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Whose Culture – continued

Kwame Opoku concludes his piece [1] on James Cuno’s new book on cultural property.

Afrikanet [2]

Comments on James Cuno´s “Whose culture” – Part 2 and End
Datum: 22.04.09 14:00
Kategorie: Kultur-Kunst

Von: Dr. Kwame Opoku


Cuno ends his introduction with a statement which many of us could easily subscribe to in so far as it appears to be a call for dialogue: “This book will not be the final word in the debate over antiquities. But we hope it will add a new angle to the frame within which the discussion henceforth takes place. Nothing is more important to the fate of the preservation and greater understanding of our world’s common ancient past and antique legacy than we resolve the differences that divide the various parties in the dispute. Warfare and sectarian violence, which is destroying evidence of the past faster and more surely than the destruction of archaeological sites by looters, is beyond our control. Differences among museum professionals, university- and museum-based scholars, archaeologists, their sympathizers, national politicians, and international agencies should not be.” (63)

Clearly museum professionals and other scholars should be able to solve the issues of cultural property if there is goodwill on both sides. But is there? This reasonable appeal should be seen in the context of the recent writings of Cuno and the rest of the introduction. Before this conciliatory appeal, the same author makes this interesting declaration: “It is the purpose of this book to challenge the perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods and to argue instead that our public museums build their antiquities collections responsibly and for the public’s benefit. Some readers will be disappointed that not “all sides” of the debate are presented here. It is our view that other books already do this and well enough that we needn’t repeat the “both sides of the argument” formula here. And, perhaps more to the point, other books are partisan in opposition to the museum’s position as we are presenting it and need to be responded to.”(64)

The above statement of Cuno sounds like an open abandonment of all pretence to objectivity and impartiality. The mask of impartial scholarship which considers all aspects and views on a subject matter, including the views of opponents, is openly abandoned. Should we follow the author’s qualification of the writings of Lord Renfrew as “sensational” and qualify the views in this book as mainly “propaganda”, seeing that the editor has admitted abandoning any attempt to consider all sides of the issue of restitution and cultural property?

Good consequences could flow from the abandonment of pretence to impartiality and objectivity. This may lead to giving up the pretension that the so-called universal museums – British Museum, Louvre, Art Institute of Chicago and the Ethnology Museum of Berlin are open to the whole world and serve mankind when most people live thousands of miles away from those institutions. Moreover, the governments of the countries where the museums are located are actively making it difficult for outsiders to visit those countries through immigration rules.

Perhaps there will soon be the realization that the thousands of Benin bronzes and other cultural objects languishing in the museum depots do not serve mankind. On recognizing the reality they have up to now denied, the museums may be willing to share those artefacts and thus serve humanity. They may then be able to consider, for example, sharing with the people of Benin the Benin Bronzes: Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 700.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

The Western museums will, with a new realism, perhaps understand that they are not bound to defend the past evils of colonialism and imperialism. They are however responsible for continuing to hold on to ill-gotten artefacts from the colonial period and for refusal even to discuss or disclose the number of items involved. Having liberated themselves from the colonial heritage, the Western museums would no longer need to invent explanations of fantasy to justify the possession of stolen goods.

The museums of the Western nations would thus, for the first time, become amenable to the idea of a true “Museum of Mankind” or “World Museum” to which all peoples and States will contribute and thus finally create a truly Universal Museum, in the true sense of universality of governance, contribution and representation. This will not be the kind of imperialist and neo-colonialist museum which is only “universal” from the fact of having thousands of looted/stolen artefacts from the universe but only there to serve a few nations that have since the 17th century dominated mankind and the universe.

Some of the authors of contributions seem to have followed Cuno’s tone and style by heaping criticisms on their colleagues. Very little room is left for possible compromise. Attacks on Lord Renfrew which go as far as to consider his writings as sensational are clearly not conducive to achieving a compromise on the question of unprovenanced antiquities.

Many of the contributions to Whose Culture? seem to have been written a long time ago and therefore could not have taken account of recent events. From this book, there is very little mention of the recent wave of restitutions to Egypt, Ethiopia, Italy, Greece and other countries. As usual, there is no discussion on demands for restitution from other African countries.

One cannot help feeling that there is no attempt in this book to offer anything new. Cuno could surely not hope to introduce a new perspective with his introduction that abandons all attempts to understand opposing views and with articles that are several years old.

This book is surely not the last word on the debate on restitution and the location of antiquities but one would hope it is the last of its kind. Cuno’s recent book, Who Owns Antiquity? (2008) was met with many serious criticisms which have not yet been adequately answered.(65) Thereafter the same author wrote articles that reproduced similar arguments (66). The publication of Whose Culture? (2009) so soon makes us wonder what the real aims of these writings are.

Peter Stone, in reviewing Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? spoke for all of us in the rest of the world, outside the “universal “or “encyclopaedic” museums when he made this statement:

“I assume that many will hope and some I know will pray that this book represents the last death throes of a failed traditional world-view: the dominance of the many by the (very) few; the dominance of a Western scientific tradition over all others; the dominance of a closed view clinging, perhaps subconsciously, to what can only be described as colonial oppression. Perhaps if a dinosaur could have written a book arguing against its extinction, it would have read like this”. (67)

Could this statement also be applicable to Whose Culture? which is a companion volume to Who Owns Antiquity?

Kwame Opoku, 21 April, 2009.


1. James Cuno, Ed, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, Princeton University Press, 2009, p.1. Unless otherwise specified, all page references are to this book.

2. Barbara Plankensteiner, Ed. Benin – Kings and Rituals – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007, p.13.

3. Kwame Opoku, “Comments on Tension Mounts on Benin Artifacts in the USA”, http://www.elginism.com

4. Kwame Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Some of the Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museum Return Some of the Benin Bronzes?”


