Who Owns Antiquity?

Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

Tunisian Mosaics: Treasures from Roman Africa

by James Cuno

Princeton Univ. Press, 2008, 256 pp.
$24.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Martin Weyl
The photograph on the cover of James Cuno’s book depicts two Italian soldiers standing guard at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad on July 3, 2003, as the museum reopened its doors after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They are standing in front of the famous Assyrian sculptures from Nimrud. In a sense this is a harrowing image, reminding us of the precariousness of the world’s cultural heritage and the continuous threat of violence endangering the highlights of our common past.

The writer is one of the world’s most respected museum directors. He presides over the Art Institute of Chicago, which he cites as one of the world’s 18 “universal museums” in Europe and the Unites States, including the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Marvelous institutions where visitors are dazzled by different civilizations displayed side by side to inform, to educate and to enjoy. These treasure houses were born of a thirst for knowledge in “the heat of the Enlightenment.”

Professor Cuno’s book is part of a wave of discussions, conferences and publications on the “ethics of collecting” and on cultural property that gained momentum in the 1970s with the formulation of the UNESCO Cultural Property Convention, which concentrated on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership between nations. It was ratified by 64 countries in 1976 and reflected a growing concern that the art market’s high demand for rare and unique antiquities is responsible for rampant pillaging of archaeological sites and ethnographic material, particularly in countries with few resources to protect their cultural heritage.

The ensuing discussions focused mainly on legal and ethical issues, most of them far from having clear-cut answers. Questions like: Do people have a right to collect artifacts? Should museums be the place of deposit for the public to enjoy these artifacts? Should art objects be exported from country to country when the country of origin is unable to care for them properly and protect them? Sometimes more seemingly philosophical questions were raised: How should we save the past for the future? Who has the imprimatur [ownership or publication rights] on antiquity?
Cuno takes a firm partisan approach to some of these questions. He opposes nationalistic retention and reclamation policies and points out the dangerous politicization of antiquities. “Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics.” He advocates universal encyclopedic museums that manifest the “values of others” and seek connections between cultures as opposed to national museums that are only of local interest. The encyclopedic museum fosters “understanding, tolerance and the dissipation of ignorance and superstition.”

“This is the concept of the museums dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, universal aspirations and not of nationalist limitations, respectful of the world’s artists and cultural legacy as common to us all.”

Cuno opposes initiatives like that of UNESCO in trying to formulate what he calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws.” He calls for allowing museums to acquire undocumented antiquities in “reasonable ways.”

Cuno backs up his statements with very well detailed, erudite facts and case studies creating a convincing general picture. At the same time it is evident that this reflects a very Western perspective. All encyclopedic museums are Western inventions whose histories and philosophical ideologies are highly complex and do not always stand up to ethical and detailed scrutiny. His recommendation to adapt the same model to the underdeveloped world does not seem very practical. For example, it is difficult to envisage third world countries wanting to acquire Hudson River School paintings or medieval European relics in order that people everywhere will be able to experience our “common past.” The time and conditions when encyclopedic museums were created are not the same as today, not even for countries in the developed world, but certainly not for countries elsewhere.

Another question that should be raised is Cuno’s rejection of nationalism. Was not the Western world after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution flooded with nationalism and should not the emergence of so many museums also be seen in this light? And even today, despite globalistic tendencies, is not nationalism manifest in the Western world?

Does not America celebrate its founding fathers and the Fourth of July with gusto and patriotic fever? Therefore, is it justified to ask from third-world countries—many of whom have not even heard of the French Revolution—to put aside their own patriotism? Is it not judging from a moral high ground to require this? Even though in idealistic terms it might be justifiable, it seems a quite utopian extreme and a highly impractical demand.

At the same time, Cuno’s criticism of UNESCO, while definitely justified, does not answer the question of whether we would be better off without it. The same can be said about the U.N. Assembly and Security Council. Their decisions are often highly political and unjust, but would we be better off if they did not exist? It seems a question of lesser evils. We do not live in a perfect world, as the picture on the front of Cuno’s book well illustrates.

In the meantime, in our increasingly globalized world, issues of moving cultural artifacts, whether in the realm of loans or property, may be better dealt with by simple negotiations with respect for the other and by common sense, understanding and tolerance rather than fixed regulations and ultimate positions whose implementations are doubtful and whose essences remain questionable.

Several decades of discussions have sharpened the focus on cultural property issues. In some rare cases, solutions were found that seemingly might limit the looting of archaeological sites, illegal trading and unethical collecting by individuals or museums. At the same time, the respect for the world’s artistic and cultural legacy so much desired by Professor Cuno seems far from “common to us all.” It seems we have to do better and work harder to improve not only the world’s cultural legacy, but humanity as a whole to solve these problems.

Martin Weyl is a director of the Beracha Foundation, which focuses on culture and the environment. He is former director of the Israel Museum.

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