There’s an old adage that art imitates life but on November 1, 2003, it was life imitating art when a highly-acclaimed Palestinian exhibit from Australia was taken for a security check/x ray at Los Angeles airport's Terminal 4 and has not been seen since. The lost exhibit became another page torn from the history of Palestinians.
“It has taken Archive staff a long time to come to terms with this,” said Jeni Allenby, Director of the Palestine Costume Archive – the organization that coordinated the touring exhibition. “We have long dealt with exhibition/display venue cancellations, confirmed funding/grant decision reversals, etc, but this was devastating.”
The exhibit, which was known as "Symbolic Defiance: Palestinian Costume and Embroidery Since 1948" and had been displayed at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies in Mainz, Germany, had been scheduled to appear at a conference in Anchorage, Alaska. The exhibit left Australia to the U.S. on Qantas Airlines and switched over to Alaska Airlines upon arrival to the U.S.
"Symbolic defiance" reconstructed the last half century of Palestinian cultural history, bringing to life the almost complete loss of that heritage after the events of 1948, and documenting the extraordinary revival of Palestinian costume and embroidery that occurred in the late 1980s. The exhibition examined the establishment of Palestinian refugee camp embroidery projects and the effect of this upon embroidery's traditional role in Palestinian society. It also documented the development of Palestinian village life, including traditional dress and embroidery, as a nationalist symbol, and explored how women’s traditional costume became one of the dominant representations of Palestinian cultural identity.
Greg Witter, spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, said he understood the devastation of the loss, “People [at Alaska Airlines] understand that it is a precious cultural item and we feel horrible about it.”
But how did the exhibit get lost? The bag tag was apparently missing, despite the secure placement of the tag by Allenby. Witter said that the bag tag was later found without its luggage. Qantas and Alaska Airlines contacted United and American airlines since they are in close proximity to the luggage area. According to Witter, neither found anything and customs officials did not find anything either.
However, Allenby insisted that Qantas not only was not initially told the bag was missing by Alaska Airlines but that once Qantas found out about the lost items, they shared the opinion with Alaska Airlines that the only real chance to find the exhibition would have been in the first 72 hours. Allenby continued that it was Qantas who told the Palestine Costume Archive two days after her return to Australia to write to the CEO of Alaska Airlines because Qantas could not get a response from Alaska Airlines either.
Does Allenby believe that an exhaustive search of the lost exhibit took place?
“Based on information that has been relayed to me by staff personnel at Alaska Airlines, we believe a search was conducted during the first five days the exhibition was missing,” Allenby said. “However, after the missing luggage file was transferred to Alaska Airline’s central office in Seattle on day six, all communications from the airline ceased.
“The Archive has seen no indication of any further search and Alaska Airlines continues to ignore our repeated requests for a copy of their search file.”
There’s no question by either airline that the exhibit was lost but who holds the responsibility for the loss is a different story.
A staff member at Qantas baggage claims, who was not authorized to speak with the media, said that the responsibility for lost luggage lies with the airline carrier at the final destination [in this case, Alaska Airlines]. But Alaska Airlines said that the responsibility belonged with the original carrier [Qantas]. “We never received possession of the bag," Witter maintained. “We feel good about what we do.”
That contradicts the fact that the lost exhibit was checked in with Alaska Airlines and last seen in terminal 4 at LAX (the Los Angeles airport) during the security check/X-ray process.
There is another issue that is contradictory. Witter said Qantas paid most of the amount issued in a reimbursement check, but that Alaska Airlines did pay for some of it. I could not confirm who paid what percentage but if Witter insisted that Qantas was responsible and that Alaska Airlines never had possession, why was the check issued by Alaska Airlines? And why would Alaska Airlines even bother to reimburse a portion since Witter insisted that the lost luggage was Qantas’s responsibility. The acceptance by Alaska Airlines to pay for even a portion denotes at least partial responsibility of the lost exhibit, right?
Witter denied the implication.
The Qantas baggage claims staff person did acknowledge that in these situations, a reimbursement check would be issued by the final carrier and that Qantas would have paid the money directly to the carrier -- which would explain why the check was issued by Alaska Airlines. This staff person went on to say that it is the final carrier that decides the amount to be reimbursed. In this case, Alaska Airlines decided to issue a check for $634.90.
Why only $634.90 given that the exhibit was worth at least $16,000? Sadly, $634.90 is the amount that the Warsaw Convention requires for lost luggage if items weigh more than 70 pounds. So, Qantas and Alaska Airlines fulfilled their statutory obligations under international law. Whether or not sensitivity toward a people’s history was fulfilled is another issue.
In fairness to the airlines, an internal investigation at the Homeland Security Department did find that tens of thousands of airport screeners hired after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were determined to have serious criminal records. A February 6, 2004 New York Times article, highlighting faulty lax controls on airport screeners, stated that the hiring was so haphazard that many screeners were allowed to remain on duty at security checkpoints for weeks or months after their criminal records were discovered.
Were the items stolen because of the potential monies that could be made off the embroidered dresses? Was the exhibit intentionally destroyed by an ignorant screener once he or she noticed that the exhibit was about Palestine? Or was the exhibit simply lost as luggage can be lost? The theories and speculation will undoubtedly continue.
So, what advice does Allenby have for international curators of worldwide touring museum exhibitions encountering contemporary U.S. entry security procedures?
“If you are personally couriering irreplaceable Islamic/Arab heritage, think twice about it,” warned Allenby. “Like the Archive, you may hand it over for a security examination/ x-ray and never see it again.”
The exhibit, which included material never before displayed, including examples of traditional dress styles from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as well as rare intifada dresses and political embroideries, was to have been displayed in the U.S. at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America 2003 conference in Anchorage and the Arab Festival in Seattle.
Online donations can be made direct via the Archive's website
Please donate whatever you can. The Palestine Costume Archive has done a superb job in helping to keep Palestinian history alive through its highly-acclaimed embroidery exhibits. Let us show them that their efforts are not in vain, and let us show the world that we will not let a scintilla of our history die.
Updates about the lost exhibition can be found here at http://www.palestinecostumearchive.org/