A response to James Cuno
Datum: 09.02.09 17:03
“Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, serve as a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world” James Cuno
The recent article by James-Cuno “Where-do-the-great-treasures-of-ancient-art-belong?” clearly demonstrates his unwillingness to take into account valid criticisms of his viewpoints. (1) This leads him to make statements which will no doubt be subject to further comments.
1. “These calls to return artefacts are an effort to redress historical imbalances of power, and have been justified on these terms. It is also an effort to rewrite history.”
How can anybody argue that a return of a cultural object to its rightful owners is “an effort to redress historical imbalances of power”? I am not aware of anybody making such an argument and it really seems strange to me to think that returning a Benin bronze, for example, would redress any “historical imbalances of power” between the British and the Edo people. What I have heard argued is that such a return would be recognition of an historical injustice and a step towards redress of that injustice. Again, how can the restoration or return be “an effort to rewrite history”? Cuno says that ”History is untidy”. So it may or may not be. We deal with the history we have and none other.
In requesting the return of their stolen/looted objects, the people of Benin, for example, are not seeking to redress any historical imbalance or re-write history. They are seeking to rectify or modify the present imbalance, not of power, but of the distribution of the Benin bronzes whereby the British Museum has allegedly 700 pieces, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, admittedly 580, Field Museum, Chicago, 400 and the Art Institute of Chicago, 20 pieces and the makers of the objects have less and not the best. The request for restitution relates to a present situation with a historical background of violence and brutality by the British, with the approval or connivance of others. The Benin Royal Family has addressed a formal request to the museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago. So far as I know, there has not been even an acknowledgement or response to the demand sent in September 2008. So much for the antiquities belonging to all of us.
2. “Cultures of any consequence have never been autonomous, have always overlapped with others, and their cultural products have always been hybrid. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has put it: cultural purity is an oxymoron. To claim one’s culture to be autonomous is to make a political claim, not a scientific one.”
Cuno repeats again the above statement citing in support Kwame Appiah. I do not know which claims or cultures he has in mind here. One thing is sure, none of the Africans, certainly not the Royal Family of Benin, makes any claim about the purity or autonomy of their culture. On the contrary, most Africans are very conscious of the interrelatedness of cultures on the Continent and above all, the impact of colonialism and contact with Europe. What has a claim to cultural purity, whatever that means, got to do with claims for restitution? Are mixed cultures not entitled to claim restitution of proven stolen or looted cultural artefacts?
3. “So again, the question is did civilizations make things? And if they did, can a modern nation state claim such ancient things theirs by inheritance? Appiah thinks not. When writing about ancient Nok sculpture found in what is today Nigeria, he reminds us: “We don’t know whether Nok sculptures were commissioned by kings or commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is that they didn’t make them for Nigeria.”
Cuno repeats once more his view, citing Kwame Appiah that the Nok sculptures were for sure not made for the present State of Nigeria. One thing we also know for sure is that those sculptures were definitely not made for museums in the United States and Western Europe.
Cuno writes as if we were all operating in a law-free zone. It should be clear to all that the 1970 UNESCO Convention, like all international conventions which have been ratified by Member States and have entered into force, is part and parcel of International Law as well as the national laws of the States that have ratified the convention. One does not have to accept these conventions but there is an obligation of bona fides to interpret faithfully the intention and provisions of the Conventions. We should not forget that the purpose of the Convention is clearly indicated in its full title: Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This Convention clearly vests the State Party with certain rights and obligations. A State such as Nigeria has the duty “to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export”. Moreover, Article 4 of this Convention provides that : “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:
a. Cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory;
b. cultural property found within the national territory;
c. cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;
d. cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;
e. cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.”
In view of the provisions of Article 4 how can anybody seriously suggest that archaeological findings made in Nigeria do not belong to the modern State of Nigeria? Any attitude of contempt for International Law and National Law can in the end not work in the interest of all those who seek a peaceful and just international order, including the distribution of cultural artefacts. It should be recalled that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) have accepted the provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention which are also part of the law of the United States.
Cuno cites often Kwame Anthony Appiah and in Who owns Antiquity? mentions him as one of the colleagues with whom he has discussed this topic over years. (2). However, I have the impression that he makes an extremely selective use of the writings of the philosopher which tends to put both in the same camp. But a close reading of the text of Appiah tells another story. If we confine our attention only to the citation above regarding Nok sculptures, we get the impression that Appiah is sceptical about the right of Nigeria to control artefacts found on its territory. But reading further on in Cosmopolitanism (3) where Cuno took his citation from (but does not mention the title of the book or give page reference), we realize that Appiah and Cuno are not on the same line. Appiah states clearly:
“Perhaps the matter of biological descent is a distraction: proponents of the patrimony argument would surely be undeterred if it turned out that the Nok sculptures were made by eunuchs. They could reply that the Nok sculptures were found on the territory of Nigeria. And it is, indeed, a perfectly reasonable property rule that where something of value is dug up and nobody can establish an existing claim on it, the government gets to decide what to do with it. It’s an equally sensible idea that the object’s being of cultural value places on the government a special obligation to preserve it. Given that it is the Nigerian government, it will naturally focus on preserving it for Nigerians (most of whom, not thinking of themselves as heirs to Nok civilization, will probably think it is about as interesting as art from somewhere else. But if it is of cultural value – as the Nok sculptures undoubtedly are – it strikes me that it would be better for them to think of themselves as trustees for humanity. While the government of Nigeria reasonably exercises trusteeship, the Nok sculptures belong in the deepest sense to all of us. “Belong” here is a metaphor, of course. I just mean that the Nok sculptures are of potential value to all human beings”.
