March 15, 2015

James Cuno, ISIS and cultural heritage preservation

Posted at 9:11 pm in Similar cases

James Cuno has in the past regularly staked his claim as one of the most hardline retentionists in the US museums world.

In his latest missive to the New York Times letters page, he tries to argue that many of the current problems with looting are actually the fault of UNESCO conventions on cultural property. His line of reasoning is that cultural property laws keep the artefacts in their country of origin – thereby making it easier for other factions within the country to seize / destroy them. There are too many flaws to this argument for me to list. Fortunately Kwame Opoku has taken the time to write a far more comprehensive dis-assembly of Cuno’s arguments than I would have managed.

Isis militants attack ancient artifacts with sledgehammers in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq.

Isis militants attack ancient artifacts with sledgehammers in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq.

Kwame Opoku (by email)

Does Dr Cuno really believe what he writes?

After my last article, I swore not to comment anymore on Dr.Cuno’s statements in order to avoid any impression that I was unduly concentrating on the opinions of one scholar. (1) However, it seems the U.S. American scholar is never tired of presenting views that most critics would consider patently wrong. Could we just keep quiet when a most influential scholar expresses an opinion that is obviously wrong? In his latest letter to the editor of the New York Times, 11 March,2015,James Cuno, President and Chief Executive of the J. Paul Getty trust, Los Angeles declares

”The recent attacks on the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq underscore a tragic reality. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization encourages — and provides an institutional instrument for — the retention of antiquities within the borders of the modern state that claims them. That state, very sadly, also has the authority to sell them on the illegal market, damage them or destroy them.

Until Unesco changes its basic position on this issue, antiquities will remain at risk. The world can only be grateful for the earlier regime of “partage,” which allowed for the sharing of Assyrian antiquities with museums worldwide that could preserve them. This unconscionable destruction is an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place. ISIS will destroy everything in its path.” (2)

What an astonishing declaration. UNESCO is here made to be responsible, at least partially or indirectly, for massive destruction of cultural artefacts. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (3) or UNESCO, directly or indirectly encourages the destruction of cultural property. UNESCO is charged with the preservation of culture and cultural artefacts. If anyone has credible evidence that the organization, its organs or officials are involved in destruction or encouraging others in this direction, it would be their duty to bring this evidence to the attention of UNESCO and its organs for appropriate action.

Most readers would have read the statements from the UNESCO. Director- General and other senior officials on recent events concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts. (4)

We do not know how Dr. Cuno reads the UNESCO Convention. There is not a single word in the Convention to support the view that the Convention vests States with a proprietary right or authority to destroy artefacts. The duty to protect artefacts does not include the right to destroy them. Think of the various cultural artefacts that belong to various communities within some States. No one ever suggested that the State could sell those artefacts or destroy them by virtue of the provisions of the Convention. The State is not necessarily the owner of the artefacts it protects or should protect. Think for instance about the Benin Bronzes or the Nok sculptures in the State of Nigeria. No one has suggested that the Convention as such vests proprietary rights in the famous artefacts in the State of Nigeria so that the Nigerian Government could simply destroy them…

As for the suggestion that the world should be grateful for the partage system which existed previously, this is what Dr. Cuno himself has written about the system which he wishes to revive, a system that allowed imperialist powers to take as much materials as they wanted from non-Western countries.

“For many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological finds were shared between the excavating party and the local, host country through partage. This is how the great Ghandaran collection got to the Musée Guimet in Paris (shared with Afghanistan), the Assyrian collection got to the British Museum in London (shared with Iraq, before the formation of the modern, independent government of Iraq), the Lydian materials from Sardis got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (shared with the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey), the Egyptian collection got to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a number of collections got to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and of course how the great collections were formed at the university archaeological museums, like the Peabody Museums at Harvard and Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. But this principle is no longer in practice. With the surge in nationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it has become almost impossible to share archaeological finds. All such finds belong to the host nation and are its property. Only the state can authorize the removal of an archaeological artifact to another country, and it almost never does. Even when one lends antiquities abroad, it is for severely restricted periods of time. Antiquities are cultural property, and cultural property is defined and controlled by the state for the benefit of the state.” (5)

After reading the extract above and others from Cuno’s book, one wonders how he can suggest a return to a clearly unfair system. (6) The partage system allowed the rich countries which financed many of the exploration and excavation of archaeological sites to regard the countries of these sites, so called “source countries” as some sort of archaeological supermarket The partage system left us disputes such as the one between Egypt and Germany concerning Nefertiti’s bust.The partage system, in conjunction with looting and stealing,, enabled stronger and aggressive countries to build up the so-called “universal museums”.

