July 21, 2008

Does culture know of political borders

Posted at 12:48 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Most people would acknowledge that culture is often very much aligned with political borders. James Cuno however would disagree that this is the case.

Kwame Opoku’s response to Cuno’s interview helps to outline the many inaccuracies in Cuno’s contentions.


‘Culture knows no political borders’
Tiffany Jenkins
Wednesday, 16th July 2008

Tiffany Jenkins talks to James Cuno about looting, exporting and owning antiquities

James Cuno is a busy man. I pin him down between two projects: promoting the new Modern Art Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, opening next year, where he is president and director, and the launch of his new book Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton University Press, £14.95), which is provoking controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was prompted to write it, he tells me, ‘as an intervention into the war, or should I say “discussion”, between museums, archaeologists and nation states, about who can acquire antiquities’.

The work is a strident critique of the cultural property laws that prevent artefacts from antiquity (defined as an object over 150 years old) being exported out of the state within which they are excavated. Cuno is concerned that these laws, designed to prevent the looting of archaeological sites, are at best ineffective: ‘The number of antiquities acquired by museums has slowed to a trickle, but looting has increased. So where’s it going?’ he asks. ‘Worst of all,’ he argues, ‘these laws…advance nationalism and identity politics, which obscures the true meanings of objects and closes down our understanding of them.’

Cultural property laws, according to Cuno, promote a spurious link between antiquities and present-day governments which they use for their own ideological purposes. ‘Those in power in nation states, in whose jurisdiction antiquities lie, want a kind of legitimisation of their political position,’ he says. ‘They use the laws to perpetuate a sense of legitimacy, that the modern nation state is descended from antiquity, which it simply isn’t!’ he exclaims.

Nor is culture created within nations, he argues. ‘Culture knows no political borders. It never has. It’s always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid; and it’s always moved across borders or bears the imprint of earlier contact.’

Cuno clearly has a point. Claims to keep or have artefacts returned today — the most high-profile being the Elgin Marbles — suggest that Greece, for example, has a greater right to and connection with ancient artefacts within its present borders than those of us outside have. That is asserted despite the fact that the Parthenon was created 2,500 years ago in Classical Athens and since then has been ‘owned’ by the Ottoman Empire, the Christian church and an Islamic mosque. Their use changes, their meanings are complex and are not simply ‘Greek’.

Those demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles imply that there is continuity between the Hellenic culture that created them and the modern Greek identity. But no national identity is continuous in this way, Cuno suggests. It is a stance that denies the universal legacy of the artefacts — that, despite our great distance from antiquities in time and place, we all relate to them regardless of birth and background.

To demonstrate this point, Cuno explores the history of and influences on the artistry of a number of antiquities, including a 13th-century ivory casket from Sicily, which is carved from an African elephant’s tusk; a medieval German monstrance, which was used to display relics during Mass and holds a rock-crystal bottle that was once a perfume container made in Fatimid (Muslim Egypt); and a bronze cauldron from 11th-century BC China that documents social, dynastic and ritual practices of the rulers. All testify to varied influences, shifting significance and relationships between peoples.

Modern countries, Cuno posits, have no more right to claim ownership of objects produced in antiquity within their present borders than anyone anywhere else. This is a radical idea which challenges many contemporary shibboleths about identity and culture. He is on strong ground when he describes the interrelatedness of peoples and the intermingling influences on culture. His trenchant disapproval of the static and fixed view of identity and culture is timely.

This critique has angered many in the archaeological and museum sectors with whom, I think, the main battle is taking place. For many critics, those in the West have a responsibility to make reparation for the way they acquired artefacts; and, in the case of Britain, its historical association with colonialism. That is why excavated artefacts should stay where they are found, and also why they should be returned. Indeed, many claims that are presented by governments use the rhetoric of historical suffering when arguing that they should own the antiquities. So Cuno’s characterisation of them as straightforwardly nationalistic doesn’t quite stand up.

