James Cuno’s passionate, finely reasoned new book, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, is a fresh salvo in the ongoing battle between museums that collect antiquities and modern states that claim to be the legal heirs of ancient societies and cultures.
This battle has brought the acquisition of ancient artifacts by museums under more intense scrutiny. The conflict, simply put, centers on possession: modern nations like Italy, Greece, China, Egypt and Turkey have begun to declare that all ancient artifacts found within their borders are state property. They often demand the restitution of such items from foreign museum collections and are imposing tighter legal restrictions on their export. They also maintain that acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages looting.
Cuno holds that the situation is far from clear-cut. The new “nationalist, retentionist cultural property laws,” he contends, neither prevent looting of archeological sites and illegal exportation of antiquities (which he blames on poverty, the chaos of war and sectarian conflict, and misguided repurchasing policies), nor truly benefit human civilization overall. He says, furthermore, that there is no “natural, indelible connection” between antiquities and modern nation states with jurisdiction over them, and that nationalistic positions on this important issue are political rather than museological or scientific in motivation. The author accuses source countries of “a dangerous politicization of antiquities.”
So who owns the past? Well, it depends on your definition of cultural property. National and international rulings tend to define “antiquities” as works more than 150 years old. These objects are further characterized as both the source nation’s “cultural patrimony” and the “cultural heritage” of all mankind. There is thus an inherent tension within the concept between national control and universal value.
As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s premier encyclopedic art museums, Cuno has a very large dog in this fight—a fight that, recently, has spilled over into the public realm by way of reports in the media about U.S. museums holding in their collections antiquities alleged to have been illegally removed from their countries of origin. Individual museum staff members have even been held criminally liable. A respected historian, Cuno is a frequent guest at specialist symposia on this issue. His opinion—while not disinterested—carries weight.
The book begins with an account of the laws, agreements and policies that govern the international movement of antiquities. Cuno then looks at the politics of archeology in an era of resurgent nationalism, before presenting specific case studies of Turkey and China, nations in which the regulation of antiquities is still relatively new. He also discusses in brief the circumstances in Italy and Iraq. In the last chapter, he reflects on the role of identity politics in debates over the world’s artistic and cultural legacy.
There is no doubt that historical objects are best understood by reference to the social context in which they were made, and this is sometimes, maybe often, closely related to the site of their original manufacture or use. But that doesn’t necessarily imply ownership by the governments of nation states with current geographical jurisdiction, Cuno argues. Instead, he puts forward the idea of a universal, collective responsibility for the world’s ancient past. “Antiquities,” he writes, “are the property of all humankind.”
Cuno mobilizes a wealth of anecdotes and examples to support this position. Italy, he reminds us, has been a unified nation for less than 150 years and became the current republic only in 1946. What, then, he asks, is the relationship between the modern political entity of Italy and the antiquities that were part of the land’s classical past? Moreover, given that the diffusion of classical culture, ideas and relics has contributed in a profound way to the creation of the world we have, surely we are all heirs to the classical tradition of the Greeks and Romans. Even local museums throughout Italy use this argument to dispute the central government’s right to transfer Greek, Etruscan and other ancient artifacts to Rome, an issue Cuno regrettably doesn’t explore.
His view accords with the mission of the Western encyclopedic museum, a place ostensibly dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, a repository devoted to the dissemination of learning and the preservation of world artifacts that might otherwise have been destroyed or lost—given that throughout history many nation-states have been either unwilling or unable to protect cultural property within their borders. Witness the deliberate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Cuno’s reasoning undeniably serves self-interest and tends to underplay important differences between preservation, restitution and acquisition. It justifies the idea that museums like the one he runs should be allowed to continue acquiring undocumented antiquities. But while his viewpoint clearly favors institutions in economically advanced countries, it is not without advocates from developing nations. Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, originally from Ghana, supports a broadly humanistic, one-world approach to the problem. He argues in his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism that looted Ghanaian relics preserved in the British Museum have more cultural use there than they would back in Africa. Besides, he says, the objects may not have been preserved had they not been illicitly removed.
Appiah’s book has substantial moral and intellectual clout. It also offers the most practical approach to this controversy, for despite recent piecemeal, token efforts, the likelihood of a mass repatriation of antiquities is slim. Besides, most undocumented antiquities were acquired by museums long before the adoption of international agreements and so are not even technically subject to giveback claims. The encyclopedic museum is a historical reality, and although some objects in these collections were undoubtedly acquired in imperfect circumstances, they may now be studied and enjoyed by everyone—okay, by everyone with access to culture centers like Paris, London, Berlin or New York.
Who owns antiquity? We all do . . . sort of.