The debate surrounding cultural heritage preservation at CPAC public hearings has always been dominated by the cognoscenti—archaeologists, art historians, dealers, collectors and museum curators whose careers or professional interests are directly affected by the outcome. The general assumption is that the public has no interest in the matter and is therefore unfamiliar with the issues. As a result, when decisions are made about how our cultural resources are managed and protected, the public’s opinion is seldom consulted. SAFE proposes making these public hearings an opportunity to find out whether the “average” American truly cares or not, and how he/she feels about the matter.
In order to gauge public opinion about this subject SAFE launched the “Say YES to Italy” campaign, reaching out to both experts and non-experts on the issues, as well as those who cannot travel to Washington to testify.
We conducted our “Say YES to Italy” campaign by first providing information. We linked our web pages directly to the Cultural Property website of the State Department and handed out the same material. In other words, we based our campaign on the US government’s decision five years ago to grant Italy’s request.
How SAFE gathered public opinion
As the majority of the population is unfamiliar with CPAC, the CPIA, or the 1970 UNESCO Convention, SAFE created pages of background material on our website with numerous links to the State Department’s web site and other related material. We invited the public to learn about the issues and asked anyone who supported the renewal to sign an online appeal and help us spread the word.
To bring the issue directly to the public, we also took to the streets. Across the country, SAFE members approached people at random in parks during lunch hours, at public outdoor events on the weekends, and wherever crowds gather. Speaking to small groups or individuals, we handed out flyers with information similar to our web pages and asked those who think the Agreement should be renewed to sign their names to the statement “I support Italy’s request for continued import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. Please say YES to Italy and help protect its cultural heritage from destruction.” We asked for a name, address, email address, in addition to a signature. We did not ask any other personal questions such as professions or interests. We asked people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, at random.
In some cases, we explained the impact the Agreement had on the sale of Italian antiquities in this country. We spent time answering questions and explaining the issues further. We also offered the option to sign online after people have had a chance to visit our website and read the materials, but most people chose to sign right away. We did this in New York, Boston, Sacramento and Washington, DC.
We wanted to find out, when made aware, did the average American care about stopping the global situation of looting and the illicit antiquities trade? Did he/she approve of the current remedies, did he/she want legislative efforts already in place to continue? In the case of the Bilateral Agreement between the US and Italy, the answer was a resounding YES. In all, over 90% of those who were asked agreed to sign our appeal to CPAC.
To our knowledge, a campaign such as “Say YES to Italy” had not been conducted before. SAFE is approaching it with a spirit of experimentation as we are not professional pollsters. However, we are pleased to report that our findings approximate those of a 2000 Harris poll in which 96% of the American public favor laws that protect cultural heritage. Almost everyone who declined took our handouts so they could consider doing so later.
SAFE’s presentation at CPAC
On September 8 2005, SAFE presented the results of its Say YES to Italy campaign to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC): nearly 1,000 signatures from members of the public to support the renewal of the US-Italy bilateral agreement. Of these nearly 500 were gathered online, and about 450 were signed in person.
Nearly 100 signatories chose to include statements elaborating on why the agreement should be renewed. Read them here.
In addition, these statements from SAFE were also presented: