In Italy, precious ruins are being loved to death

By Richard Boudreaux / Los Angeles Times

POMPEII, Italy -- Guido Barone doesn't make the rules here, so he can only wince at the latest assault on this ancient Roman city -- by an army of backpacks. Squeezing into Pompeii's fragile ruins on the backs of tourists, they scrape precious wall paintings as their bearers pivot recklessly in overcrowded spaces. "You cannot force people to leave those things outside," Barone says in dismay amid a traffic jam in the House of the Vettii. A part-time comic actor, he finds little amusement guiding visitors through Pompeii, the city buried by the fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and dug up over the last 2-1/2 centuries. He has worked here 26 years, long enough to see rain, dust, sunlight, vandals and weeds erase much of what Vesuvius had preserved intact. The backpacks, which arrive each day by the thousands, are not just a new threat to the world's oldest archeological dig. They are a measure of Italians' booming interest in their cultural wealth -- a fascination the country's leaders are trying to cultivate in order to save the most battered treasures. Their proposals are radical for Italy. They include private sponsorship for monuments such as Pompeii, an idea that spawns visions of Disneylike theme parks with Roman togas and ads for Fiat. A debate pitting American-style capitalism against traditional Italian state custody is just starting, but there's an urgency to it. According to the New York-based World Monuments Fund, no other nation has such a trove of endangered churches, castles, palaces, museums, ancient forums and archeological unearthings. And few other nations are experiencing such a rush by their people to see what's still standing. Unfortunately, says Antonio Paolucci, the artistic superintendent of Florence, "the erosion of our cultural patrimony is happening much faster than the growth in our political awareness" of the loss. Italy's dubious blessing is a wealth too vast for the state to protect. The government lists 57,000 "major" monuments spread among every city and the smallest of towns. In a nation that resembles a sprawling outdoor museum, it's small wonder that an average of 96 art objects are reported stolen from church or state custody every day. In the last four years, Mafia bombs have damaged the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and two art-rich churches in Rome. Fires have swept through La Fenice, the 18th century opera house in Venice, and the chapel that housed the Shroud of Turin. Faulty restoration has brought down the roof of the cathedral in Noto, the jewel of Sicilian Baroque architecture. If all that were not enough, earthquakes have been shaking hill towns across Umbria and the Marches for weeks this autumn, toppling medieval bell towers and cracking scores of early Renaissance frescoes, including some in the badly damaged Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The same four years have brought a string of reformers to Italy's Ministry of Culture. They have revalued what is being lost and coaxed the Treasury to spend more for preservation. Museums closed for years are being reopened and visiting hours extended to make antiquity more accessible -- and potentially profitable. Italians are responding en masse. The 33 largest museums reported a 20 percent increase in visitors last summer. That does not count the smallish but exquisite Borghese Gallery, which has been filled to capacity since it reopened in June after 14 years of repairs. It still requires booking more than a week in advance. Nor does it count Pompeii, which is drawing more than 2 million visitors this year, up from 1.3 million in 1993. Many of the visitors are foreign, of course, but no one doubts that the renaissance is Italian. Whether this grass-roots enthusiasm can be harnessed to save Italy's monuments is about to be tested on Pompeii -- the most visited, underfunded and threatened of them all. Life in today's Pompeii often resembles a film noir. One weekend last spring, someone entered a closed excavation site and decapitated two plaster cadavers. The field archeologist suspects vandals, but Pompeii's superintendent, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, says he took the Mafia-style gesture as a "warning" from one of his many enemies. Guzzo's predecessor, removed nearly three years ago, has been under investigation for excavations that were imaginary except in cost. Guards once locked out tourists to protest Guzzo's stricter regime; he demands that they show up on time and not sleep on the job. The biggest problem is simply that too much of Pompeii has been dug up and not properly shielded from the elements. A walk through the ruins with a veteran guide like Barone is an exercise in imagining ancient treasures lost to modern neglect. "Fifteen years ago this was a beautiful piece; every detail was absolutely clear," the pony-tailed Neapolitan recalls, pointing the tip of his tartan umbrella at a still-life painting now faded beyond recognition. Turning to another blur in the same Vettii courtyard, he says: "We used to tell tourists, 'If you want to know what kind of flowers they planted in their garden, look at this fresco.' " Now the painted flowers are gone too. Across the yard, in the adorably frescoed Room of the Cupids, Barone's umbrella points at the ceiling, built of cheap reinforced concrete in the 1960s and already crumbling. A camera flash goes off, and more tourists muscle in. Two elderly guards, engrossed in discussion with each other, ignore the unruly crowd. A stray dog wanders in and curls up in the atrium. Surveying the chaos, Barone ventures a prediction: "The next eruption of Vesuvius will save Pompeii!" In his spacious office at the edge of the ruins, Guzzo lights his pipe and ponders his mission. Pompeii's superintendent has won worldwide applause from fellow archeologists, but he talks like a man under siege. "The area (of Pompeii) now open to the public is half what was open in the 1950s," the 53-year-old Roman says. "At this rate, by 2040 we'll be reduced to half of that, and so on. ... This is the death of Pompeii. Death will not come with one shock, as in an earthquake. But slowly and surely it will come -- unless we do something to reverse the trend." His plan is to stop new excavations and pour resources into protecting and cataloging what has been dug up. "We must stop the walls from crumbling, freeze the deterioration so we can hand this ancient city to our children," Guzzo says. "That's No. 1." A minimal once-over repair, he estimates, will cost $310 million and take 10 years.

