In my first interview with SAFE Founder Cindy Ho, we discussed how and why SAFE was founded and some of the challenges of starting an organization. In this installment, Cindy talks about whether she thinks the organization has been effective in reaching its goals and her continued belief in its mission to raise public awareness, ten years after she first had the idea. The interview concludes with an appeal to people she calls “those who know.”
DB: How does SAFE get funded to do all this work? Who donates to SAFE?
CH: In the beginning I funded SAFE to cover only small expenses until I resigned from my job two years later. We spent very, very little. In fact, we were so frugal that I had to be reminded to distribute printed materials we spent money to produce. Others also donated more than work. It was this kind of can-do attitude across the board that gave SAFE its start. I was running a grassroots organization, supported by the people it served, before I was even familiar with the term.
Funds came in as membership fees; we also did well with revenue-generating events. Still, SAFE’s existence was never about the amount of money it raised, but a shared commitment to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission. People worked for SAFE because it was something they had to do. This wealth of human resource made SAFE a well endowed operation from the start. Five years ago Sam Paley, one of our advisors, told me that we were functioning like a multi-million dollar enterprise without the multi-millions. If so, just imagine what SAFE could produce with a fraction of those millions…This was the definition of success, or so I was told.
DB: What is your definition of success?
CH: I could say success is when there is no more looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade. But that is not realistic; it is also not SAFE’s mandate to reach that goal. Years ago at our first benefit event, I said that success meant that SAFE didn’t need to exist any longer. When everyone is aware of what is at stake, then the decision to destroy or preserve cultural heritage becomes a conscious decision. That’s when SAFE can declare success. I still believe in this.
But SAFE alone cannot reach this goal. It can only happen with a concerted effort among those who know to tell those who don’t yet know what is at stake. It will take many people and organizations, working collaboratively, to achieve this success.
There are now a number of other web sites and blogs that also address the issues of looting and the illicit antiquities trade with the potential to reach the general public and SAFE recognizes and encourages these efforts with the Beacon Awards. But I don’t know of any other independent nonprofit organization with this focused mission. Oscar Muscarella said, “That [SAFE] is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs.” I agree.
But success is not at all impossible. Look at the environmental movement. While the struggle to save the planet continues, and some even argue that it’s too late, there can be no argument that people know that it’s important to recycle and save energy. To pollute has now become a conscious decision. How much time and effort did that take?
As long as there are unexcavated ancient sites with information about our ancient past that has yet to be revealed, it is not too late to save cultural heritage from being irreversibly destroyed. Saving this undiscovered past is what SAFE is about.
The New Mexico State Parks system ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti’s poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide.
DB: What about short-term success, surely you can name some examples?
CH: Raising public awareness can be a numbers game which means the wider the reach, the greater the success. To reach unlimited audiences, the organization decided to focus its efforts online some years ago. Judging by the statistics on social media and web traffic, SAFE is reaching that goal. SAFE has become the go-to destination for people who want to know and network with interested others.
There is no denying that in the years since SAFE came into existence that public awareness about these issues has increased. What has this awareness produced? Colin Renfrew most generously commented to the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage that “many of the good things that have happened in this area over the past decade would not have happened without SAFE.” If so, SAFE could not have done this without the participation of the experts.
UNESCO’s office in Kabul is using these “LOOTED cards
SAFE has received generous support from donors and other like-minded organizations, which enabled us to create awareness-raising campaigns and materials I am proud of. They are not only innovative and fun to produce, they have been found useful around the world to create more awareness. SAFE videos and presentations have been viewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times. SAFE has earned the trust from key opinion leaders around the world who have not only lent their names, but rolled up their sleeves to work with us in the kind of collaboration I could only wish for ten years ago. This collaboration may be the most powerful and rewarding aspect of SAFE.
Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE’s Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage
DB: Why do you feel SAFE is alone in this mission, so far?
CH: SAFE is alone, but not entirely. There are other organizations dedicated to preserving cultural heritage; some existed long before SAFE. But they don’t focus on the looting problem or the illicit antiquities trade, or raising public awareness. One reason is fundraising.
Changing hearts and minds takes time. Ten years after I first had the idea, I feel that SAFE has only begun. We all have only begun to become more aware. Donors seeking quick return on investments would prefer faster, more tangible results. While one can see and even touch an old monument restored, public awareness is ethereal. With the explosion of social media, effectiveness has now become more measurable and visible, but how this translates to donor contributions remains to be seen. Also, SAFE does its work in the US—a major “market country”—where antiquities are bought and sold for profit, often with no questions asked. Many people who routinely support the arts, history, or archaeology, have been engaging in very same behavior that SAFE points out as destructive. Organizations often steer clear of focusing on looting and the illicit antiquities trade because of this. It is hard to raise funds for a mission few grantors are informed about. But for me, these are all the reasons why SAFE needed to exist in the first place. Still, I can comfortably say that SAFE has done what it set out to do.
DB: In retrospect, do you still believe in SAFE’s mission, given these difficulties?
CH: Yes, now even more than before. Everyday, somewhere around the world there exists the possibility of a new discovery about our ancient selves that could inform us all. Looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade makes the collection of the information that everyone deserves impossible. Cultural relics become mere things. If knowledge belongs to all of us, then we are all responsible for safeguarding our shared humanity. And it is up to those who know to inform the rest, because there is nothing inevitable about wanton destruction.