Appiah then states that the idea is expressed in the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, May14, 1954 and adds that we have moved closer to that idea and refers to the 1970 UNESCO Convention recalling the fact that the convention emphasized the importance of “prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property”. Appiah leaves the area of biological affiliation and turns to the law. Cuno stays with biology. We do not sense in the writings of the philosopher any general hostility to rules and regulations on the antiquities trade or a desire for a free-for all situation.
Appiah is right when he says we do not know for whom the Nok sculptures were made. By this statement, I take it that he is referring to the absence of clear and reliable knowledge about the makers of these artefacts and as philosopher he is surely interested in our obtaining more knowledge on these objects. He is here at home with the archaeologists who are also very keen to seek and provide information and knowledge on these objects if the illicit trade or looting, and the free-for all situation supported by Cuno, will not encourage looting and removal of artefacts from their original locations. This is the nub of the dispute between Cuno and the archaeologists he attacks in Who Owns Antiquity? (4)
4. Cuno excludes carefully in his recent article the issue of the illicit trade in antiquities: “Two questions dominate our consideration of the fate of the world’s ancient heritage. The more vexing and urgent one — how can we prevent the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities -– is not the topic of this article. The second one is. “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”
As David Gill has also noted, even though Cuno does not want to deal with the question of illicit trade, this is precisely the question behind his statement that “The government of Italy claims that all antiquities found within the borders of the modern state of Italy were made by cultures autonomous to the region.” (5) Moreover much of the discussion on Nok culture is evidently linked to the question of illicit trade. It is difficult to discuss fully the question of ownership or location of the African and Asian artefacts that are now in European and American museums without discussing the issue of looting or illicit trade since many of these objects were acquired through these means and pose questions of legality and legitimacy. Discussion on the looting of Nok sculptures would reveal the involvement of French museums and the French government with an issue which required the intervention of ICOM (International Council of Museums) that had put these sculptures on its Red List: “The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind”
A discussion on the illicit trade would reveal how important the 1970 Convention is and also the links between the so-called great museums and the issue of looting. We might even learn more about the demands made by the government of Italy which Cuno mentions but does not elaborate because of his initial exclusion of the issue. We might learn that in 2007 the government of Italy obliged important US Museums – The Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum – to return considerable number of artefacts which had been stolen/looted from Italy. That government is still seeking to recover other looted objects from the US museums. As David Gill wrote “Perhaps Cuno could have said that Italy has been asking for the return of antiquities (well over 100 at the last count) because they appear to have been looted from archaeological sites in the modern state of Italy since 1970. How could such pieces end up in prestigious public collections in North America?” Cuno could also have pointed out that as regards the question that he did not want to answer, how we can prevent the illicit trade in antiquities, the American Association of Museum Directors has adopted stricter rules on acquisitions, inspired by the 1970 UNESCO Convention and that they recognized the importance of the convention.
We could also have learnt that the trial of Marion True, a former curator of the Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and Robert Hecht, a New York dealer has been resumed in Rome, both of them being charged for conspiracy to traffic in antiquities found on Italian soil. (6) The trial is already in its fourth year.
5. “There are many reasons to be critical of nationalism. But it is enough now to point out simply that national identity based on the presumption of inheritance from ancient cultures is a fiction. It can also be dangerous when combined with a presumed racial or ethnic identity, an unbroken and indelible link to the peoples of the ancient past from which the nation is claiming cultural continuity. Such ethnonationalism holds that the nation is a result of ethnogenesis, or the evolution of self-identity through myths of common origins, shared historical memories, elements of common culture, and a measure of ethnic solidarity”.
Cuno advises that there are many reasons to be critical of nationalism.
We would add that there are good reasons to be critical of all “isms” – capitalism, communism, liberalism, spiritualism, racism etc. However, one cannot help feeling that when some authors write about nationalism, they are only thinking of the nationalism of others and in this context, only the nationalism of the so-called source countries which are claiming control over their cultural artefacts. They are not thinking of the nationalisms of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany which have demonstrated in the last 200 years to be extremely nationalistic and still continue to be so, despite all the protestations to the contrary. Surely, Cuno would not suggest that the nation of the United States is an “imagined community”.
Much of what Cuno says regarding myths of common origin and presumed racial identity may apply to some European nationalisms but they clearly do not apply to present-day African nationalism or the nationalism of countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast or South Africa. Most African nationalists, starting from the founding fathers of African nationalism and African States, were acutely aware of the ethnic diversity of their peoples and the colonial amalgamation of the diverse people into one modern State. None, as far as I can tell, ever tried to build nationalism on the bases of common ancestry or racial purity. They would have failed woefully since it was obvious to all that their peoples had diverse origins. What was often emphasized was the common colonial experience with specific territorial boundaries. Hence the adoption by the OAU of the principle of intangibility of frontiers inherited from colonization, the principle of uti possidetis. (7)
But how is all this related to a claim for the return of a stolen/looted artefact? Is the existence or other wise of a nation or nation State a prerequisite or an obstacle to claiming a cultural object?
