April 22, 2009

Cuno´s ‘Whose Culture’

Posted at 1:04 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Kwame Opoku looks at James Cuno’s latest efforts to persuade the world that it is right that disputed cultural artefacts should be retained by the big museums of the western world.


Comments on James Cuno´s “Whose Culture” – Part 1
Datum: 22.04.09 14:36
Kategorie: Kultur-Kunst
Von: Dr. Kwame Opoku

“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause. (1984)


“Whose Culture? The modern nations within whose borders antiquities — the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared — happen to have been found? Or the world’s peoples, heirs to antiquity as the foundation of culture that has never known political borders but has always been fluid, mongrel, made from contact with new, strange, and wonderful things?

The Promise of Museums. As a repository of objects, dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.” James Cuno (1)

The editor of Whose Culture? has an astonishing way of presenting statements that are wrong or only partially correct as if they described the obvious plain truth that everybody would accept without hesitation. He describes antiquities as “the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared” and goes on to illustrate his ideas with six objects, two of them from Benin, Edo. (Nigeria). With all due respect to James Cuno, the Benin people are still alive and have by no means disappeared. He should know this.

The recent Benin exhibition, Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, was organized by the Museum for Ethnology, Vienna, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, Museum for Ethnology, Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago, with the collaboration of National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Royal Family of Benin. The King of Benin, the Oba, a direct descendant of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the British stole the Benin bronzes in 1897, wrote an introductory note to the catalogue of the exhibition. (2).

Representatives of the Royal Family participated in the opening of the exhibition in Vienna and in the International Symposium held on 10 May 2007, they demanded the return of some of the stolen artefacts. Before the opening of the exhibition in the Art Institute of Chicago, Members of the Edo (Benin) Community protested in Chicago at the continued detention of the looted objects in Western museums (3). At the opening of the exhibition in Chicago,

representatives of the Benin Royal Family, including a princess, reiterated the demand for restitution and Cuno, the Director of the Art Institute promised to consider the demand. At the closure of the exhibition, a Benin royal, also a Professor of Art at the University of Lagos, Dr. Peju Layiwola whose mother is a Benin princess, was invited to lecture. Finally, in September 2008, the Royal Family sent a formal request for restitution of some of the Benin bronzes to the Art Institute of Chicago which has not yet been answered. (4)

In view of the above, how can Cuno include Benin artefacts in his definition of antiquities as “the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared”? Did he think that the Edo people he saw recently were resurrected from the dead and did not represent a living culture? He could talk to the Edo Community in Chicago to realize that Edo culture is not a dead culture and the people of Benin have not long disappeared. Unfortunately for the Western anthropologists and others who sought to justify the rapacious policy of depriving Africans of their artefacts on the grounds of an alleged imminent disappearance, most of those peoples have not disappeared. Cuno could read In my Father’s House by Kwame Appiah, his friend and colleague, to realize that, for example, the Asante whose artefacts were looted and stolen by the British are still alive and have not disappeared.(5)

Obviously, it would be easier to justify the retention of cultural objects of a people if these could be presented as artefacts of a people and a civilization long gone and extinct. This however, is not the case of the thousands of African objects lying in Western museums.

The definition of antiquities as “the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared” is problematic from many viewpoints. Are we to understand by this definition that there are no antiquities of living cultures and peoples? Can we no longer talk about French antiquities from the 17th Century because the French people have not disappeared? Cuno seems to have been so keen on cutting all possible links between present day Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and their ancient roots that he declared their peoples as having disappeared and in the process took in Benin. Thus the very first sentence of Whose culture? is not free from serious doubts.

After reading this new book, a reader might be forgiving for thinking that misleading statements, misrepresentation and contempt are the stock in trade of Western intellectual tradition. The editor does not shy away from statements that are clearly misleading:“Museums are concerned with both the fate of the individual antiquity and the preservation of archaeological context. To this end, most museums in the developed world (the so-called art importing countries) have developed acquisition policies intended to remove incentives for looting archaeological sites. First, museums abide by all applicable national and international laws, bilateral agreements, and international conventions. And second, museums are encouraged to set a date before which an antiquity must be known to have been out of its likely country of origin before it can be acquired”. (6)This is clearly a misleading statement and paints a picture of Western museums which is not true.

As I write this article, there is information in the media that Marion True, a former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and Robert Hecht, an American art dealer, are on trial in Italy for various offences involving illegal transfer and purchase of looted art objects from Italy, knowing that they had been looted. (7) It may be recalled that in 2007 Italy obliged some leading American museums – J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum – to return various art objects which had been illegally exported from Italy and bought by leading American museums. (8) In view of all this information that is easily available, how can James Cuno, writing in 2009 declare that “museums abide by all applicable national and international laws, bilateral agreements, and international conventions”? Had these institutions been observing the 1970 UNESCO Convention? (9) Why did the American Association of Museum Directors have to adopt new rules on acquisition of archaeological materials as recently as 2008? (10) Cuno does not, give a complete picture of what has been going on in the American and other European museums as regards the acquisition of objects without a clear history or likely to have been looted. This has been the main point of contention between the archaeologists and museum directors. This is the reason for Cuno’s contempt for Lord Renfrew who recently went to America and suggested that American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum should finally adopt rules forbidding the acquisition of artefacts of dubious provenance that have surfaced since 1970. Just before Lord Renfrew’s recent visit to lecture in New York, the Metropolitan Museum quickly issued new regulations on acquisitions. Most commentators attributed this hurried issuance of new rules to the then impending visit of Lord Renfrew. (11)

