general support from panelists who spoke at the annual Utah Museum Association meeting.
Amnesty could be the only way of acquiring prehistoric objects for public enjoyment and scientific research in a timely manner, before artifacts leave the state on the black market or collectors go to their graves with pertinent material on the local heritage, members of the panel said recently.The seven-member antiquities panel was formed to identify legal and ethical dilemmas museums face when offered contraband artifacts. They were also asked to help define conditions for accepting and displaying collections obtained unscientifically without permit on public lands.
The group agreed changes in existing laws are needed that would encourage collectors to relinquish prehistoric treasures to museums for protection, preservation and research, and yet discourage illegal and destructive looting for profit and glory.
"My pie-in-the-sky wish is, somebody would say something that would make it all easy . . . and no one would go out and loot anymore, and those who have artifacts from collectors who went out 40, 50, 100 years ago would bring their collections to us," said Pam Miller, an archaeologist and curator for the College of Eastern Utah Museum in Price.
Travis Paraschonts, director of the State Division of Indian Affairs, said lawmakers must be involved in the sessions for them to be effective.
"We can sit here and talk and talk and talk, but I don't see any lawmakers here today," he said.
Other participants were David Madsen, state archaeologist; Ann Hanniball, curator of the Utah Museum of Natural History; Winston Hurst, curator of the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum; Craig Harmon, state archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; and William Howell, director of the Southeast Utah Association of Local Governments.
Utah Rep. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, was to participate but was unable to attend. Madsen presented a legislative review Dmitrich prepared, which noted no current or proposed statutes provide for museums to legally receive contraband antiquities or grant immunity to non-permitted private collectors.
The Division of State History is, however, preparing three bills for the 1990 legislative session to deal more stringently with vandalism and destruction of antiquities, make federal and state laws on cultural resource management more compatible, and combine the Board of State History and Cultural Review Sites Committee.
Laws currently allow tax write-offs for antiquities donations and for museums to purchase collections in some cases. Several panelists said that may implicitly encourage pot hunting and destruction of archaeological sites.
Miller said many museums exist because of donations, and if objects found in an unscientific manner were refused or removed from display, some museums would be wiped out.
If museums are unable to negotiate for amnesty in exchange for truthful and good-faith archaeological information and materials, the objects will be stripped forever of their link to place and community and the public loses, Hurst said.
Hurst condoned tax write-offs and purchase of artifacts only if the objects are accompanied by the best available archaeological documentation.
"Wrong information is worse than no information at all," he said.
Howell, representing Grand, San Juan, Carbon and Emery counties, said museums have an obligation to the public to accept, protect and display privately collected artifacts.
"It is a tragedy every time this type of donation is refused for lack of scientific purity or through fear of legal prosecution," Howell said.
"Refusal to accept offered artifacts for lack of scientific integrity is mere academic pomposity and, in a real sense, an affront to public trust and duty. Indeed, to accept and preserve donated items is the only honorable and defensible course of action."