6. Cuno seems to deny a State any right to cultural objects but can he not understand that there are groups and individuals within various entities who may wish to have back their ancestral cultural objects?
“The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has identified the inherent tension in nationalism between the motive for collective identity and the desire to build an efficient, dynamic modern state. And he sees this tension as particularly severe in the new states – those that emerged from collapsed empires over the course of the 20th century – “because of the great extent to which their peoples’ sense of self remains bound up in the gross actualities of blood, race, language, locality, religion, or tradition, and because of the steadily accelerating importance in this century of the sovereign state as a positive instrument for the realization of collective aims.” We have seen and do see this in new states throughout much of the world – in Iraq and Afghanistan currently – but it is true almost everywhere.”
Cuno cites approvingly Clifford Geertz on the use of the State as “a positive instrument for the realization of collective aims” especially the “desire to build an efficient, dynamic modern state”. But he seems to feel obliged to limit this modernizing role of the State to “the new states – those that emerged from collapsed empires over the course of the 20th century” even though the citation from Geertz states that this “is true almost everywhere.”
A look into the histories of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany would show that the State has also played a similar role and that the nationalism that seems to be detested in those claiming their cultural artefacts has not been so different from those of States in Western Europe and the United States. (8)
It is particularly interesting to note that in the present economic crisis and turmoil at the various stock exchanges, even in the land of extreme capitalism, the USA, all are calling upon the State to intervene to assist the failing enterprises, including the banks and insurance companies. Cuno seeks to assign an interventionist role only to States in the developing countries and in Iraq and Afghanistan. He relies on an anthropologist (without giving any reference) to provide the support he seems to need. But why all these contortions and efforts? He seems to have decided that the worst enemy of cultural development or at least an obstacle to Western museums securing without too many difficulties the artefacts they need from the source countries is nationalism. Behind this nationalism is the concept of the nation State which is the vehicle for purveying ideas contrary to spreading cultural artefacts. The concept of Nation-State is also behind UNESCO and its 1970 Convention which he thinks is a hindrance rather than a help to harmonious cultural relationships. With this attitude Cuno is forced to distort the role of the nation-State and to obscure its pivotal role in the development of the States in Western Europe and the USA.
7. Cuno cites Amarty Sen to stress the point that we have multiple identities and not one cultural or ethnic identity: “In his recent book, Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen wrote similarly against reducing individuals to a single cultural identity. “The prospects of peace in the contemporary world,” he wrote, “may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations and in the use of reasoning as common inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates rigidly incarcerated in little containers.”
This is all very true and many of us can subscribe to the views expressed by Sen in Identity and Violence. (9) If I understand Sen correctly he is also against reductionist theories and explanations, and above all, mono-causal explanations. How do Sen’s teachings correspond to Cuno’s desire to explain all opposition to the hegemony of countries such as the USA and Great Britain, only on the basis of nationalism? Why does Cuno try to explain the restrictive effect of laws of many countries on the ability of “universal museums” only with reference to nationalism?
“Current national cultural property laws constrain the development of encyclopedic museums and serve only the interest of nationalism. They claim culture for the nation and they use culture to buttress claims of national identity. They ignore the evidence of history, which, as the late literary scholar and cultural critic, Edward Said, reminds us, demonstrates that cultural expressions have always been both diverse and hybrid”.
It seems the author cannot imagine that there are individuals who support current laws but are not nationalists by any means. Supporters of current laws on cultural property may be nationalists, communists, monarchists, liberals, fascists, socialists, conservatives, jurists, archaeologists, anthropologists etc.
Why does Cuno want to give all these different groups with different interests, ideologies, diverse backgrounds and nationalities only one identity : nationalist? If one takes Sen‘s views seriously, there should be no difficulty in understanding and accepting that there may be persons with different interests and identities who support existing cultural property laws. They are not all nationalists. What should also not be ignored is that these cultural property laws are based on International Law, especially the UNESCO Convention of 1970 which obliges State Parties to make certain legal provisions. Those who support the Convention and its derivative laws may be more internationalists than many of those who oppose International Law and would prefer an unregulated situation which profits largely the powerful States where the “universal museums” are situated.
8. When Cuno comes to deal with the question “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?” this is his answer:
“National cultural property is a political construction. The great treasures of ancient art belong to no nation but to all of us as heirs to a common heritage. They belong in Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern museums. And we should do everything in power to distribute them around the world, encourage curiosity about them as evidence of our common heritage, and assume shared responsibility for their preservation. If nations spent as many resources seeking to build public, encyclopedic collections – those with representative examples of the world’s diverse artistic legacy — as they do in trying to prevent the export of what they claim to be their cultural property and in building national, indeed nationalist museums instead, we would all be better off”.