This raises the question of whether decisions about where objects should reside should be made on the basis of what happened in the past. I don’t think so. I think they should be made according to the principles of preservation, access and scholarship — on the basis of the present and the future. But this is an argument that needs to be made and Cuno doesn’t do so. He concentrates on the legal and technical detail of who bought what when and evades what some call the moral argument.

Cuno is stronger on the merits of encyclopaedic museums — the term now in vogue for institutions with artefacts from different civilisations — about which he becomes animated. The advantage, he says, is that ‘the object is seen in relation to other histories and cultures and so you see relationships both lateral and vertical in space and in time, and you begin to see the imprint of other cultures in the making of culture itself’. This helps us to understand the varied meanings of objects and how they came to be created.

He has been accused of wanting to hoard all the artefacts in museums in the West. But this is something he vigorously contests: ‘Let’s redistribute wealth and political power, not argue against encyclopaedic museums. Surely they should be everywhere,’ he proposes.

As a solution Cuno recommends partage, a system developed in the first half of the 20th century, by which objects excavated in archaeological digs are divided between the country of origin’s cultural authority (usually the national museum) and the archaeologist’s home institution. In short, ‘they should be shared’.

This enthusiasm for such museums is invigorating but he veers towards overstating the contribution they could make. According to Cuno, they can ‘encourage inquiry and tolerance without prejudice and represent the world’s artistic legacy’, elaborating that ‘inquiry holds out great promise, because from inquiry comes understanding, from understanding comes tolerance’. He argues that ‘context, where objects are seen alongside artefacts from different times and civilisations, particularly in the age we now live — an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence — aids tolerance’.

But while museums can do many things, they cannot resolve political conflict. He teeters too close to promoting a political role for this kind of museum. These caveats aside, his is a thoughtful case about the importance of preserving and giving people access to antiquities. Many of those who are squabbling over objects argue only about who owns them and who wronged whom. It is a refreshing change that James Cuno also concentrates on the artefacts themselves.

Tiffany Jenkins is director of the Arts and Society programme at the Institute of Ideas.

Modern Ghana

By Dr. Kwame Opoku
Feature Article | Sun, 20 Jul 2008

The article entitled Culture knows no political borders which is an interview with James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, by Tiffany Jenkins in the Spectator, must be critically examined. Many persons in the United Kingdom would tell you that once you cross the Channel, everything changes: language, food, mode of dressing, political system, in some cases, religion and sometimes, even the faces of the people. So what is one trying to achieve with this misleading title? Only to reach the conclusion that it does not matter where the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin bronzes, Asante Gold and Regalia and all the other stolen or looted artefacts are. It is the same as the sweeping generalization of Cuno that all those claiming the return of their cultural objects are “retentionist nationalists.” This confounds nationalists, communists, liberals, monarchists, democrats and dictators.

A simple question would show that the slogan is just plainly wrong. Why does each State have its own budget for culture? This is like the slogan that the “British Museum is for all mankind”. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a world organized on political basis in the form of States.

The statement that Cuno presents “a thoughtful case about the importance of preserving and giving people access to antiquities” is equally misleading. Cuno is not thoughtful of preserving archaeological sites where much knowledge about the past can be extracted by archaeologists and not plunderers. Nor does Cuno seem to care for the many people in the countries which have lost their artefacts to the Western museums. These people have surely no access to the antiquities that have been horded in Western museums which are often complaining about lack of space.

Is it seriously being suggested, with respect to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles which Greece has been claiming over a very long period, that Great Britain has an equal affiliation to the ancient Greeks as the modern Greeks or even a greater affiliation?
This is a very serious allegation which is better left to the Hellenic scholars. Or is this based on a view similar to the statement attributed to Viscount Eccles who said, inter alia, “Like others, I salute the ancient Greeks for their wonderful history, but the Greeks of the twentieth century should know that we, too, have a history. Part of our history is expressed in our admiration for their art.” (1)

To suggest or allege that those who challenge Cuno’s unfounded ideas have a static view of identity and culture is a gross misrepresentation of facts. No one will argue that the British of today have the same culture or identity as the British of the Middle Ages or earlier times. But does this in any way reduce Britain’s right to artefacts and other cultural monuments in the British Isles? Could all of us come from abroad and take our share of Stonehenge? The right of modern States to control antiquities found within their territories is enshrined in Article 4 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Cuno, of course, does not pay attention to such international agreements since he thinks the whole system of the United Nations and UNESCO are seriously flawed and need to be re-examined.