Cuno does refer to the case of Marion True, not in connection with the non-observance of laws but to show the sensational nature of the reports on the case:

“And some high-profile museums — the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the

J. Paul Getty Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; among others—have negotiated for the return of dozens of antiquities to Italy, where they are currently on display in Rome in an exhibition dramatically titled Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces (nostoi referring to the lost epic relating the return home of Greek heroes after the Trojan War). And of course, the travails of the Getty Museum’s former curator of antiquities, Marion True, indicted for conspiring to acquire looted antiquities for the museum, has been covered widely in the international press. (Photographs of her wearing dark sunglasses and shielding her face with her pocketbook outside the Rome courtroom have appeared in newspapers around the world and continue to circulate in cyberspace on Web sites, blogs, and Listservs).” (12)

The pressures the Italians brought on the American museums, including threats of legal action and non-lending of artefacts for future exhibitions, do not appear in the above statement.

Cuno is obviously a past master in misrepresenting the argument of others and in displacing the weight of the argument in directions that distort the real issue. He continues to misrepresent the main argument of the archaeologists against illegal diggings and the acquisition of unprovenanced objects. He creates the impression that archaeologists are against the acquisition of looted objects or objects without clear histories because they consider them to be of no great value or as not providing any valuable information. The main argument of the archaeologists is that illegal diggings or looting deprive us of the possibility of studying artefacts in their context and that by removing these objects we lose valuable information which may never be recovered. Furthermore, the purchase of objects without clear history encourages plunder and the eventual buyers or beneficiaries of the illegal diggings are the museums.

Cuno takes some pages examining famous objects which, according to present standards, were procured without any clear history, out of their context but have nevertheless provided useful information about the societies that produced them:

“Unlike the archaeological establishment, museums do not believe that unexcavated antiquities – whose archaeological context has not been scientifically recorded, or which didn’t come from an ancient archaeological context – are meaningless. Numerous examples of such “orphaned” antiquities can be cited; some are cited in this volume. Two additional examples are offered here”. (13)

The editor cites the Hellenistic sculptural group known as the Laocoön and the Rosetta Stone as examples of such objects. They would be, according to Cuno, regarded as meaningless by archaeologists and rejected as unprovenanced by today’s standards:

“Can it then be said that the Laocoön is in any way meaningless without our knowing the archaeological circumstances of its finding? Of course not. And yet many archaeologist critics of museum would argue precisely this with regard to unexcavated and undocumented antiques today. They would hold that without knowledge of its archaeological context an antiquity – like the Laocoön – is just a pretty object valued only for its aesthetic qualities, which they claim to be subjective and personal, unscientific, and of little general importance. And they would discourage museums from acquiring it and other “orphaned” objects similarly found alienated from their points of origin”. (14)

The weight of the argument of the archaeologists is thus displaced from the damage and loss that unlawful digging causes to archaeological sites and placed on the value of the single object or objects looted. It is quite clear that the main interest of the archaeologists is in preserving archaeological sites from plundering. What is not said in all these comments is that it is not only the archaeologists who wish to preserve such sites but also lawyers, administrators and a whole lot of others. As usual, the discussion leaves the impression as if it were exclusively up to archaeologists and museum directors to decide whether there should be excavation or digging in a particular area. Cuno writes as if there were no laws governing such matters. Having giving the impression that American museum observe the 1970 UNESCO Convention, Cuno forgets the international agreement which is now binding on the United States, France, Great Britain and several other States. Non-observance of the provisions of the Convention constitutes illegal action. It seems to have escaped attention that the argument against the archaeologists is also an argument against existing binding law otherwise the following statement would not have been made:

“This book considers the question of why museums, especially art museums, should acquire antiquities, even unexcavated antiquities with incomplete provenance.” (15)

One cannot legitimately write a book to discuss whether the law should be observed or not. How can one discuss such an issue when Marion True is standing trial in Italy for allegedly not observing the rules regarding the exportation of antiquities from Italy which are based on powers vested in States by the 1970 UNESCO Convention? One may discuss whether a given law should be modified or abolished but the observance of the law, as it stands, is the duty of every law-abiding citizen. Museums cannot at the same time observe the 1970 Convention and also acquire unprovenanced antiquities. There is a contradiction here. The observance of the law is an indispensable element of democracy and all responsible members of society should discourage violations of the law.

