March 17, 2009

Should museums take priority over any other concerns?

Posted at 2:29 pm in Similar cases

James Cuno has repeatedly made statements about the importance of museums & why they must continue to hold large collections of artefacts. At the same time, any other arguments are rubbished as Cultural Nationalism or in some way of lesser importance. Are museums really so important though that the maintaining of their collections (many of which are largely in storage) should over-ride all other concerns? Cuno’s revisionist view of history seems to serve only the museums, whilst neglecting the original owners of the artefacts as irrelevant.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The latest statements by the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago in an interview entitled “Treaty on antiquities hinders access for museums” cannot be simply ignored or dismissed (1). After all, James Cuno heads one of the leading museums in the West and is from an important city with a long established intellectual tradition, fine Law Schools and excellent faculties in the social sciences. His views should concern all of us even though his own institution, the Art Institute of Chicago has distanced itself from the views expressed in his book, Who Owns Antiquity? (2)

We have always assumed that the Western intellectual tradition is based on dialogue, between scholars and writers expressing different views and not based on a practice of repetition of mantras from a revered authority whose statements

are not subject to critical questioning because they constitute some revelation of the truth from a divine source. Cuno in his previous article had based his main argument on the tradition of the European Enlightenment. (3) One is therefore astonished to recognize again that the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago in his recent interview does not take into account the numerous criticisms that have been made recently of his views. (4)

Cuno seems to refuse to modify his views or to take into account the serious objections that have been made to his views by scholars from different continents and countries. On what intellectual tradition is the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago now relying? Certainly, he is not in the same tradition as the European Enlightenment to which he attributed “the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth.” Or has he found the truth already so that there is no need for inquiry and discussion? Whatever the reason for ignoring serious criticisms, Cuno is here not acting in the same tradition as Edward Said and Amartya Sen whose views he seems to respect or at any rate, likes to cite. Is that the Western intellectual and philosophical tradition about which we have heard so much?

Apart from his refusal to enter into discussion or tolerate criticism, Cuno says certain things which are plainly wrong. In answer to the question what has been the effect of the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970 on looting, this is what Cuno responds: “ It hasn’t stopped looting. In fact, from what we hear, looting is increasing. Looting is not a leisure pastime. People don’t decide to become a looter rather than being a lawyer. They are desperate people doing desperate things. In situations of a failed economy, a failed government, the absence of civil society, internecine warfare, sectarian violence, drought — whatever — conditions emerge that can create pressures for looting. Simply criminalizing the illegal acquisition of goods won’t stop looting. It hasn’t stopped the trade in drugs or trade in stolen materials of any kind.”

Every word of this statement is plainly wrong or misleading. Nobody ever said looting was a pleasure pastime. I leave it to the lawyers to study his comparing becoming a looter with becoming a lawyer. His references to failed government, failed economy, absence of civil society have not much relevance to the phenomenon of looting in several countries. Are Greece, Egypt, Italy, China, Turkey, Germany and many other countries where looting has occurred in the group he is trying to describe? Nobody believes that criminalizing certain activities like the illegal acquisition of drugs or antiquities will ever stop them. Should States for this reason not take any regulatory measures? Most people who have studied the question of looting have expressed the view that the Western museums were ultimately the main buyers of artefacts of dubious provenance. They have provided the main motivation for the plunder. This has also been the main dispute between museum directors and archaeologists.

In answer to the question whether important artefacts with doubtful provenance “for sale on the open market, available for anyone else to buy, are not available to foreign researchers”, Cuno replies: “Right. So fewer and fewer things are entering into the public domain. These export constraints are creating black markets. And like water on a leaky roof, looted artifacts are finding the path of least resistance to a buyer somewhere.” Surely this is not the whole picture. That there are still many looted artefacts in public museums and national galleries can be verified by consulting many of the websites which discuss questions of restitution and repatriation. Cuno blames export constraints for creating what he calls black markets. With this kind of reasoning, one could blame the law for most of the crimes committed in society on the ground that by trying to regulate certain behaviour and activities, the law makes them attractive and profitable. So according to this view, regulations on narcotic drugs are responsible for illegal trafficking in drugs. Should States make narcotic drugs easily available to all?

The analogy with water on a leaky roof deserves some comment. This is a masterpiece in conjuring misleading imagery and deflecting from the real nature of the illicit trade in antiquities. It creates the impression that there are some natural, physical laws that push antiquities around the world, apart from downplaying the magnitude of the problem. The complications involved in plundering sites, the destruction of important archaeological evidence, the scale of logistics involved, the vast structures involving corruption of public administration and administration of justice all disappear when our attention is deflected by analogy with water dripping down a leaky roof. What about the huge profits involved in looting and selling antiquities? The antiquities that Italy obliged leading US museums to return to Italy did not simply leak or drift to the USA.