There should be no confusion of the case of those claiming reparation for past injustices with that of those who are claiming the return of stolen or looted artefacts. The two cases are not the same even though under colonialism they often went together. The one case deals with past wrongs whilst the other deals with present and continuing wrong-doing. Reparation for colonialism and slavery is one important demand but this must not, and is not, to be confused with the continuing and constant violation of the rights of others to keep their own cultural icons. A refusal to return cultural property is a violation of the right of countries and peoples to develop their culture as they wish. Most of the stolen cultural objects in the British Museum, including the Rosetta Stone, the Ethiopian crosses and manuscripts as well as the Benin bronzes should have been returned to their owners when they gained Independence from Britain. The withholding of their cultural goods constitutes a violation of their right to self-determination and freedom to determine their own cultural development.

The current dispute is not only between archaeologists and museum directors but between those who believe museums should not purchase antiquities of doubtful provenance and those who believe museums should be free to purchase antiquities without hindrance. Most archaeologists belong to the first group and many museum directors, including Cuno, belong to the second group. The main argument of the archaeologists seems to be that once the plunderers have removed the artefacts from their contexts, from the excavation sites, a lot of valuable information is lost for ever. This loss of information and the consequent damage done are irreparable. Plundering, it is argued, would cease or at any rate be considerably reduced, if there were no market for such artefacts of dubious provenance, i.e., if the museums would stop buying such artefacts. Cuno thinks there would always be plundering and that museums should be allowed to acquire excellent artefacts however dubious their provenance may be. The moral implications here do not seem to bother him that much. The archaeologists have the support of many jurists and others who believe there should be respect for the laws of the so-called source countries and the UNESCO Convention which forbid illegal exportation and illegal importation of antiquities of dubious provenance.

Colin Renfrew, one of the leading British archaeologists has this to say:

“The world’s archaeological resource, which through the practice of archaeology is our principal source of knowledge about the early human past, is being destroyed at a formidable and increasing rate. It is destroyed by looters in order to serve the lucrative market in illicit artefacts through which private collectors and alas, some of the major museums of the world, fulfil their desire to accumulate antiquities. Such unprovenanced antiquities, ripped from their archaeological context without record (and without any hope of publication), can tell us little that is new. The opportunity is thereby lost for them to add to our understanding of the past history and prehistory of the regions from which they come, or to our perception of the early development of human society”. (2)

The devastating effect of plunder in West Africa, especially in Mali and in Nigeria, makes one wonder whether Cuno and others who seem tolerant towards the acquisition of artefacts without clear provenance know what they are doing when they present the archaeologists as somehow being manipulated by governments seeking to discourage plunder. Much of the valuable information that could have been obtained about the ancient African civilizations that produced terracotta in Nigeria and Mali have been lost due to the action of plunderers who supplied European and American museums and private collectors with those pieces.

The Art Institute of Chicago where Cuno is Director is currently hosting the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals: court Arts from Nigeria. The Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin have repeatedly asked for the restitution of the Benin bronzes which the British Punitive Force looted in 1897. The British sold the Benin artefacts to other Europeans and Americans. The British Museum has allegedly 280 pieces, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, 600, Ethnology Museum, Vienna, 167, The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts has a certain number including, a Queen-Mother Idia hip mask, The Art Institute of Chicago has, according to Cuno, some half-dozen pieces and the Field Museum, Chicago has 400 pieces. (3) Practically every European and American museum, university or city has a collection of Benin bronzes whereas Nigeria has very few. There are in Hamburg 196, Dresden 182, Leipzig 87, Stuttgart 80, Cologne 73, Frankfurt 51, and in Leiden 98 pieces.
It would be interesting to see how Cuno deals with the demand for the restitution of the Benin bronzes made at the opening of the Benin exhibition in Chicago. He is reported to have said he would give any request for restitution a serious consideration.