Lord Colin Renfrew, a well-known British archaeology professor and leading figure in the fight against the illicit trade in antiquities who has often criticized the European and American museums for supporting the illicit market for antiquities through their purchases of unprovenanced objects comes in for some criticism. He is quoted as follows:

“Such unprovenanced antiquities, ripped from their archaeological context without record (and without any hope of publication), can tell us little that is new. All the major and ancient museums of the world have in earlier centuries obtained large parts of their collections by means that would today be considered dubious…. [It is an aim of this book] to invite museum curators to concede that they betray their trust as serious students of the past when they acquire unprovenanced antiquities or permit them to be displayed in their galleries”. (16)

Lord Renfrew is furthermore criticised as allegedly valuing the “contribution of his speciality above all others concerned with antiquities” and support for this criticism is allegedly found in this citation:

“[Archaeology] gives primacy of place to information, to the knowledge of the human past which can come about through the study of those material remains. And for a century it has been appreciated that coherent information comes about only through the systematic study of context — of the associations of things found within the ground where they were abandoned or deliberately buried. The purpose of archaeological fieldwork today is the recovery, generally, through stratigraphic excavation, of the contexts of discovery, permitting interpretation of the economic, social and cognitive aspects of the diversity of cultures of the human past”. (17)

Lord Renfrew, at one point referred to as “aforementioned Colin Renfrew”, is given the ultimate blow by having his widely read book, Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership; The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (19) consigned to the category of “sensational writings” on the debate on ownership and location of antiquities. (20) It is noteworthy that such allegedly “sensational writing” is nevertheless often quoted in Whose Culture?

We should note that despite all the attacks on the archaeologists and the continued confusion of all who seek restitution of their stolen/looted cultural objects with nationalists, there is no attempt to confront and answer directly the demands for restitution except the general statement that those objects are part of the so-called “universal museums”. Cuno uses six examples of cultural objects looted/stolen or removed from their original locations to illustrate his thesis. Out of the six objects, four are from Africa. Two of the objects the author uses for his illustration are from the group of Benin artefacts looted by British troops in 1897. However, he does not even refer to the demand made by the Royal Family of Benin to the Art Institute of Chicago for the return of some of the Benin objects.(21) How contemptuous can one be as regards a Royal Family and a people whose cultural objects are languishing in American and European museums? The looted objects are good enough for illustrating vague ideas about universality from which the original owners are apparently excluded. Many seem to think that only the Western world deserves any consideration as to the need to have cultural objects close at hand. The so-called universal museums are situated thousands of miles away in Europe and America and do not serve those not living in the West, i.e., the majority of humanity and yet most of the artefacts come from outside Europe. Individuals from Benin cannot go to Western countries to see their artefacts since the motive of the visit i.e. to see the Benin Bronzes would be rejected outright by most Western immigration officers.

Cuno draws the reader’s attention to attacks on Lord Renfrew:

“Renfrew is a distinguished archaeologist, director of the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. (That said, he comes upon hard knocks in Sir John Boardman’s contribution to this volume.) Renfrew values the contribution of his specialty above all others concerned with antiquities.”(22)

Lord Renfrew will no doubt know how to defend himself against such attacks and it is not my business to defend him. However, I must confess that I have great difficulty in understanding the basis of such an attack. With all due respect, this criticism of a leading British archaeologist seems to me like consulting a leading American medical specialist and complaining that he puts medicine above all the other disciplines that deal with the human being. What do we expect when we consult a medical specialist? That he downplays the importance of medicine for the human being? Can we complain on reading a law book that the jurist puts Law above all other disciplines that deal with human existence in society? What is the point in specialization if later on in life we are going to de-emphasize the importance of the subject we have spent years in studying carefully?

Cuno repeats many of his favourite themes such as “Cultural purity is an oxymoron”, citing Kwame Appiah. Again we are not told who among those claiming the restitution of their stolen/looted objects advanced cultural purity as an argument. Again we are told that Nok sculptures were not made for Nigeria. That they were also not made for the museums of London, Paris, Chicago and New York is not mentioned nor that their export is forbidden and that they are on the ICOM Red List. It is of course not mentioned that Nigeria has been vested with authority by virtue of Article 4 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention to regulate the excavation and export of the Nok sculptures and other artefacts found in its soil. How can one claim to observe the 1970 Convention and write like this? It is rather sad that Cuno refuses to recognize what everybody else, including Kwame Appiah, acknowledges: that there will always be a need for the Government on whose soil artefacts are found to exercise some control. (23) Is this a case of what the Germans call “Realitätsverweigerung”? A refusal to recognize reality because it does not fit into one’s preconceptions? Would we grant to Nigerian and Ghanaian museums the right to intervene in discussions on arftefacts found on the soils of France, Germany and the United States? What will Cuno say about the Roman artefacts found almost everywhere in Europe,? Are the present Europeans all related to the Romans? If not, do they lose control over artefacts found on their soils? Most people will agree with Ingrid Rowland when she states:

“Nationalism or internationalism aside, the fact remains that the people who inhabit a region will inevitably continue to bear the largest responsibility for the preservation of that region’s archaeological legacy, whether or not the creators of that heritage belong to the same culture or ethnic group as the present-day inhabitants of the land, and whether or not the substance of that heritage is the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the mud architecture of Timbuktu or Sana’a, the Acropolis in Athens, Topkapi Palace, or Angkor Wat. The Temple of Huitzilopochtli will continue to lord it over the Zocalo of Mexico City, and the Valley of the Kings will rest by the Nile. The task of preserving them will fall most of all to locals, whatever one may think of their governmental systems or the suitability to human coexistence of the nation-state.”(24)