Cuno even adds: “What I can tell you is that they’re not coming to museums in the United States and Europe [which adhere to UNESCO 1970]”. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum were recently obliged to return to Italy antiquities acquired in dubious circumstances. Had these institutions been observing the 1970 UNESCO Convention? Why did the American Association of Museum Directors have to adopt new rules on acquisition of archaeological materials as recently as 2008?

To a question about his claim that the 1970 UNESCO Treaty gives a false view of history, Cuno replies as follows:

“The preface of UNESCO 1970 implies there is no difference between the nationals of a modern state and the ancient peoples that made things that have been excavated from the soils of modern states. The argument seems to be that these people share a “collective genius”—one that might be racial or ethnic or cultural. And that the shared genius is particular to the people, both ancient and modern. But that argument was made by politicians, not by scientists”.

This is really an astonishing claim. When one looks at the preamble to the 1970 Convention which Cuno calls a preface, nothing is said there that will justify his statements. (5) Nowhere in the Preamble is there any mention or implication that “there is no difference between the nationals of a modern state and the ancient peoples that made things that have been excavated from the soils of modern states”. There is also no reference to a shared genius, “particular to the people, both ancient and modern”. Moreover, nobody has claimed that “any culture has ever been autonomous”. It is easy to set up such false contentions which nobody has made and then demolish them. The comment by Cuno led one writer to declare“anybody who knows what the 1970 Convention actually says might even be forgiven for asking whether the director of Chicago’s art institute can actually read.”(6)

To the question whether the 1970 UNESCO Convention did not seek to prevent the wealthy States from raiding the cultural history of the poor States, Cuno answers that the Convention “perpetuates this false view or sentiment that things are appreciated better if they are encountered where they were made. But sometimes things are better appreciated if they can be compared and contrasted with similar artifacts from other cultures and geographic regions. Which argues for some sharing”.

This is really a very strange argument and it would be interesting to know what the other scholars make out of this self-serving argument. How can anyone honestly argue that artefacts are better appreciated in places other that where they were made? This assumes that those who made the artefacts have no need for them. The anthropologists can explain that most artefacts have a function, historical, social or religious and that their absence, through looting for Western museums prevents those societies from following their cultural practices. Take the Benin Bronzes, for example. As the Benin Royal Family has explained several times, many of the commemorative heads recorded Benin history and their absence is therefore a gap in the archives of Benin history.(7) Would Cuno argue that these bronzes are appreciated better elsewhere than in Benin? Moreover, if one considers the violence involved in the acquisition of the Benin bronzes (8) as well as in the case of colonialist/imperialist acquisitions in Asia, such as the Chinese bronzes (9), Cuno’s comment smacks of extreme cynicism.

What should we make of this further comment by Cuno?

“Preventing the export of ancient cultural artifacts also greatly concentrates the risk to their survival. We know the damage that can be done by warfare and sectarian violence. And I don’t just mean in Baghdad and Kabul, where those museums were virtually destroyed, but also in Berlin”. Here, an insurance risk theory is advanced to justify looted artefacts. Who looked after the various artefacts until Western museums set about to acquire by all means cultural artefacts from other nations? Most cultural objects in Asia and Africa had been there for centuries before Western imperialism set in and looted most of them for London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Amsterdam. If spreading artefacts around the world were a good insurance proposition as Cuno seems to be suggesting, why have Western States not sent some of their cultural treasures to Africa and Asia? Is this a proposition only valid for non-Western States?

Cuno reiterates his support for partage even though by all accounts, including his own statements, partage had mainly helped Western States (10): “it seems to me the only reasonable way to protect the legacy of antiquities and promote a global understanding of what they represent.” Words such as these about global understanding, tolerance etc do not ring true in the context of the various statements of Cuno. At a time when Cuno’s President, Barack Obama, is calling for dialogue with political opponents in Cuba, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, Cuno does not even want to consider the views of those who do not share his world view. If he refuses dialogue even with his colleagues from America, Africa, Europe and Asia, with whom is he seeking a global understanding? If Cuno and the Art Institute of Chicago refuse even to respond to formal demands from the Royal Family of Benin one wonders how an understanding can be reached. Clearly a person who refuses to engage in discussions of his ideas cannot pretend to seek global understanding. It seems very difficult for some to accept that we live in a world with different peoples with divergent ideas and different interests.

“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.”