Cuno is really very interesting here. He declares the concept of national cultural property a “political construct.” The 1970 Convention itself uses the term “cultural property” which it defines clearly in its Article 1. We always thought this concept was a legal concept but now we are being told it is a political construct. Have the International Lawyers then been working all the time with a “political construct” rather that a legal concept?
Cuno declares boldly that “The great treasures of ancient art belong to no nation but to all of us as heirs to a common heritage. They belong in Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern museums.” The practice of the museums in the USA and Western Europe do not support such an assertion. They have in their descriptions of the various antiquities tried to convince us that they have legitimately acquired these objects either through gifts or purchases or partage. How does property legally acquired by a specific museum become the property of all? I hope Cuno is aware of the legal implications of what he is saying. Is he aware that if property belongs to all of us then we can all exercise rights of proprietors, including using them? Does he realize that property which belongs to all cannot be easily disposed of by one and that common property cannot become individual property without the consent of all? Does he realize that there cannot be selling and buying of common property and that this will mean the end of the art market which could no longer deal in antiques which belong to all of us? Does he realize that something which belongs to nobody – res nullius (nobody’s thing) is not the same as something which belongs to all of us, res communis (a thing owned in common, by the community, plural res communes)? If such concepts were to be introduced to the present antiquities market they would wreak only havoc. Cuno should try some of his ideas on property and ownership with the jurists at the very fine law schools at the University of Chicago and at De Paul Law College. They would probably advise to avoid all together such concepts of ownership and abide by the 1970 Convention.
We are of course not informed about which museums fall into the categories of “Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern museums”. Is this merely a geographical delimitation or is there something else involved?
Is Mexico, for example, in the Western group or in the Southern group? Is the USA in the Western Group or the Northern Group? Cuno does not tell us the basis of this new designation although one can see the influence of Amartya Sen here in the attempt to avoid stereotype categories. But should new categories not be explained? Which are the “Northern museums”? Where does the north start?
Hardly anybody will disagree with the view that “we should do everything in power to distribute them around the world, encourage curiosity about them as evidence of our common heritage, and assume shared responsibility for their preservation”. Have the western museums, including Cuno’s own Art Institute of Chicago, ever done anything in their power to distribute Western or other artworks and artefacts around the world? On the contrary, they have been known to refuse to return stolen/looted artworks to countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria. I am sure these countries would be satisfied even if they do not have a share of European artworks but could have back some of their many stolen/looted cultural objects lying in Western museums and depots.
Western museum directors react often to any request for the return of a stolen/looted art work as if somebody wanted to empty their museums. They assume the posture of poor ones that are about to be deprived of the few items they hold when in fact this is contrary to the truth. Most Western museums have more objects than they can display and their depots are overflowing. A foot note in Tom Flynn’s article, “The Universal Museum – a valid model for 21st century” states that “A recent study estimated that as much as 80 per cent of UK museum collections are in storage.”(10)
The Ethnology Museum, Berlin, confesses in its museum guide that it has far more objects than it could possibly display:
“Today, the Africa collection of the Ethnologisches Museum embraces 75,000 objects: around 40,000 from West Africa(of which roughly 12, come from Cameroon, and 6,000 from the Congo), around 20,000 from East Africa ,5,000 from South Africa, 5000 from North East Africa, and 3000 from North Africa. By far the largest segment of items is not on display, but is stored in the study collection.” (11)
When we ask for some of the thousands of stolen African artefacts in European and American museums, museum directors who should know better, exclaim we want to empty their museums. We can repeat as often as we like that we are only asking for the return of some of the stolen/looted objects and not for all. We will still be accused of wanting to empty the “great museums.” Why do they adopt this dishonest and incredible stance? Tom Flynn offers some explanation: “Few critics of the universal museum wish to see major collection dispersed or are seeking the return of all cultural objects to their countries of origin. Such aims would be unnecessary and damaging and this perhaps explains why conservative museum directors persist in falsely ascribing those aims to museum reformists.” (12) For a start, Cuno could, as President of the Art Institute of Chicago, attend to the formal demand for the return of some of the Benin bronzes that the Benin Royal Family addressed to his museum. (13) This would be at least a beginning of an attempt to redistribute some of the various stolen/looted objects in the rich museums. Moreover, even if Benin bronzes were not made in Benin, surely a request by the King of Benin for a few of the Benin artefacts should be given serious and careful consideration.
The last part of Cuno’s declaration above (6) is probably better left without comment: “If nations spent as many resources seeking to build public, encyclopedic collections – those with representative examples of the world’s diverse artistic legacy — as they do in trying to prevent the export of what they claim to be their cultural property and in instead, we would all be better off”.
It is not clear which States Cuno has here in mind that are building “national, indeed nationalist museums”. Does he have Egypt in mind which is building a first class museum to house some of its many treasures? Is he advising Egypt not to concentrate on Egyptian treasures which leads to demand for the return of stolen Egyptian objects in the United States, Britain and elsewhere and does constitute a nationalist turn, in the opinion of Cuno? Is it being seriously suggested that Egypt should instead start buying or looting, if possible, from other countries in order to build a “universal” or “encyclopaedic” museum?