Referring to the expectations of visitors to museums, Cuno declares;

“Quite simply: they want museums to expand their world view and change their lives, to introduce them to the great wonder of the world’s cultural diversity and interrelatedness and to help them see and feel that they are a part of this world, they and everyone else with whom they are connected by virtue of their humanity. This is a tall order indeed, and it must be pursued by museums responsibly and with vigor. Constraints placed on museums by the archaeological community and nationalist governments represent among the greatest challenges facing museums today as they endeavor to retain their public’s trust in them, as Neil MacGregor has said of the British Museum, “truly the memory of mankind.” (25)

The museums could teach about our common humanity by explaining how the artefacts of others came to the countries with “universal museums” and above all, why so much violence was required to procure artefacts that belong to humanity. Perhaps one could explain whether those who seized the artefacts with so much violence, including killing innocent women and children as well as burning down Benin City in 1897, were aware that they were collecting artefacts that belong to humanity.

Were the people of Benin aware that their artefacts were part of the heritage of mankind? Or is the idea of heritage of mankind a post facto justification for normal colonial brutality? If so when was this idea born? The use of violence which was frequent in colonial expeditions such as Benin in 1897, Kumasi (Ghana) 1874, Magdala (Ethiopia) 1860, and Dahomey (Republic of Benin) 1890, cannot simply be overlooked in explaining how African artefacts came into the so-called “universal museums”. Dr. Jeanette Greenfield is surely right when she writes:

“In Africa, South-East Asia and South Asia, the pattern of exploration, colonization, tribute, and then the punitive removal of treasures was repeated, with the result that many African and Asian nations were deprived often of the central core of their own art, as in the case of Benin, or of invaluable documentary records, as in the case of Sri Lanka”. (26)

Opponents of restitution, the retentionists of looted artefacts, have a very remarkable facility of attributing to all those who seek the recovery of their cultural artefacts a political motivation or design. This is assigned without any reference or relevant information from the persons concerned but solely on the basis of the statement of the retentionists. Cuno declares: “In a recent book, I examined the history and implications of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws intent on prohibiting the international movement in antiquities. There I argued that such laws and related international conventions, although said to be intended to protect the archaeological record by outlawing looting of archaeological sites and the unregulated trade in antiquities, serve instead to support a state’s nationalist political agenda: its claim on cultural continuity since antiquity — Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs, Iraq since Mesopotamia, Italy since Rome and Etruria, the People’s Republic of China since the Qin Dynasty, Turkey since the Hittites, and so on — and thus a particular modern nation’s sense of its own importance and uniqueness in the world; archaeology and antiquities at the service of modern nationalist identity politics”.(27)

Further on the author states: “It is the nature of culture to be dynamic and ever changing. Yet national governments ignore this fact. They impose a national claim of distinction on culture, and they seek an ancient pedigree for that culture. They want to claim primacy as much as purity: ancient origins and uninterrupted identity. But this is only politics. Modern Egypt’s claim of descent from pharaonic Egypt, or the People’s Republic of China from the ancient Qin, or Iraq from Mesopotamia, or Italy from ancient Rome is nationalist fantasy based on the accident of geography and enforced by sovereignty. Just ask the Copts in Egypt, the Tibetans in China, or the Kurds in Iraq.” (28)

The tactic here is to assign to the opponent political motivation whilst the author appears, as the scholarly, scientific investigator motivated purely by a desire to serve culture in the interest of humanity and not, like the opponents who are in the political service of a particular nation, nationalist on top. It is doubtful whether many intelligent people would accept this misleading picture by Cuno and his supporters.

Those who are holding on to the stolen/looted cultural artefacts of others raise alarm because of an alleged political motivation. But they seem oblivious of the fact that they are also holding on to the stolen/looted artefacts for the political motivation of keeping them in a museum of a particular political entity which owns and finances their institutions. They forget that the important cultural artefacts, those that create a lot of problems, are part and parcel of the history of the relations between the State that stole them in the first place and the State/people from whom it was stolen.

The histories of the acquisition of the antiquities that are often discussed and contested clearly demonstrate their political nature. Whether one considers the Parthenon Marbles, the Ethiopian crosses and the Aksum Obelisk, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta Stone or the Chinese Bronzes, the initial looting/stealing was made possible by a certain political constellation. Hence these cultural objects have been embedded in the political relations between the States concerned right from the beginning of their appearance in Europe. The history of the objects is an integral part of the asymmetric power relations between the States. Politicization did not begin with the Chinese claim for the return of the bronzes but with the looting in 1860 by the joint Anglo-French military invaders whom Victor Hugo described as robbers. But for the political and nationalist rivalry between France and Britain, the Rosetta Stone would have remained in Egypt. It is not the demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone by Zahi Hawass that introduces politics into the history of the Stone. The nationalistic motivations of the imperial powers introduced the political element. Ingrid Rowland has commented:

“Cuno’s prime example of an encyclopedic museum is an institution whose name, the British Museum, suggests no small connection with the idea of nationhood, and certainly its possession of the Rosetta Stone snatched out from under the Corsican nose of “Boney” Bonaparte was the cause in 1802 and ever afterwards of considerable nationalist glee.”(29)

The roles of European armies, navies and air forces in the acquisition and transport of the various stolen artefacts from Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, many of them weighing several tons – Hammurabi’s Code, Rosetta stone, Obelisks, Sphinxes, Buddhas, Parthenon/Elgin Marbles – have to be remembered.

