According to Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan earlier this week, theft of artefacts and “heritage objects” from museums, galleries and churches is on the increase. Interpol has helped recover some valuable items, but many are still missing and the list held by Jordan’s department is “inconclusive”. The SA Heritage Resource Agency has begun an audit of heritage assets, which should help curb future illegal trafficking.
It’s not surprising that well-informed thieves are stealing items of historic and artistic value for sale to collectors elsewhere. What’s troubling is the mind-set that has permitted the thefts to take place on such a large scale and over so many years: records begin in 1990. Clearly, security at the various institutions has been poor and management inefficient. And this reflects a deeper malaise — a lack of respect for the many and varied strands or tributaries of our history which have not only led us to the present, but also anchor us here. There seems also to be a deficiency in aesthetic sense: because the significance of works of art is not appreciated they are not properly secured and cared for.
Inventories and audits can do only so much, as can tighter security. What’s needed is the inculcation, in schools and other educational institutions, of respect for all aspects of our past, and an understanding of how the past informs the present and can help prepare us for the future.