Or was Cuno thinking of Greece which has built a great New Acropolis Museum, Athens, and thus silenced any argument that there was no first class museum to house all the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and thus deprived the British Museum of any argument based on the quality of Athenian museums as justification for refusal to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens? It would have been interesting and useful to have the names of those countries Cuno describes as spending resources on building national, indeed nationalist museums. Readers should check on how many national museums and cultural institutions are to be found in the western world, including the United States, in order to appreciate the nature and the importance of the criticism here. (14)
It is remarkable that those who for years have tried to establish a distinction and a division of labour between the so-called “universal museums” and the other museums, the first having the attribute and function of displaying all the worlds cultures under one roof, (as James Cuno, Phillipe de Montebello and Neil MacGregor never tired of telling us), and the second reduced to displaying national culture, now turn round, having re-baptized their museums as “encyclopaedic museums”, to sneer at those national museums, now accused of being “nationalists”. On spending on museums, I understand that the Art Institute of Chicago has recently built an expensive extension. (15) What is good for Chicago may not necessarily be good for Cairo?
9. It will surely not come as a surprise to readers that Cuno continues to sing the praises of the “universal”, now re-baptized, “encyclopedic museum”.
“Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, serve as a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world. They remind us of the connections that course through history and manifest themselves in the objects we prize for their beauty, eloquence, and fresh strangeness. They remind us that culture is always living culture, always changing the way we see the world, and always transforming us, ourselves, into the bargain.”
It is difficult for me to know, when Cuno, Philippe de Montebello, Neil MacGregor and other westerners write such praise songs of the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the State Museums at Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago whether they really believe that Africans, Asians and Latin Americans will also see these institutions in the same light. These writers are sufficiently informed about the mode of acquisition of most of the objects in the museums. They know how much bloody and violent methods, including wars, were necessary in order for the West to loot most cultural artefacts from the rest of the world. They all know the history of the British invasion of Benin, Nigeria in 1897, the looting of artefacts that are now in their museums and the subsequent burning and destruction of Benin City. They cannot ignore the pains and sufferings of others which were the consequences of colonial and imperialist aggressions. How can they honestly expect us to see these museums as “force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world? These museums were themselves very much contributors to the feelings of superiority of the West and the justificatory evidence for the bloody colonialist enterprises in which they sometimes participated directly by sending experts as part of the conquering forces or by instructing the armies as to what cultural objects should be seized.
The presentation of the rest of the world as “primitive” was largely the work of these museums using the looted objects as evidence of the need for colonial rule.
Does anyone then expect Africans to see in the objects “connections that course through history and manifest themselves in the objects we prize for their beauty, eloquence, and fresh strangeness”? Our stolen/looted objects do not manifest themselves as objects of “fresh strangeness” for despite the unjustified long detention of our cultural artefacts, we recognize what has been stolen from us and the damage done. These stolen/looted objects, such as the Benin bronzes, remind as of the brutality and the determination of the colonial and imperialist powers of Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. They remind us of all the wars which were waged by the West in its unbridled thirst for power and resources.
The objects in the museums are reminders of our impotence in the past and in the present. They remind us that we failed to resist successfully imperialist aggressions and are still unable to secure the return of many of our cultural objects. Museums, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the British Museum do not even bother to respond to formal requests from the Royal Family of Benin for the return of some of the hundreds of Benin bronzes being kept in the depots of Western museums. Is this a sign of “a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world?”
The museums in the West may decide, in accordance with their own ethics, ignoring ICOM Ethics Code, resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO,
to keep our stolen/looted objects but for the sake of respect for our intelligence and self-respect, they should not, in addition, expect from us respect and admiration for their defeat of our peoples and the illegal detention of our cultural artefacts. They can, if they want, start the long process of healing and reconciliation by making symbolic gestures of returns of stolen/looted objects. If they do not want to follow the path of truth and reconciliation, this is their right and choice.
10. “Some argue that they are the legacy of empire, the fruits of military, political, or economic coercion. After all, we are reminded, encyclopedic museums are only in the capital cities of rich countries in the northern hemisphere. It is true that encyclopedic museums are not everywhere equally; they are not even everywhere equally in rich, First World countries. But they are not the legacy of empire. If so, they would be not only in London and Paris but also in Rome, Istanbul, Cairo, and Beijing, each equally the capital of one of the world’s great historical empires. And they are not. There are wherever the Enlightenment left its mark – France, Russia, the Anglo-Saxon countries, principally; the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth.”