Many of the stolen/looted cultural objects were symbols of political or religious power and served the victors as war trophies. This may explain partially the reluctance of Western States to return these objects. But this may also be part of the reason why the former colonial peoples need to recover those symbols in order to continue their history and development that was interrupted by colonialism and imperialism.

The editor of Whose Culture? hopes that his book “will add a new angle to the frame within which the discussion henceforth takes place”. His introduction clearly does not provide anything new except more attacks on the archaeologists and those he regards as nationalists. Do the other contributors to the book provide a more balanced view or any new perspectives?


Part One of the book, entitled “The Value of Museums”, consists of articles by Neil Macgregor, Phillipe de Montebello, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Whose Culture Is It?”

This part is preceded by the following statement from Cuno:

“Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum, with collections representative of the world’s diverse, artistic production, encourage tolerance and inquiry. They are a legacy of the Enlightenment, and are dedicated to the principle that access to the full diversity of human artistic industry promotes the polymath ideal of discovering and understanding the whole of human knowledge, and improves and advances the condition of our species and the world we inhabit”(30). The hypocritical nature of this statement has been discussed abundantly elsewhere. (31)

MacGregor’s contribution repeats his now familiar theme that “the British Museum was established very specifically for everybody, for the whole world” (32) In the meanwhile, nobody, not even the people in London believe that the British Museum is there for every body in the world, including the Africans and Asians who have enormous difficulties in entering Britain. With reference to a Benin bronze depicting an Oba with his attendants, one of the looted bronzes, now in the British Museum, MacGregor makes this astonishing statement: ”And the great emblem of Benin: the Oba of Benin, the king of Benin, shown with his two pages behind him. This object is, I think, the key argument for objects being taken out of context and put into different kinds of museums”. (33).

True the author mentions the influence of the Benin bronzes in changing European prejudices about the artistic capacities of Africans. However, knowing the brutal history of the nefarious invasion of Benin by the British, the loot and burning of Benin City by the British Army, how can the Director of the British Museum has thousands of the looted objects and who refuses to give exact numbers, make such an insensitive statement? It almost sounds as if the great qualities of the Benin objects were responsible for their loot. Could this be another indirect version of the European idea that Africans are not worthy of the resources on their continent and therefore others should exploit them for the benefit of mankind, which does not include Africans? It is noteworthy that MacGregor, like Cuno, is very quick to use the Benin bronzes for the theory he wishes to establish but does not mention that the Oba of Benin and his people have consistently demanded that the European and American museums return some of the looted objects. MacGregor does not once mention the word “restitution” in his contribution.

MacGregor continues his tendency of not mentioning the names of contemporary African artists even though he uses their works to illustrate his themes. Throne of Weapons, made by Cristovão Canhavato (Kester) from Mozambique was bought by the British Museum in 2002 and is displayed in the African Section of the museum. The homepage of the museum gives full information about the artist, the object, its history and significance. (34) MacGregor uses the image of the artwork to illustrate his thesis on three pages (pp. 48-50) and yet not once does he mention Kester. Under the image is simply stated Mozambique. This is not a mere oversight and not the first time. In his lecture celebrating the 250th anniversary of the British Museum, MacGregor refers to the artwork, La Bouche du Roi which has also been acquired by the British Museum but did not once mention the name of the artist Romuald Hazoumé (Benin). He simply referred to him as a “West African artist”. (35) We are lucky he did not refer to him as a “sub-Saharan artist”. Would he have described a major British artist, like Damien Hirst, as a “Western European artist” without mentioning his name if the British Museum had acquired “For the Love of God”? Is this the continuation of the European prejudice that African artworks have no known authors and are anonymous? No wonder that many Europeans are ignorant about the African contribution to contemporary art and the works of modern African artists when even museum directors fail consistently to mention the names of contemporary African artists whose works have been bought by their museums. No wonder that great modern African artists such as Ben Enwonwu do not appear to be part of the mainstream narrative of modernity even though they made worthy contributions. They are eliminated through silence.