James Cuno (11)
Kwame Opoku, 17 March, 2009
1. “Treaty on antiquities hinders access for museums”, in ScienceNews
2. K. Opoku, “The Art Institute of Chicago Distances itself from Cuno’s Book.”
3. K.Opoku,”Cuno Reiterates his Views”,

Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970

Paris, 14 November 1970
The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, meeting in Paris from 12 October to 14 November 1970, at its sixteenth session,

Recalling the importance of the provisions contained in the Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Co-operation, adopted by the General Conference at its fourteenth session,

Considering that the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural and educational purposes increases the knowledge of the civilization of Man, enriches the cultural life of all peoples and inspires mutual respect and appreciation among nations,

Considering that cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding is origin, history and traditional setting,

Considering that it is incumbent upon every State to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export,

Considering that, to avert these dangers, it is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations,

Considering that, as cultural institutions, museums, libraries and archives should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognized moral principles,

Considering that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is an obstacle to that understanding between nations which it is part of UNESCO’s mission to promote by recommending to interested States, international conventions to this end,

Considering that the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organized both nationally and internationally among States working in close co-operation,

Considering that the UNESCO General Conference adopted a Recommendation to this effect in 1964,

Having before It further proposals on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, a question which is on the agenda for the session as item 19,

Having decided, at its fifteenth session, that this question should be made the subject of an international convention,

Adopts this Convention on the fourteenth day of November 1970.
7. K.Opoku.”Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes, ”
8. K, Opoku,”Nefertiti. Idia and Other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”,

9. K. Opoku, “Is it not time to fulfil Victor Hugo’s Wish? Comments on Chinese Claim to Looted Chinese Artefacts on Sale at Christie’s,”

Victor Hugo expressed his revulsion at this wanton looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace, Beijing, in 1860 by the Anglo-French troops in a letter dated 25 November 1861, addressed to a Captain Butler:

“One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.

We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.”

10. James Cuno, a vehement supporter of the partage system who has called for a return to that system, has some very interesting remarks on partage in his book Who Owns Antiquity? Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2008:

“The question then is: should the fate of the archaeological record – and of antiquities alienated from their archaeological context – remain under the jurisdiction of national governments? Is there an alternative? Yes. And it was once in place and encouraged the scientific excavation of the archaeological record and the preservation and sharing of ancient artifacts between local governments and international museums. It is called partage. Under that policy, foreign-led excavation teams provided the expertise and material means to lead excavations and in return were allowed to share the finds with the local government’s archaeological museum(s). That is how the collections of archaeological museums at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard and Yale Universities were built; as well as important parts of the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was also how the collections in archaeological museums in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey were built. Foreign museums underwrote and led scientific excavations from which both the international archaeological and local political communities benefited. While local tensions increased over time as nationalist aspirations took hold, partage served both communities well. It was only with the flood of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws in the second half of the twentieth century that partage all but disappeared. The collections of the university museums mentioned above now could not be built, and the directors and faculty curators of those museums, many of whom are the loudest proponents of national retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws, could not teach and research as they do now. Much of their work is dependent on a policy no longer legal in the countries with jurisdiction over the archaeological materials they study.” pxxxiii (Preface).

Cuno writes further as follows:

“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 the 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.” p.14

Further in his book Cuno writes:

“The history of archaeology in Iraq has always been closely linked to the cultural and political ambitions of its governing authorities. During the late Ottoman period, Iraqi archaeology was dominated by teams of Europeans and North American excavators working on pre-Islamic sites at Babylon, Khorsabad, and Nippur. They had been drawn to the area intent on confirming the historical existence of Biblical events and places and with the view that the ancient history of what they called Mesopotamia was in fact part of the West’s subsequent Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian history. The term Mesopotamia itself was a classical Greek term used by Westerners to mark the lands known locally since the advent of Islam as al-‘Iraq in the north and al-Jazira in the south. Its use by Orientalists has been interpreted politically as a “reconstructive act severing ‘Mesopotamia’ from any geographical terrain in order to weave it into the Western historical narrative”: Mesopotamia as a pre-Islamic source for Western culture; Iraq as an Islamic, geographically determined – and thus limited – construction.

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:

Article 22: At the close of excavations, the Director shall chose such objects

from among those found as are in his opinion needed for scientific completeness of the Iraq Museum. After separating these objects, the Director will assign [to the excavator]… such objects as will reward him adequately aiming as far as possible at giving such a person a representative share of the whole result of excavations made by him.

Article 24: Any antiquities received by a person as his share of the proceeds of excavations under the preceding article may be exported by him and he shall be given an export permit free of charge in respect thereof”. (Cuno, pp. 54-55).

After reading these extracts from Cuno’s book, one wonders how he could even think of recommending such a system to African and Asian countries, Greece and Italy. By his own account, the system of partage was dominated by the British and the Americans who determined where excavated cultural objects should be. So why should those countries which have experienced this system want to return to it? He even urges Western archeologists to boycott “source countries” that refuse to return to the partage system. This is very interesting. If the partage system were beneficial to both sides as Cuno tries to make it appear, why is it necessary to resort to threats of boycott to persuade those countries to continue with the old system? Surely, these countries must recognize where their interests lie. Cuno thinks one must threaten them to follow the path which is clearly in their interest!

11. James Cuno, “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”

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