Cuno has an interesting way of deflecting and displacing arguments and thus avoiding examining or explaining concrete issues of provenance and restitution. Nobody, as far as I can tell has argued that the so-called “universal museums” are the logical consequence or legacy of an empire or the fruits of military power. What has been argued is that military power, political or economic coercion were all very important factors in the establishment and expansion of the British Museum, the Louvre and similar institutions. Cuno cannot divorce British colonial history from the sources of the objects in the British Museum. His colleague, Neil MacGregor somewhat embarrassed by the violent and coercive modes of acquisition of the objects in the British Museum, has declared that we need new histories and interpretations. (16) We are all well aware of the British Punitive Expedition in 1897 to Benin which looted thousands of the Benin bronzes which are now found in museums in the Western world. Michel Leiris, who was a member of the French Dakar-Djibouti Expedition (1931-33) which collected thousands of cultural objects for the Musée de l’Homme in Paris(now in Quai Branly ) has depicted in detail the criminal and coercive methods used to persuade many Africans to part with their cultural objects. (17)
The visitor’s guide to the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, openly admits the enormous expansion of its African collection during the colonial period: “The greatest number of objects, however, came to the Berlin museum during the colonial period. Before 1884 – the year of the Berlin Conference, at which African territory was formally divided between the various colonial powers – and 1914 the African collection grew to 55,000 objects. Members of the German colonial administration and military in Africa were instructed to assemble collections for the Berlin Museum of Ethnography (Museum für Völkerkunde). At the same time, the museum contributed to the financing of joint collecting expeditions beyond German colonial regions, or acquired collections on the European market for art and ethnographica. As an example it is sufficient here to cite the acquisition made by Felix von Luschan, who served as Director of the African and Oceanic Department from 1905. Luschan acquired, at auctions in London and elsewhere, the collection of objects from Benin that is today one of the most important and largest in the world.” (18)
Even the British Museum which is the example of the so-called encyclopaedic museum that Cuno likes to refer to, has admitted at various instances the connection between its large collection and the imperial connection.
David M. Wilson declared in The Collections of the British Museum as follows:
“The Asante’s skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874, 1896 and 1900″. (19)
Is Cuno trying to persuade the world that, Napoleonic invasions and spoliations, in Egypt and Europe, British invasions in the Gold Coast, Benin and Ethiopia, Hitler and Nazi looting, German expeditions in Oceania, Spanish invasions of South America have little or nothing to do with the “universal museums” which, according to him, are found wherever the Enlightenment has left its mark- the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth?
It is too late in the history of mankind for Cuno and others to try to present another history of the so-called “universal museums”.
Cuno situates the so-called universal museums “wherever the Enlightenment left its mark – France, Russia, the Anglo-Saxon countries, principally; the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth.” Which are the Anglo-Saxon countries? Is this a scientific or accurate description even of Great Britain? Why is Cuno suddenly falling into ethnicism? Why introduce a racial element here? Is the United States an Anglo-Saxon country? Has Chicago become an Anglo-Saxon city even though it recently sent a non-Anglo-Saxon to become President of the United States?
Cuno does not include Rome and Madrid in the list of locations of the “universal museums”. We recall however that the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums was also signed by Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Prado, Madrid, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. Were or are these not also in the group of “universal museums”? What then is the value of the contention that “universal museums” are not the legacy of empire? “If so, they would be not only in London and Paris but also in Rome, Istanbul, Cairo, and Beijing, each equally the capital of one of the world’s great historical empires”.
Did Cuno not advise other countries, even non-Anglo-Saxons, to establish “universal museums”? Has Abu Dhabi also become an “Anglo-Saxon country? I understand they are also establishing a “universal museum” with the help of Louvre for a fee.
Can we, without any evidence or references to evidence, accept the exclusive attribution of “the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth” to a particular group of nations or peoples in a particular period of their history and thereby implicitly deny that other human groups or nations also possess this attribute? If you attribute the pursuit of truth to the European Enlightenment, the question arises, what about the Indians, the Chinese, the Egyptians and others who made great contributions to human knowledge, did they not leave a“legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth”? Even if we restrict ourselves to Europe, the question arises, what about all those philosophers and thinkers, the Ancient Greeks, for example, Aristoteles, Socrates etc, did they not leave such a legacy? Why then restrict a quality which has been found in many societies at different periods to only European society at a specific period?
Amartya Sen would most likely not approve of this exclusive attribution of“the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth” to the European Enlightenment for in his book, Identity and Violence, cited by Cuno, he criticizes such an approach on almost every page. In a section entitled “On the Alleged Uniqueness of Western Values”, Sen states: “Consider what is called “the Western civilization”. Indeed, the champions of “ the clash of civilization“, In line with the belief in the unique profundity of this singular division, tend to see tolerance as a special and enduring feature of Western civilization, extending way back into history”.
On the next page Sen declares “The championing of political liberty and of religious tolerance, in their contemporary forms, is not an old historical feature of any country or civilization in the world. Plato and Aquinas were no less authoritarian than was Confucius. This is not to deny that there were champions of tolerance in classical European thought, but even if this is taken to give credit to the whole of the Western world (from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Vikings and the Ostrogoths), there are similar examples in other cultures as well.” (21)
One wonders then about how much of Sen’s teachings have gone into the views expressed in the article by Cuno.
To attribute the establishment of “universal museums “to “the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth” is clearly an attempt to avoid discussing the cruel and violent mode of acquisition of cultural artefacts in the so-called “universal museums”.
The European Enlightenment also provided the motivation and justification for conquering and oppressing a whole lot of non-European peoples. The racist theories of Hume, Hegel, Kant and others provided the philosophical basis for the conviction that the Europeans were destined to rule the world and had a mission to collect and save traces of the lives of less advanced peoples, the so-called “primitives”. European anthropologists such as Felix von Luschan were crazy about collecting all objects relating to aspects of the lives of non-European peoples whom they alleged would soon disappear from the face of the earth. Anthropologists, like Felix von Luschan, thought that the use of force was quite legitimate if there was no other way of obtaining cultural artefacts from the peoples concerned. Navies and armies were used in the transportation of many of the huge objects that are now found in many European museums. Thus more than leaving “the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth”, the European Enlightenment contributed to the domination and destruction of many civilizations. The collection of cultural items became almost an obligation for any European who went outside Europe.