The British Museum has in the past sold some of the Benin artefacts but was unwilling to lend to Nigeria, the hip-mask depicting Queen-Mother Idia which is the official mascot of FESTAC 77, the all African cultural Festival.

Many Americans and Europeans talk about the “Heritage of Mankind” but in practice they refuse to return stolen African art objects or even “lend” them to the African countries. Egypt has recently asked the British Museum to “lend” the Rosetta Stone which was originally removed from Egypt by the French and the British. It would be interesting if the British acceded to such a request whereas the Germans have in the past refused to “lend” to Egypt the bust of Nefertiti which is in the Berlin, Altes Museum.

It seems for Europeans and Americans the heritage of mankind does not extend to European objects. There is not a single major European or American art work in Africa whereas all the best African cultural icons are in European and American museums as well as in private collection.

When Cuno and others talk about antiquities not knowing any political borders, they think of only one way traffic: to the United States and to the United Kingdom.

For those interested in pursuing this debate, there are interesting articles at Looting Matters.


1) See Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Third Edition, Cambridge, 2007, p. 108.

2) Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, Duckworth, London, 2006, p.9.

3) The homepage of the Field Museum states that the museum has 400 Benin pieces and that “Except for a few recent ethnographic objects, the entire collection dates to the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897”.

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1 Comment »

  1. Matthew said,

    07.24.08 at 1:01 pm

    John Huntley has added the following thoughts on this article to the Spectator’s website:


    John A K Huntley
    July 21st, 2008 1:08am

    In this article, the word ‘ownership’ appears prominently only in the title – yet how can a rational discussion about artifacts develop other than on the very issue of ownership?

    The illogicality of Professor Cuno’s (and, by association much of Tiffany Jenkins’s) omission is borne out by the inclusion of the Parthenon Marbles in a long list of ‘antiquities’. The Marbles are not merely ‘antiquities’; they, unlike the other ‘antiquities’ listed were fixtures on a building.

    Lord Elgin was a domiciled Scot, acting in a personal capacity when he removed the Parthenon sculptures. There have always been serious doubts about the legality of the removal and about the extent and nature of that illegality. Lord Elgin removed not merely “artwork,” but fixtures attached to structures that had stood for two thousand years. They were ‘attached to the land’ and no more lawfully removed than if the vendor of a house were to remove the doors and windows along with his personal effects.

    Lord Elgin’s right to take away these fixtures is what has always been in dispute. If he had no such right, he acquired no ownership of the marbles, regardless of his motives. He could therefore pass no ownership to their ‘purchaser,’ the United Kingdom and the Trustees of the British Museum – again, regardless of their motives. Whoever else owns them now, it is not Lord Elgin or his ‘successors in title,’ but the successors to the Ottoman authorities – the present Hellenic Republic.

    New theories about cultural artifacts as some kind of ‘res communis’ as espoused by Professor Cuno and others cannot compromise fundamental principles of property law, as forcefully adhered to in the legal systems of the United States, the United Kingdom or indeed any other state that respects property ownership.

    There may be merits – surely there must be some merit? – in Professor Cuno’s notion of the ‘encyclopaedic’ museum in relation to artifacts lawfully acquired; but his own words suggest otherwise. Telling today’s Hellenes that there is ‘no continuity’ between their ‘Greek’ culture (only non-Hellenes describe it as ‘Greek’) and ‘Hellenic’ might be seen by them as arrogant and offensive, if not incomprehensible; but it also displays a lack of historical accuracy (vide Arnold J Toynbee, ‘The Greeks and their Heritages,’ OUP 1981). They might understandably balk at entrusting ‘national’ artifacts to ‘encyclopaedic’ would-be guardians of ‘culture’.

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