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Is there good reason for the Elgin Marbles to remain in Britain?

James Cuno’s [1] new book expounds his views that we should not be moving towards more reunifications of artefacts. The Daily Telegraph (somewhat predictably) chooses to agree with him in their review of his new book, although others have already pointed out [2] the numerous flaws in his reasoning.

Daily Telegraph [3]

Why the Elgin Marbles should stay
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 06/07/2008

Jonathan Keates reviews Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno

Connoisseurs of little-known facts will rejoice in the existence of a department of Unesco called the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation.

Besides defying all efforts to reduce it to a manageable acronym, the name surely deserves some sort of accolade for its verbosity.

Since its establishment in 1978, this body, whose brief covers everything from manuscripts and works of art to zoological, botanical and mineralogical specimens – a fossil or a stuffed bird counts as ‘cultural property’ – has returned Assyrian cuneiform tablets from Germany to Turkey, wrested ancient Ecuadorian artefacts from the Italians and scratched its head to some purpose over the ultimate destiny of what we have learnt not to call the Elgin Marbles.

The hot potato of whether museums in the developed world any longer have a claim to works of art acquired from less evolved societies in earlier centuries is now in danger of becoming positively carbonised.

Ranged alongside Greece in the firing squad of nations seeking to recover what purports to be their rightful inheritance are China, Egypt and several sub-Saharan African states. Their target is the type of great European or American institution whose existence has hitherto been justified by ongoing attempts to enlarge the cultural awareness of its myriad visitors.

Not any longer. As director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno has personal experience of the current scramble, empowered by aggressive nationalism, to claw back a multitude of objects in the name of moral entitlement on behalf of a people or a state whose soul they apparently represent.

For him enough is clearly enough, and Who Owns Antiquity? comes out with guns blazing to demolish most of the arguments in favour of restoring the spoils gathered over 300 years by archaeology, imperial adventure or entrepreneurial connoisseurship.

His book is the more vigorous for its refusal to compromise.

Such polemic is usually labelled ‘controversial’, but in this case room for discussion, according to Cuno, simply does not exist. In his view, art of the kind deemed worthy of museum display represents the universal inheritance of humankind rather than a mere device for validating the identity of new or insecure nation states.

Two of his chief culprits are China and Turkey, each of them, as he rightly points out, a state created by the imposition of shared nationalist values on an ethnically, culturally and linguistically fragmented population.

In China’s case ‘the movement to preserve the cultural relics of our motherland’ has gathered momentum as the nation itself becomes an economic heavyweight. Cuno evidently relishes the implicit irony in the fact that Beijing’s state-of-the-art Poly Museum, anxious to buy back the treasures looted by British and French troops from the imperial Summer Palace in 1858, is funded by a commercial conglomerate specialising in weapons of mass destruction.

He has fun, what is more, with the double standard that allows the Chinese government to purchase looted antiquities from within its own borders while calling other nations to account for acquiring smuggled or unprovenanced artworks.

As for Turkey, the creation of a national heritage depends, even more than China’s, on selective interpretations of history and ethnicity.

Does the ‘Alexander Sarcophagus’, for example, brought to Istanbul in 1887, belong in Lebanon, where it was found when that country was part of the Ottoman Empire, or in Greece, home of the sculptural tradition that created it? And why should the Kurds, though treated as stateless aliens, not have a claim to the archaeological remains in an area where they have lived a good deal longer than the Turks themselves?

Not especially elegant or stylish (the heart sinks at successive chapter titles such as ‘The Crux of the Matter’, ‘Political Matters’, ‘More Political Matters’). Cuno’s book is nevertheless eloquent in defence of the traditional Western museum ideal, which presents culture as something global and organic, emphasising human interdependence in a world without borders.

Menacing this is ‘a desperate, self-centred, political move, contrary to the facts of history’ towards the use of cultural heritage as a sandbag for national self-esteem or as a sinister weapon of racial and religious propaganda.

Those for whom the great international collections are merely an embarrassing legacy of imperial greed and presumption will hate this book, but they can scarcely deny James Cuno’s courage in writing it.