Philippe de Montebello’s contribution follows well-known paths. As Director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Philippe de Montebello had no problem in acquiring art objects with dubious history or incomplete provenance: “So to those who, do not buy unprovenanced antiquities, no matter how unique, brilliantly conceived, and masterfully crafted they may be, I would ask, as I have done repeatedly, “And what do you propose should be done with those objects?”(36)

It was no surprise then that the Metropolitan Museum was one of the leading American museums forced by Italy in 2006 to return a large amount of artefacts which had been illegally taken out of Italy and sold to the museums. (37). No wonder that the successor to Philippe de Montebello, Thomas Campbell, had to issue, recently new rules of acquisition, incorporating the Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art issued on 4 June 2008 by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s piece, “Whose Culture is it? contains many of his well-known ideas. However Appiah is very flexible and capable of understanding the feelings and position of those who seek the return of their stolen cultural objects in a way that Cuno, MacGregor and Phillipe de Montebello do not appear to understand:

“To be sure, there are various cases where repatriation makes sense. We won’t however, need the concept of cultural patrimony to understand them. Consider, for example, objects whose meaning would be deeply enriched by being returned to the setting from which they were taken – site specific art of one kind or another. Here there is an aesthetic argument for return. Or consider objects of contemporary ritual significance that were acquired legally from people around the world in the course of European colonial expansion. If an object is central to the cultural or religious life of a community, there is a human reason for it to find its place back with them”. (38)

Appiah also underlines the connections between those who have been robbed of their cultural artefacts and their ancestors for whom they have strong feelings and hence the constant demand for return of looted cultural artefacts:

“Some of the heirs to the kingdom of Benin, the people of southwest Nigeria, want the bronze their ancestors cast, shaped, handled, wondered at. They would like to wonder at – if we will not let them touch.-. that very thing. The connection people feel to cultural objects that are symbolically theirs, because they were produced from within a world of meaning created by their ancestors – the connection to art through identity is powerful. It should be acknowledged.” (39)

But the same author also declares that: “However self-serving it may seem, the British Museum’s claim to be a repository of the heritage not only of Britain but of the world strikes me as exactly right.”(40) Whether this then gives the museum the right to hold onto looted artefacts such as the Benin bronzes is not stated.

Cuno cites often Kwame Appiah and in Who owns Antiquity? he mentions him as one of the colleagues with whom he has discussed this topic over years. However, I have the impression that he makes an extremely selective use of the writings of the philosopher which tends to put both in the same camp. But a close reading of the text of Appiah tells another story. If we confine our attention only to the citation regarding Nok sculptures, we get the impression that Appiah is sceptical about the right of Nigeria to control artefacts found on its territory. But reading further on in “Whose Culture is it?” we realize that Appiah and Cuno are not on the same line:

“Perhaps the matter of biological descent is a distraction: proponents of the patrimony argument would surely be undeterred if it turned out that the Nok sculptures were made by eunuchs. They could reply that the Nok sculptures were found on the territory of Nigeria. And it is, indeed, a perfectly reasonable property rule that where something of value is dug up and nobody can establish an existing claim on it, the government gets to decide what to do with it. It’s an equally sensible idea that, the government has a special obligation to preserve it. The Nigerian government will therefore naturally try to preserve such objects for Nigerians. But if they are of cultural value – as the Nok sculptures undoubtedly are – it strikes me that it would be better for them to think of themselves as trustees for humanity. While the government of Nigeria reasonably exercises trusteeship, the Nok sculptures belong in the deepest sense to all of us. “Belong” here is a metaphor, of course. I just mean that the Nok sculptures are of potential value to all human beings”. (41)

Appiah leaves the area of biological affiliation and turns to the law. Cuno stays with biology. We do not sense in the writings of the philosopher any general hostility to rules and regulations on the antiquities trade or a desire for a free-for all situation.

Appiah is right when he says we do not know for whom the Nok sculptures were made. By this statement, I take it that he is referring to the absence of clear and reliable knowledge about the makers of these artefacts and as a philosopher he is surely interested in our obtaining more knowledge on these objects. He is here at home with the archaeologists who are also very keen to seek and provide information and knowledge on these objects. Appiah states in connection with the illegal diggings of Mali terra-cotta that:

“Because they were removed from archaeological sites illegally, much of what we would most like to know about this culture – much that we could have found out had the sites been preserved by careful archaeology – may now never be known.” (42) The illicit trade or looting, and the free-for all situation supported by Cuno, will encourage looting and removal of artefacts from their original locations. This is the nub of the dispute between Cuno and the archaeologists he attacks.

Appiah is clearly not in the anti-internationalist and anti-humanist group of Cuno and others with no sympathy for those reclaiming their looted cultural artefacts. It seems to me that only through a very selective reading of Appiah’s texts can Cuno and others assume that he supports their imperialistic and pro-colonialist positions. Maybe the philosopher would one day express his position clearly and leave out ambiguous statements which may be used to support the denial of the rights of a people to their cultural artefacts. The abrasive tone and the arrogance of some of the ardent preachers and prophets of the “universal museums” would surely make an open-minded philosopher uncomfortable in their company.


The Second Part of Whose Culture? entitled “The Value of Antiquities” deals with what we can learn from unprovenanced artefacts, even if we do not know their archaeological context. The first article, “Antiquities and the Importance – and Limitations – of Archaeological Contexts”, by James C.Y.Watt, seeks to show the limits of archaeological context: “It is said that without archaeological context all information relating to an excavated object is lost,” regardless of its artistic merit”. (43) The author proceeds to demonstrate this proposition with reference to Chinese archaeology. He advances the proposition that archaeological context is more important in the case of early historical periods but this importance diminishes with time. For later periods useful information could be gained, for example, from literary sources such as an anthology of Chinese poetry of the third and fourth centuries. Another proposition of James Watt is that “after arriving at a critical point in the accumulation of archaeological data of a certain type of site of a certain period, further excavation data becomes superfluous”.(44) I find very interesting this second proposition of Wyatt which he illustrates with the example of the Tang horse. According to the author there is so much knowledge and information about the Tang dynasty that one can date and place each Tang horse accurately and therefore archaeological context would not give us any new information.