Copyright 1997, The Detroit News

Sweden gives aboriginal skull back to Australia

07:46 a.m. Nov 15, 1997 Eastern

STOCKHOLM, Nov 15 (Reuters)

- The skull of an unknown Australian aborigine which was sent to Sweden in 1908 was handed to a delegation of aboriginal elders on Saturday, ending a 10-year tussle to allow its return to its country of origin. Sweden's National Museum of Ethnography gave the skull to a delegation from the Tasmanian aboriginal community at a ceremony in Stockholm, marking the latest stage in a campaign to retrieve aboriginal remains scattered across Europe. The skull had been given to the Swedish consul in Australia early this century by the Queen Victoria museum in Launceston in the state of Tasmania and the consul donated it to the Swedish museum. ``Aboriginal remains used to be considered rather as collectors' items in Europe,'' Lyndon Ormond-Parker, a spokesman for the Foundation of Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) told Reuters. ``We don't know how many aboriginal remains are scattered around Europe but we believe there could be as many as 2,000 in Britain alone.'' No one knows how old the skull is. Until recently it was considered to be Swedish state property, but the museum was granted permission to return it to the Tasmanian aborigines. ``Our community has waited a long time for this special occasion,'' elder Laurie Lowery said in a statement. Elisabeth Lind, senior curator of the Southeast Asian and Pacific collection at the Stockholm museum, said the delay in giving back the skull was due to administrative reasons. ``It certainly was not unwillingness...but the government has to approve such a move and you have to check carefully where the remains will go back to before it can be approved,'' she said.


(Philadelphia Inquirer)

New wave of thieving strikes after Cambodian coup


SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Cambodian villagers risked their lives in the 1970s hiding priceless wooden Buddha statues from Khmer Rouge guerrillas set on wiping out religion. But now, four ancient statues are gone -- stolen in the night from their most recent keeper, the Balang Pagoda, about 140 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. The theft of the 400-year-old statues was the first in what appears to be a new wave of pillaging in a protected 80-square-mile area around the ancient temples of Angkor in northwest Cambodia, said Oung Von, who heads the Angkor Conservatory in Siem Reap province. Angkor, the heart of the Khmer empire dating to the 7th century and home to 273 Hindu and Buddhist monuments, has always been prey for thieves who sell their stolen wares, mostly to Thailand. The thefts of statues and art treasures have slowed in recent years, however, thanks in part to the Heritage Police, set up with the help of the international community in 1994. The recent increase in looting could be linked to a bloody July coup by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. The takeover and subsequent fighting has scared off tourists and investors, forcing desperate locals to find new ways to make money. "Before July, looting was still going on, but far away from the town," Oung Von said. "Now it is happening within the protected area." In recent weeks, a 12th-century Buddha head was stolen from the Bayon temple, an 8th-century torso disappeared from the ruins of Prasat Lolei, and a 12-century statue of an Apsara dancer was taken from an entrance of Bantey Kdei temple. The wooden Buddhas at the Balang Pagoda were stolen last month by thieves who broke the door lock. The 5-foot figures were the most spectacular of 41 statues at the monastery. "These are old statues, belonging to the nation," said Soeum Chhup, a monk. "Now they're lost forever." Col. Chea Sophat, who heads the Heritage Police, fears protecting the sprawling site will become harder. "Everyone is getting poorer and poorer since the fighting in Phnom Penh," he said. "They have no more ways to make money."

Date: Sun, 16 Nov 1997 10:53:08 -0500 (EST) To: From: dpascale

news flash (library thief Gilbert Bland)

Hello, thought the readers of this list might be interested in this note that was posted to another list. I have received permission by the sender to pass this along. dp.

