UT Antiquities Action is a group of students, faculty, and staff working to raise awareness about the destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking of antiquities around the world. They aim to educate and inspire by carrying out audacious, highly visible actions designed to raise awareness on our campus, in our communities, and beyond. They have a Facebook page, a Twitter account (@UTAntiquities), and they meet once a month.
Art History professor Stephennie Mulder started the project in the fall of 2014, after ISIS and the Syrian Army had begun to carry out their first acts of cultural heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq. That semester, in her classes on Islamic art, cultural heritage destruction had been a major theme as buildings that were normally part of her curriculum were being ruined, often just days before the class was set to discuss them. Mulder, who had worked in Syria for over a decade, was researching an opinion piece for al-Jazeera when she realized she wanted to do something more active to address the crisis. Because Syria and Iraq represent a key crossroads for a number of world civilizations, Mulder felt this was an issue that directly affects all of us. She founded UT Antiquities Action that fall and was surprised when over 50 people attended the first meeting. However, despite these beginnings in the crisis in Syria and Iraq, UT Antiquities Action is not focused only on the Middle East. Their concerns are global and they frequently host discussions, lectures, and meetings with prominent archaeologists, art historians, and cultural heritage experts from around the world.
According to Mulder, the project has been “wonderfully successful in bringing attention to the scale of the problem, and in educating and informing people both locally and globally about the many facets of the global cultural heritage trade.” In the spring of 2015, they organized a group visit to the office of Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, to encourage him to become a co-sponsor of HR 1493, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act. The bill, which became law in May 2015, aimed to strengthen legal strictures to protect international cultural property at risk and to enact import restrictions for looted cultural heritage.
They created a poster campaign that was ultimately exhibited in New York City as part of an exhibition on scholarly and artistic responses to the destruction of heritage in the Middle East. And in the spring of 2016 they held the first annual conference on cultural heritage here at UT: Global Initiatives Towards Cultural Heritage Preservation. Several hundred people attended to hear papers drawing on research of faculty and students here at UT and beyond, with a keynote by Syrian archaeologist Salam al-Kuntar. Dr. al-Kuntar works for SHOSI (Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq), an initiative the Penn Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institute.
Their monthly meetings, held on the last Wednesday of each month in DFA 2.204, are open to the public. For Fall 2016 they have a film screening planned as well as a guest lecture by Morag Kersel, founder of the Follow the Pots project, an initiative that is tracking looting in the Jordanian desert.
We asked Mulder if her public scholarship had any benefits for her own research and teaching. She said that:
“it’s had a tremendous impact, and one that has surprised me a bit. In 2015 I was the recipient of a Public Voices Fellowship with the OpEd project, sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Fine Arts, and did a number of radio and television interviews, including on the BBC and al-Jazeera, and wrote several opinion pieces in various newspapers and magazines, ranging from the Huffington Post to the LA Times. That public voice has circled back into my teaching and my scholarship in very productive ways. I’m now on the board of several cultural heritage organizations, regularly give lectures and conference presentations on heritage-related topics, and am currently putting together an edited volume of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture focused on Islamic responses to cultural heritage over time. It has been fun and enormously enriching both intellectually and personally, and I hope it can make some sort of small impact on the very real problem of cultural heritage destruction.”