Where does Cuno derive the notion that the State may legally participate in the illegal market? By definition, the State cannot participate in the illegal market unless we abandon all distinctions between “legality” and “illegality”. The State as source of legality cannot participate in illegality and continue to proclaim laws, issue regulations and provide penalties.

The statement by Cuno that recent destructions offer a further argument for “why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place”, is surely more appropriately addressed to the “universal museums” than to “source countries”. Nowhere do we find a massive accumulation of artefacts as in the so-called universal museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Madrid and elsewhere in the Western world. These museums have “collected” uncountable objects from non-western countries and are refusing to return any. The British Museum alone has some 9 million objects. Could Cuno’s advice de directed to the venerable museum in Bloomsbury?

There are aspects of the 1970 UNESCO Convention that may be criticised but the suggestion that the Convention and the UNESCO are somehow responsible or have contributed to destruction of cultural artefacts is, with all due respect, clearly not based on any tenable evidence and is a dangerous suggestion

Verily, this is not the time to launch attacks on the United Nations body for culture; support for this body could be expected of all those interested in the preservation of cultures and cultural artefacts whether they are in favour of more freedom of action for the so-called “universal museums” or not.

Kwame Opoku, 14 March, 2015.


1. Kwame Opoku,”Dr. Cuno Again Reviving Discredited Arguments to Prevent Future Repatriation of Museum Artefact”,

See Paul Barford, James Cuno, President and Chief Executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, writes to the Editor of the NYT (Deploring ISIS, Destroyer of a Civilization’s Art

3. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970…of…/1970-convention/

4. “Destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the cultural cleansing underway in iraq” say heads of UNESCO and ISESCO Saturday, March 7, 2015
UNESCO calls for mobilization to stop “cultural cleansing” in Iraq Friday, February 27, 2015
UNESCO Director-General welcomes UN Security Council Resolution to step up protection of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq Thursday, February 12, 2015
“UNESCO Director General condemns destruction of Nimrud in Iraq”, 6 February 2015.
UNESCO Conference calls for protected cultural zones to be established Syria and Iraq Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Emergency plan to safeguard Iraq’s cultural heritage Thursday, November 6, 2014
Emergency Response Action Plan to safeguard Iraqi heritage Thursday, July 17, 2014

5. James Cuno, Who owns Antiquity?’ Princeton University Press, 2008, p.14.

56 .Cuno, ibid, pp.55 and 154.
“Under the British Mandate, from 1921 to 1932, archaeology in Iraq was dominated by British teams – including the British Museum working with the University of Pennsylvania at Ur, the fabled home not only of Sumerian kings but also the Biblical Abraham – regulated by British authorities. The Oxford-educated, English woman Gertrude Bell, who had worked for the British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was appointed honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq by the British-installed King Faysal in 1922. A most able administrator, having served as the Oriental secretary to the High Commission in Iraq after the war, Bell was responsible for approving applications for archaeologists, and thus for determining where in Iraq excavators would work. She was also a major force behind the wording and passage of the 1924 law regulating excavations in Iraq, a result of which was the founding of the Iraq Museum and the legitimization of partage:”p. 55

“Archaeologists should question their support of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws, especially those who benefit today from working among the finds in the collections of their host university museums, collections which could not now be formed, ever since the implementation of foreign cultural property laws. And they should join museums in pressing for the return to partage, the principle and practice by which so many local and encyclopedic museum collections were built in the past.”p.154

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  1. Sarah_May1 said,

    03.15.15 at 9:19 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: James Cuno, ISIS, UNESCO and cultural heritage preservation

  2. captain_primate said,

    03.15.15 at 9:20 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: James Cuno, ISIS, UNESCO and cultural heritage preservation

  3. precatlady said,

    03.15.15 at 10:44 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: James Cuno, ISIS, UNESCO and cultural heritage preservation

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    03.16.15 at 8:48 am

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