One would wish that Watt would apply his proposition to the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum as regards, for example, their African acquisitions. He might come to the conclusion that in view of the vast accumulation of artefacts from Africa, there is no need for the museums to lament their present inability to cart off as many cultural objects as they did in the past. There is sufficient material and information about African art that new materials would not bring any new information to the museums. Indeed, they should rather consider returning some of the thousands of objects that are lying in their depots.

The contribution by Sir John Boardman, entitled “Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums” is a sustained attack on Lord Renfrew and the archaeologists who share his views. Boardman starts with the declaration “This essay is a response to Colin Renfrew’s recent book on the “ethical crisis in archaeology” and goes on to issue direct attacks. According to Boardman, part of the problem in recent debates on looting of antiquities and the acquisition of antiquities “is that the archaeologists loudest in their protests are atypical within their profession and indifferent to many of the apparent results of their campaign, now sanctioned by law, while the public is fed biased propaganda.”(45) He warns against the belief that the only material for our understanding of man’s history that we should handle must be from excavation by professionals or known before 1970. This he states, “puts us all in the hands of archaeologists whose own agenda may sometimes be suspect. We cannot automatically assume they are on the side of the angels, and my own observation of a profession to which I have belonged for over half a century in the field, museum, and classroom, has not led me to any great admiration for some of its procedures and motivation. Indeed I am not sure that I have encountered any scholarly group so prone to arrogance, and I know that this is a view fairly widely shared in the academic community. It has also become clear to me that some archaeologists are not the best people to make judgements about relics of antiquity.” (46) Boardman has more pointed attacks: “So who do these archaeologists think they are, as absolute guardians of the world’s heritage?”(47) He also suggests that archaeologists who decry stylistic and iconographic analyses are hampered by their inability or unwillingness to practice them. One may not agree with Boardman but I think he puts his arguments very well and provides grounds for scepticism about the motivations of his colleagues in the profession. He is definitely worth reading.

In his “Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets”, David I. Owen takes archaeologists to task for not publishing unprovenanced cuneiform records and argues very well that by not publishing such records because of their lack of provenance, we lose a lot of information. This ban on publication and even reference to such texts in print or in conferences constitutes, in Owen’s view, censorship of knowledge.


Part Three of Whose Culture? discusses the nature of cultural heritage and the underlying philosophical and political currents and is prefaced by comments by Cuno attacking politics of nationalist politics.

Many of the views expressed by Michael Brown in his “Exhibiting Indigenous Heritage in the Age of Cultural Property” surprised me. He states that the difficulty in finding an English equivalent for the French, “arts premiers” contributed to abandoning the term in name of the Musée du Quai Branly. There were substantive objections to the term “arts premiers” because it seemed to suggest and recall the designation, “art primitif” (primitive art) which was no longer acceptable as Brown points out. However, difficulties in finding an English equivalent would surely not have discouraged the French from giving a name in French to a museum in Paris. French nationalism, like British nationalism, especially in the cultural area, would have found this argument extremely strange. (48)

Brown describes the current criticism of museums as follows:

“The prevailing image of the museum as penitentiary or Maoist re-education camp is enough to make fretful parents consider rescuing their child from a school field trip to the National Gallery or the Met. But critiques of conventional art museums seem mild in comparison to the opprobrium heaped on institutions that traffic in art and artefacts from indigenous societies. It is invariably pointed out that the great natural history museums of Western Europe and North America arose in tandem with colonial empires. Efforts to organize, classify, and display the material culture of distant peoples therefore supported colonialist ideology. Or so it is argued, even if a compelling case also can be made that museums and disciplines such as anthropology played a key role in convincing citizens of the metropole that far-flung peoples possessed admirable qualities – tenacity, creativity, deep histories of self-governance, perhaps even an aesthetic or spiritual genius – that justified bringing their colonial subordination to an end”.(49) Brown, like many of those defending the so called “universal museum”, is a master in issuing sweeping statements which are either only partially true or plainly wrong.

Efforts to deny a historical link between Western European museums and the colonial system are clearly a waste of time. We know that it was the colonial and imperialist system which enabled Western Europeans to carry away a huge amount of cultural artefacts from America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Should we even bother to answer those who deny what every pupil knows? Could anybody explain how huge artefacts were transported from around the world to Paris, London and other places if it were not a certain political constellation that made such enterprises possible and meaningful? The artefacts from Benin (Nigeria), Asante (Ghana), Magdala (Ethiopia), and Dahomey (Republic of Benin) could only have been obtained through the use of military violence by the European powers. Egyptian artefacts could only have been carted away because Egypt was not independent. (50)

