Database: the story so far ...

I'm working on a database of looted archaeological material, and one of the main issues is taking different opinions into account. In some ways choosing between opinions is the job of the historian, but the internet makes it harder since it provides an outlet for every voice - including my own.

I know too many people who've suffered the ire of extremists, such as Michel van Rijn, over the years, but we assume that a large site such as Wikipedia, would provide some balance thanks to its thousands of collaborators. Wikipedia may be full of mistakes, and open to editing by people with an agenda, but overall ... It's probably reasonably fair.

Another issue is not to defame so, for example, I'm looking at getting a strong disclaimer prominently framed. For example: Polaroids of items that passed through Giacomo Medici; many items he handled were looted, but not all were and one wouldn't want to besmirch innocent collectors (that turned into an animated discussion last night).

The Wikipedia model has help up until recently - they lost in court to Louis Bacon an American fund manager, and now have to disclose information to his lawyers. I don't know the merits of the case, but one of my objections to the internet is people leaving anonymous comments which are either hateful or false. If you're going to pick a fight, put your name to it - and make sure you're in the right.

Anonymity is another issue we're facing for the database. We want whoever is viewing an entry on the internet to be able to judge for themselves the validity of the information in the entry, and for me information about a looted item would have greater weight if it came from a respectable source I could verify. The counter argument is that an archaeologist working in say, Libya, or under the Taliban, might be happy to provide us with information but he scared to be publicly seen as doing so.

A key issue has become the cut-off date for items to include as looted. Most scholars work with 1970 UNESCO as the date, although technically that should be whenever the country in question ratified the Convention. I don't want someone trying to load up photos of the Elgin Marbles but I find it frustrating on the other hand that recent prosecutions in Italy failed less because of innocence than the statute of limitations running out. I've also taken the decision to go back to the '30s to include potential Holocaust Era claims. That may be controversial, but since we do it with paintings we should also with Antiquities.

Anyway, the short version is that I can understand more and more why previous attempts at creating a database failed. Oh, and I'll be blogging very lightly for a while.

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