5. Kwame Appiah, In my Father’s House. Oxford University Press, 1992

6. P.4.

7. http://www.nytimes.com

8. Kwame Opoku, “Returned Stolen/Looted Art Displayed by Italy”, http://www.elginism.com

9. Kwame Opoku, “Cuno and Credible Museums“, safecorner.savingantiquities.org

10. Kwame Opoku, “New AAM Standards for the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art: A Minor American Revolution”? www.modernghana.com

11. “The Acquisition of Undocumented Antiquities”: A Diversion From Real Arguments? http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com Renfrew, the Met and the 1970 Rule

The public release of the revised Collections Management Policy of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art seems to have been prompted by Lord Renfrew’s SAFE lecture. Lee Rosenbaum on Culturegrrl has some useful comparisons to make with the revised (and enlightened) policy at the J. Paul Getty Museum where the local laws of countries are taken into account.

12. P.13.

13. P. 5.

14. P. 7.

15. P. 12.

16. P. 14

17. P. 14.

18. See also Kwame Opoku “Once in the British Museum, Always in the British Museum: Is the Deaccession Policy of the British Museum a Farce?” http://www.modernghana.com

19. London; Duckworth, 2000.

20. P.33.

21. K. Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums Now Return Some of the Looted/Stolen Benin Artefacts?” http://www.museum-security.org

22. P.14.

23. See discussion below on Appiah’s “Whose Culture is it?” and Kwame Opoku, “ Cuno Reiterates his Views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”. http://www.modernghana.com


24. Ingrid D. Rowland, “Found and Lost”, http://www.tnr.com

25. P 17.

26. Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 99.

27. P.2.

28. P.28

29. Ingrid D. Rowland, http://www.tnr.com

30. P.37

31. Kwame Opoku, “Cuno Reiterates his Views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”, http://www.museum-security.org

32. P.39.

33. P51.

34 http://www.britishmuseum.org

35. Kwame Opoku,”When will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution?” http://www.modernghana.com

36. P.70.

37. “Home-comings: The Metropolitan Museum of Art”


See also the press release from the Metropolitan http://www.metmuseum.org/press

38. P.83.

39. P.85.

40. P.82.

41. P.74

42. P 73.

43. P. 89.

44. P.103

45. P. 107.

46. P. 108.

47. P.109

48. For discussions on the Musée du Quai Branly, see Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly, University of Chicago Press, 2007; Marine Degli and Marie Mauzé, Arts premiers, Gallimard, Paris, 2000; Kwame Opoku, “Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of the Others or a Museum for the Stolen Arts of the Others?” http://www.museum-security.org

49. P.148.

50. The visitor’s guide to the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, openly admits the enormous expansion of its African collection during the colonial period: “The greatest number of objects, however, came to the Berlin museum during the colonial period. Before 1884 – the year of the Berlin Conference, at which African territory was formally divided between the various colonial powers – and 1914 the African collection grew to 55,000 objects. Members of the German colonial administration and military in Africa were instructed to assemble collections for the Berlin Museum of Ethnography (Museum für Völkerkunde). At the same time, the museum contributed to the financing of joint collecting expeditions beyond German colonial regions, or acquired collections on the European market for art and ethnographica. As an example it is sufficient here to cite the acquisition made by Felix von Luschan, who served as Director of the African and Oceanic Department from 1905. Luschan acquired, at auctions in London and elsewhere, the collection of objects from Benin that is one of the most important and largest in the world.” Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Prestel, Museum Guide, München 2007, p.113. On p.114 of the same guide we read the following: “The outstanding works of art from Africa presented here give an impression of the cultural and artistic significance of this great continent, a greatness that despite centuries of plunder, subjection, colonial exploitation and racism has remained unbroken in its creative powers“

Even the British Museum which is the example par excellence of the so-called encyclopaedic museum has admitted at various instances the connection between its large collection and the imperial connection. David M. Wilson declared in The Collections of the British Museum as follows:

“The Asante’s skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874, 1896 and 1900″. British Museum Press, 1989, p. 97

51. Kwame Opoku, “Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes Made in Berlin?” http://modernghana.com

52. According to the British Museum, “Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition as an archaeologist. He acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library.” www.britishmuseum On the Ethiopian treasures that are in the British Museum, see Afromet www.afromet Ethiopian treasures are found at the following places in the United Kingdom: The British Library The British Museum Duke of Wellington’s Regimental Museum Halifax Dundee University Museum Edinburgh University Library The John Rylands Uni Library Lancaster Museum & Priory National Archives of Scotland The Schyen Collection The Victoria & Albert Museum Windsor Castle More stolen African treasures can be found at the homepage of the African Reparations Movement www.arm.arc.co.uk

We also know about the role of French anthropologists in stealing African artefacts.See also Kwame Opoku, “Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of the Others or a Museum for the Stolen Arts of the Others?” http://www.museum-security.org

53. Those who really believe that the presence of so many diverse objects from the former British colonies in the British Museum have nothing to do with the British colonial empire are advised to read the excellent book of Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, London, 1994

54. P.146

55. P. 149.

56. P.162

57. P. 150.

58. P.173.

59. P.187

60. P.197.

61. P. 202

62. http://portal.unesco.org/la/convention

63. P. 32

64. P. 13.

65. “Reviews of Who Owns Antiquity?” Looting Matters, http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com

66. James Cuno on “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong?”

http://press.princeton.edu, Kwame Opoku, “Cuno Reiterates his Views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”, http://www.museum-security.org,

Kwame Opoku, “Refusal of Intellectual Dialogue: Comments on an Interview with James Cuno”, http://www.museum-security.org

67. Peter Stone, “Clinging on to their marbles”, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk