June 12, 2008

Are all antiquity collectors criminals?

Posted at 3:37 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

To some archaeologists, there are few in the antiquities collection business who shouldn’t be classed as criminals. James Cuno of course disagrees with this point of view.

The Economist

The great heritage war
Jun 12th 2008
From The Economist print edition

“THEY are all criminals, especially the Americans,” an eminent archaeologist declares. The evidence? They collect antiquities. This sort of remark is a typical attack in the long battle over who should or should not possess or trade in ancient objects. The combatants include governments, museums, art dealers and auction houses as well as archaeologists and private collectors.

James Cuno examines the underlying causes of this conflict, reporting on the wounds it is inflicting and proposing a route to a workable truce. He spotlights a single theatre of operations. Though the museums of his subtitle suggest that they are his focus, specialist institutions (showing ceramics, say, or Islamic art) are excluded. Encyclopedic museums—devoted to the exhibition and study of “representative examples of the world’s artistic legacy”—are what he concentrates on.

As such, the book is a report from the front-line. Since 2004 Mr Cuno has been director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, an encyclopedic institution. And his name is currently being mentioned as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello who retires in December as director of another, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although Mr Cuno clearly appreciates matters of aesthetic, historical and art-market importance, this is a political work. He takes the position that discussion of even the most clear-cut issues—looting and illegal trafficking, for instance, which all but the perpetrators agree must stop—has been shaped by the goals of the two opposing camps: nationalistic governments and “cosmopolitanists”.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum—an example par excellence of institutional cosmopolitanism—defines his museum’s purpose as building a collection of diverse objects from around the world in order to reveal “not one perpetual truth” but rather “truth as a living, changing thing…constantly remade”. Antiquities gathered from across the globe, he argues, contribute to an understanding of our human past—wherever we happen to live.

Nations have a different goal. Italy, Greece, Egypt and China, for instance, declare that they have a right to ancient objects created on their land. It is their cultural patrimony, they say. Is it? Long-ago artefacts can be useful tools in establishing a national identity but is this sufficient reason to concede that these countries have the right to possess and control them? Mr Cuno, who explores these issues in detail, answers “not necessarily” to the first question and “no” to the second.

The author acknowledges the contribution to his thinking made by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher. Readers of Mr Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” (published by Norton in 2006) will know how considerable this debt has been. In a chapter called “Whose culture is it, anyway?” Mr Appiah lays bare the illogicality of many cultural patrimony claims. Take, for example, Nigeria’s assertion that it has a right to possess Nok sculpture, made on its terrain 2,000 years ago. Mr Appiah points out that nothing is known about the people who made this sculpture, its purpose or its owners. About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that Nok sculpture was not made for Nigeria, a country that has yet to celebrate its centenary.

Mr Cuno recommends the reintroduction of partage as a way to end the conflict. Partage is the practice of archaeologists, their sponsors and the countries in which excavations take place of sharing out whatever is unearthed. Yet the reader senses he feels pessimistic. Understandably. An aura of political correctness has begun to hover over what he calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws” (Mr Cuno has an unfortunate fondness for jargon).

Yet there may be cause for hope. Mr Cuno does not mention the internet until the very end of his book. Yet the online catalogues of encyclopedic museums are already visited by people from the Arctic Circle to the Horn of Africa. Although it is too soon to know how this will play out politically, it is evident that the internet fuels a hunger for more sharing and accessibility, and an impatience with being forced to settle for less. You might even say that the internet is cosmopolitanist by nature.

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