- - I am pleased to report to Ex-Libris subscribers that on October 8, 1997, the North Carolina Library Association announced its awarding of Honorary Membership to NC Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood. Judge Hobgood was so recognized because of his actions in the December 1996 court appearance of library thief Gilbert Bland in Orange County Superior Court in Hillsborough, NC. In this particular court case, Bland was charged with stealing 26 items from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, where he had hit each of the three Special Collections departments. The local assistant district attorney charged with prosecuting the case agreed to a plea bargin under which Bland would acknowledge guilt but receive no active time for the UNC thefts. Instead he would be credited with time already served awaiting trial and given a suspended sentence. When the plea bargain was presented to Judge Hobgood, he immediately rejected it, stunning the assistant district attorney, Bland, and Bland's lawyer. Hobgood stated "In my opinion, the penalty is not severe enough for what the man has done. That is why I'm rejecting the plea." He instructed that the attorneys renegotiate. The result was a new plea under which Bland received8-10 months active time in a North Carolina prison, with credit for the 103 days he had spent in the Orange County jail awaiting his Hillsborough court appearance. Even with that time credit, Bland had to serve an additional four and a half months in jail in North Carolina. When he accepted the second plea agreement, Judge Hobgood said "My main concern was that if there was ever a case in which the victim was the state of North Carolina, this was one.... Any citizen of the state of North Carolina would have a right to have access and go into those materials." A number of newspapers in the state had carried stories on Bland's court appearance and the judge's actions. When asked by reporters to comment on the final sentence, the judge described it as a "message to anyone in a similar circumstance to know what a treasure we have in the library system." In conferring honorary membership on the judge, NCLA stated "Judge Hobgood's actions sent a clear message that theft of library materials should be treated as a serious crime. The publicity his decision received has helped us educate the public about the seriousness of library theft. Also, his firmness in dealing with Bland sets a precedent that can be cited to other judges and law enforcement officials when library thefts occur in the future." Only one other honorary membership was awarded by NCLA at the 1997 biennial conference. Because Mr. Bland caused such damage to so many libraries across the country, I thought the Ex-Libris community would be interested in knowing about this award to Judge Hobgood.



ON MUSEUMS / An Explosive Scene, a Lock On the Crowds

Jonathan Mandell

I reprint below my column "On Museums" in today's Newsday in hopes that it will encourage more of you to send me your ideas.

JOHN TRAVOLTA pulls a gun on the director of a museum in the new movie "Mad City," takes her and a group of schoolchildren hostage and eventually sets off some dynamite. But this does not worry real museum director Brad Penka. "We have maximum security here," says Penka, head of the Barbed Wire Museum. The particular barbed wire museum that he heads - since there are, as he explains, at least three such museums in the country - is 6 years old and located in LaCrosse, Kan., which calls itself the barbed wire capital of the world. "There are 1,700 varieties of barbed wire," Penka says. "We have about 900 of them. We don't use any of it in our security system." Tom Hennessy isn't concerned either. He is the curator of the Lock Museum of America, which is in Terryville, Conn. (It just locked up for the winter.) "First of all, there's no windows on the first floor; it's built like a fort," he says. "I shouldn't say that, because there are windows in the front. But the rest of the museum doesn't have any." Begun 25 years ago, the Lock Museum of America now has a collection of some 20,000 locks, not all of them from America. Some are antiques from Europe going back to the 16th Century, and there is one, from Egypt, that Hennessy originally thought was 4,000 years old. "But a locksmith visited from New York, and he's Egyptian, and he's seen all the locks in the museums there, and he said he figures it's 7,000 years old." These days, even locks and barbed wire bring people into museums, rather than keep them out. Museums are exploding, though not in the literal way they do in "Mad City." When a TV reporter (Dustin Hoffman) is sent out at the beginning of the movie to cover the story of the budget cuts at a fictional California town's Museum of Natural History, where he stumbles upon a gun-toting laid-off museum security guard (Travolta), his anchor says, "I see dinosaurs there. I guess the fear today is that the museum might share the same fate as those mighty beasts." If, like most other cultural institutions, museums are having financial problems, the only thing that the museum world really shares with the dinosaur is its size. The number of museums is rising steadily. The United States now has more than 8,000 museums, 1,200 of them art museums, a number that is 50 percent higher than a quarter century ago. New museums are opening up all the time, at least 50 last year in America alone (including a museum of dentistry in Baltimore, four Indian museums, at least seven science museums and the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, N.Y.). This year the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City are among those that have opened to flash and fanfare. Many alreadyestablished museums are greatly expanding, with the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village, for example, this month having broken ground on a building that will increase its exhibition space more than tenfold. People are visiting museums more than ever; new attendance records are being set every year. In the second half of 1989, the Nassau County Museum of Art had about 20,000 visitors; last year, they clocked 226,000. "As America's favorite tourist attractions, museums ranked third [behind shopping and outdoor activities]," according to the recent report of the National Endowment for the Arts titled "American Canvas," "well ahead of sports, gambling, nightlife and amusement parks." (Not to mention John Travolta movies.) "I think it's because people are becoming more interested in the old, in history," offers Lt. Joy Macfarlane of San Quentin, which is the oldest prison in California, begun in 1852 and still incarcerating criminals. San Quentin would have been an apt place for the Travolta character, for more than one reason. For the past three years a small building on the prison grounds has served as the San Quentin State Prison Museum. "It includes stuff that goes back to the beginning - old weapons and locks and uniforms," says Macfarlane. This is a museum open to the public - inmates are not invited - though, as the lieutenant admits, "we haven't gotten too many people yet." Give them time, lieutenant, give them time.

Jonathan Mandell can be reached online about this column, which will run in this space every other week, at Copyright 1997, Newsday Inc.