Cuno mentions many empires that disappeared without leaving any “encyclopaedic museum”. One could also add that many African empires, Mali, Ghana and Songhai also did not leave “encyclopaedic museums” or the taste for such institutions, even though they left records of their achievements. Could it be that these civilizations never had the feelings of superiority that Europe of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries had? Could it be that they never thought it justifiable to steal the cultural and religious objects of others, even conquered peoples?
However some may want to present history, it is a fact the European Enlightenment did not produce or furnish any African, Asian, Oceanic or South American artefacts. Colonization did. There is no way one can explain the presence of huge amounts of African and Asian cultural artefacts in European and American museums, including the so-called universal museums without reference to the colonization of vast areas of Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania by the European colonizers. It is not by accident that the biggest of this type of museums, British Museum and the Louvre, are in the British and the French capitals, London and Paris. Jeanette Greenfield, in her excellent book, The Return of Cultural Treasures states: “The United Kingdom stands out as a principal holder of some of the major cultural treasures of the world, primarily because of her colonial history, although not all the treasures were acquired as a direct result of this. Many were acquired simply as the result of long-distance archaeological raids and these were not always carried out by archaeologists. The United Kingdom was not alone in this, all the European countries which maintained colonial interests abroad mounted archaeological expeditions and amassed collections containing items which are of special cultural significance in their homeland. These countries included France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark and Spain. Often objects were collected in the spirit of intense competition and rivalry, and this only hastened the destruction or removal of countless treasures” (22)
We ask for the return of some of the many African cultural objects stolen/looted during the colonial period that are now in European and American museums, including the so-called universal or encyclopaedic museums. The answer we receive is that the universal or encyclopaedic museums are the result of the European Enlightenment which left “the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth”, mainly in the “Anglo-Saxon countries and that these museums are not the result of the colonial legacy. Is this a satisfactory answer? Even if the so-called Anglo-Saxon countries are the only ones with such a legacy, does that prevent us from reclaiming our admittedly looted cultural property? It does not surprise us that the concept of universal or encyclopaedic museum is offered in response to restitution claims. At the opening of the recent Benin exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, in response to claims for restitution, Cuno who agreed to give serious consideration to such demands pointed out the advantage of having Benin bronzes in the universal museum in Chicago. In presenting such a view, I do not know whether Cuno was following the thinking of his colleague, Kwame Appiah. What the philosopher wrote in his book is:
“Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects. I might urge it to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of its contribution to the cosmopolitan enterprise of cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.” (23) Leaving aside, the references to “poor”,”cosmopolitan” and “survival”, many Africans could agree with such an advice. But please note that the advice was to leave “some”. He did not say “all”. In recent times, one has felt the need to emphasize that Africans are asking for “some” and not “all” their looted/stolen cultural artefacts back. Somehow, it appears many museum directors and their supporters in Western countries cannot or do not want to make this distinction. There is definitely something wrong with a situation where the British Museum has allegedly 700 pieces of Benin bronzes the Ethnology Museum, Berlin admittedly 580, Field Museum, Chicago, 400 and the Art Institute 20 and are all refusing to give the King of Benin a few pieces back. Where then is the vaunted desire for international co-operation and the wish to share in what belongs to all of us?
Is the reference to the Enlightenment and the Anglo-Saxon countries a reflection of the belief that we non-Anglo-Saxons should be grateful that our cultural artefacts are in the great Anglo-Saxon temples? Mark O’Neill in his excellent article,”Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?” sees some of this
arrogance in the British Museum: “There is an echo of this metropolitan assumption that marginalized or conquered peoples depend on the centre for their value to be affirmed at the entrance to the BM’s new Africa Gallery. The introductory panel is not, as might be expected in a traditional museum,
a map of Africa or an overview of the exhibition, or in a more visitor-focused museum, a map with photographs of African people and their objects. Instead there is a dedication to Lord Sainsbury, not only for his role as benefactor to the Museum but as a collector of African art, and to Henry Moore, who Picasso-like, led the appreciation of African sculpture as art in Britain”. (24)
11 “.Current national cultural property laws constrain the development of encyclopedic museums and serve only the interest of nationalism. They claim culture for the nation and they use culture to buttress claims of national identity. They ignore the evidence of history, which, as the late literary scholar and cultural critic, Edward Said, reminds us, demonstrates that cultural expressions have always been both diverse and hybrid.”