How else could anyone understand that when a looter steps on an object in a tomb looking for something to sell, much more is broken than the object itself? How could one realize that removing an archaeological object from a National Park is against the law, that a museum acquiring objects with dubious provenance is not acceptable, that bringing back a treasured find from Peru or Greece might risk having it confiscated? How could one know that trading and collecting looted antiquities promotes the destruction of our shared heritage? We can’t protect something unless we know that it needs protecting. And ten years later, too few people are aware, still.
No doubt this is a lot of work. It takes us away from our immediate concerns: our careers and our routines; it takes us out of our comfort zones. But it is no different from any other cause, or any other endeavor that matters. When SAFE took to the streets to collect signatures, we found that it wasn’t difficult to educate the unknowing public. But what SAFE, or any one organization, can accomplish is limited, given the enormity of the task.
Public awareness is not a panacea. It is fundamental to—but only part of—the solution, like import restrictions, site security, or law enforcement. Awareness does not guarantee action. What is guaranteed is that there is no action without awareness.
DB: What do you see in SAFE’s future?
CH: SAFE’s future depends on the quality of the work it delivers, which in turn depends on the input it receives from those who know. Will there be a shared belief that there can be no long-term solution to combating the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade without public awareness? Will there be a true commitment to doing whatever we—expert or not—can to help protect everyone’s right to cultural heritage, for ourselves and for our children? The fact that SAFE is able to serve its mission today still is entirely the result of these two factors. But it’s not even about SAFE. Someone, some organization, must serve this mission. And until there is another focused effort to inform the public, SAFE has to keep going. What other option is there?
Public awareness is convincing only when it is based on fact and reasoned analysis. Otherwise, no matter how loud you shout, opinion is just noise and there is enough misinformation out there in the blogosphere. This is why SAFE must continue its work only with those who have done the research and analysis, for which there is no substitute. Without this, SAFE should not add more noise to the din.
Definitely there are more people knowledgeable about these issues today than ten years ago. There are more books and classes and lectures on the subject; even university programs offering advanced degrees that address looting and the illicit antiquities trade. I hope that those who know, those who do the research and the study, and archaeologists who have had firsthand knowledge of looting would continue to work with SAFE.
We only have the rights we are willing to fight for. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind for future generations, and future generations to come? Much of ancient history is still undiscovered, unexcavated and undocumented. Are we willing to do nothing while looting and the illicit antiquities trade continue to destroy information locked in this undiscovered past that belongs to all humanity? What are we willing to fight for here and now, so that our children’s, and their children’s lives could also be enriched as ours have been by our ancestors? These are questions for all of us.
Regardless of what happens, SAFE has done its part. If the collective will is there, it should continue to serve its mission.
DB: How can archaeologists do more to help?
CH: Archaeologists and other experts have been publishing on these issues for a long time. But most academic publications and conference discussions (and their accompanying papers) reach only a select few and are completely inaccessible to the general public: they are not publicized and are priced for institutional purchases only. For example, an article in an academic journal tells us that an overwhelming number of archaeologists have encountered widespread looting in the field. Everyone should know this. Many such publications that inspired me and taught me are similarly out of reach. This is a pity, because “ordinary” citizens are not only capable of understanding, most are ready to support archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, as a Harris Poll confirms.
I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause.
I founded SAFE to be the conduit to bring this knowledge to a wide audience, with the ultimate goal towards long-lasting solutions. I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause. Those who are serious in their interest to protect the sanctity of information—or archaeological context—about the ancient past, would do well to want to share what they know with the general public. I understand this requires an extension of one’s vision. Saving cultural heritage requires a very long vision: enthusiasm, fervor and conviction do not suffice. Neither do research and analysis alone.
I also want to appeal to professional associations and the academic establishment to support not only the study of these issues, but the means to advocate for the cause. Could looting and the illicit antiquities trade be more widely included in the annual conferences where archaeologists gather to learn and to share? If archaeologists themselves have experienced the damaging effects of plunder, are they also aware of the possible solutions so they can contribute to them? In the US, are they adequately informed about the Cultural Property Implementation Act, and CPAC? Could there be workshops or seminars at the annual conferences to cover legal mechanisms which ultimately aim to protect the very field archaeologists dedicate themselves to? Could there be a fund set aside to finance the attendance at CPAC meetings so that those who know don’t have to pay their own way to testify in Washington? Could there be legal assistance offered to those who do speak out about the issues and are threatened by those who don’t agree with them? These are questions for all those who know.
DB: Can you tell us something about this Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage?
CH: I came up with the idea with Donny George in 2007 to remember the looting of the Iraq Museum and to raise awareness about the ongoing plunder of ancient sites. This year, on the 10th anniversary, we decided to offer our web site and social media channels to showcase the work of others as a sign of appreciation, and in anticipation of future opportunities for collaboration. This furthers our mission, and also celebrates our own founding. It’s something like a birthday party, where we inviting our friends to join in. This is also an open call for the needed collaboration I described.
DB: Thank you Cindy, for this interview.
CH: Thank you, Deanna, for giving me the opportunity to observe the 10th anniversary in this way.