Cuno ends his text with a long citation from Edward Said, (without citing the title of the book or the page number). Taking into account the statements in the rest of the text, I cannot help feeling that Mark O’Neill’s comment of 2004 is still very apposite:
“If directors of universal museums are going to invoke the authority of Edward Said and take up his injunction to explore ‘the slow working together
of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other and live together’, they need to find a language which respects the sensibilities and values of cultures whose equivalent of the crown jewels or the Magna Carta have been ‘borrowed.” (25)
Reading Cuno’s statements about the European Enlightenment, one gets the impression that other civilizations had not made any contribution to that period in European history the achievements of which seem restricted to the nations he mentions, especially, the Anglo-Saxons. There is no impression that he is pleading for cooperation and mutual understanding except when it relates to the retention of looted/stolen artefacts by the “universal” or “encyclopaedic museums”. The tone and diction of the recent article conveys a similar attitude to that of the Westerners of the last and earlier centuries, sure of their own inherent superiority.
On reading Cuno’s article, those of us who believe that the relations between the Western countries and the rest of the world, at least as far as museums are concerned, can be amended and improved, must feel disappointed and sad that he repeats many of his unnecessarily provocative views. One has the impression that despite citing Kwame Appiah, Amartya Sen and Edward Said, he does not appreciate the damage done to the peoples of the non-Western countries through colonialism and Western arrogance and expression of superiority. The intelligent and sensitive approaches of many Western critics, Tom Flynn and Mark O’Neill do not seem to have affected the views and approaches of the apostles of the universal or encyclopaedic museums in any way. As O’Neill has remarked “
“…the absence in public communications of any empathy with, and the
denial of any legitimacy at all, to repatriation claims undermines the credibility of their case that they are capable of a universal view”. (26)
Present-day Europeans and US Americans are clearly not responsible for the looting and stealing of previous generations that now fill their museums and their depots. However, they cannot entirely escape accountability if they support the continued detention of stolen/looted cultural artefacts of others. Moreover, they bear some responsibility if they choose to accept the views of those who preach that holding on to stolen/looted property of others is the most enlightened way to seek understanding amongst the diverse peoples and cultures of the world.
“The problem of what to do with foreign collections from the era of European colonialism is coming to the fore; repatriation demands from the countries of origin have emerged as one of the challenges of globalization. The ongoing attempts to repackage and re-present these collections in response, by no means limited to ethnographic material, deserve the attention of anthropologists as ‘cosmologies in the making’. Such revised ‘cosmologies’ are, as we shall see, inseparable from the social configurations of power in nation-states currently challenged by globalizing forces, and they obviously are not static. The British Museum’s ‘world cultures’, Rotterdam’s recreated Wereld museum, the Parisian ‘arts premiers’ extravaganza at the new Quai Branly Museum and others all involve the contestation, modification and sometimes the abandonment of older guiding categories like ‘fine art’, ‘ethnography’ etc. In my view, the repackaging of collections across the West (including in the self-declared bastions of Western modernity in the US) represents realignment with globalizing forces which could potentially yield a new beginning and a new one-world spirit, privileging global responsibility over national or private ownership. But any such ‘cosmopolitanism’ might also easily be co-opted by the ‘free trade’ antiquities industry, with its museum allies and associated‘globalized’ power elites scrambling to fend off the increasingly intense scrutiny from regions still being looted to fill these museums today.” Magnus
2. Princeton University Press, 2008, p. xxxvi.
3. Penguin, 2006, pp .119-120
4. Who Owns Antiquity? p.154
7 See Frontier Dispute, Judgment (Burkina Faso/Republic of Mali) I.C.J. Reports 1986, p. 554.
8. See Kwame Opoku, “Is Nationalism as such a dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Property? www.modernghana.com
9. Penguin,London, 2007
11. Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Prestel,Munich,2007,p114.
13) Kwame Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums noe Return some of the Looted/Stolen Benin Artefacts?” www.modernghana formal-demand-for-the-return-of-benin-bronzes-will.html
14. Kwame Opoku, “Is Nationalism such a dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Cultural Property”? www.museum-security.org
“A Man who Loves Big Museums” www.nytimes.com
17. See Odile Tobner, “Vérité sur l’art des colonies” www.billetsdafrique.info Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme, Paris,Gallimard, pp. 103-105 ; Philippe Baqué, Un nouvel or noir : pillage des œuvres d’art en Afrique, Paris-Mediterranée, 1999, Paris ; Bernard Dupaigne, Le scandale des arts premiers-La véritable histoire du musée du quai Branly, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2006.10 ;
.Aminata Traoré, Musée du Quai Branly et Immigration choisie: droit de cité” AFRIKARA-www.afrikara.com
18. Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Prestel, Museum Guide, München 2007, p.113. On p.114 of the same guide we read the following: “The outstanding works of art from Africa presented here give an impression of the cultural and artistic significance of this great continent, a greatness that despite centuries of plunder, subjection, colonial exploitation and racism has remained unbroken in its creative powers“
19. British Museum Press, 1989, p. 97. Those who really believe that the presence of so many diverse objects from the former British colonies in the British Museum have nothing to do with the British colonial empire are advised to read the excellent book of Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, London, 1994.
20. Sen, p. 49.
21. Sen, p.50.
22. Third Edition, Cambridge 2007.p.97.
23 Cosmopolitanism, p. 132.
24. www.le.ac.uk/ms O’neill
25. Mark O‘Neill, ibid.
26. O.Neill, ibid.
27. Magnus Fiskesjö “The trouble with world culture”, 26 Anthropology Today, Vol. 23, No. 5, October. 2007, pp.6 – 11.