The attempt to present anthropologists as some kind of freedom fighters also goes against the historical truth and record. It is a fact that the passion for collecting artefacts from colonies was fanned mostly by anthropologists such as Felix von Luschan who thought that the colonial peoples were about to disappear soon from the face of the earth. He even prepared a manual of instructions on how to collect aretefacts and human corps. Luschan also argued that if necessary force should be used in collecting artefacts from reluctant peoples. The army and navy were also frequently used for such acts of violence and robbery. (51) Many enterprises such as punitive expeditions included specialists who advised the invading soldiers about what to collect. Courses about collecting methods were part of the preparations for invasions. We know for sure from the records of the British Museum that a staff member of the museum was part of the British Army that invaded Magdala, Ethiopia in 1860, stole a lot of Ethiopian treasures and burnt the then capital, Magdala. The Ethiopian Emperor committed suicide in preference to surrendering to the invading army. (52) So whom is Brown trying to mislead? Many anthropologists were in the employ of the colonial regime and were required to provide information that would make easy the control and administration of the colonized peoples. As for anthropologists convincing the colonial regime about the good qualities of the colonized subjects, one should read Elisabeth Coombes about the contribution anthropologists made to the image of the subject peoples. (53)

Brown alleges that critics of the museums seek their objects of criticisms from the old archives of museums or as he puts it “racist declarations by long-dead museum employees”. As Brown very well knows, Cuno, MacGregor and Montebello are alive even though many of their statements are not different, in vocabulary and basic thinking, from those of museum officials from earlier centuries. These contemporaries have made statements which have been subject to serious analysis. Brown himself should not be surprised if his own statements are put in the same category: “Conflicts over the control and representation of heritage have become especially impassioned when the communities in question are indigenous ones, that is, comprising descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the New World, Asia, Africa, Australia, Oceania and isolated corners of Europe.”(54) Brown declares also that “ indigenous peoples emerged as a force to be reckoned with, first in international forums such as the United Nations and then, with growing prominence in the politics of advanced settler democracies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.”(55) The author who states that he uses the terms “indigenous”, “Aboriginal” and “Native” more or less interchangeably, even manages to write of “Native nations”: “As the critical fireworks, occasioned by the opening of Musée du quai Branly fall back to earth, their energy spent, some observers are finding themselves grudgingly won over by the new museum’s presentation of indigenous art. The more thoughtful among them acknowledge that no consensus yet exists about how best to frame indigenous creations within the context of ongoing efforts to achieve political reconciliation with Native nations”.(56)

The author seems to think that some are born “natives” and remain “natives” forever. This is basically the terminology of the past which we would hope most scholars have abandoned by now. Here it appears fundamental to our author who sees also a great divide between “scientific scholarship“and “indigenous oral traditions.”(57) No prize for guessing who represent the former and who represents the latter.

The Bamiyan Buddhas, Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, and the Lansdowne Portrait are discussed by Derek Gillman in his contribution entitled “Heritage and National Treasures.” I was rather disappointed and surprised to read from Gillman in his discussion on the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles the following: “Although the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles case appears to be a government to government dispute, it is as much between the Greek government and the British Museum (a legal person), the trustees of which are constrained by an Act of Parliament that forbids deaccessioning except where works are duplicates.”(58) Does Gillman really consider the Act of Parliament and the problem of deaccession serious obstacles to returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece? If so he has to deal more thoroughly with this issue before coming to the major question he raises at the end of his contribution, namely, whether there is or not justification for moral claims to the Marbles. For even if there are moral claims, if the Act of Parliament is considered an insurmountable obstacle to restitution, then the moral claim would fail unless we are shown ways to avoid that obstacle. Gillman leaves the Act of Parliament standing, does not point out that the Act could be changed and goes on to raise moral issues.

t is rather ironic to read from John Merryman’s contribution, “The Nation and the Object” that the so-called cultural nationalism which is hated by James Cuno and which Merryman also does not approve is a Western invention: “The contemporary power of the cultural nationalism premise derives from Western intellectual history. Today, after more than a century and half, our minds and emotions still are controlled by Byron and Goethe and Herder, and nineteenth-century Romanticism and nineteenth century nationalism, and in the cultural property dialogue these forces powerfully coincide. Often a nation’s representative need only claim that an object is part of its “cultural patrimony” or “cultural property to make the case for its retention within or return to the national territory.” (59)

Merryman concludes that the way forward in the dialogue on restitution is to get rid of cultural nationalism; “The quality of the dialogue will only be improved, and progress in solving international cultural property problems will only be measurably advanced by denying legitimacy to excesses of cultural nationalism and by insisting on appropriate attention to the preservation of, truth about, and access to objects that, in the words of the 1954 Hague Convention, constitute “the cultural heritage of all mankind”. (60)

It is a pity that Merryman explicitly decided not to consider the case of the Benin Bronzes: “ I do not purport here to address the claims of nations for the return of objects improperly removed from them during the age of imperialism: for example, the many objects, including Benin bronzes, taken from Nigeria during the British Punitive Expedition that remain in London or the masterpieces of painting and sculpture appropriated by Napoleon during the Italian campaign and still held by French museums”.(61) If Merryman had discussed the Benin Bronzes we would have had the benefit of his views as a jurist. For example, we would have known what he thought of the uses of the Benin Bronzes by Cuno and MacGregor as justification for their loot and retention by the so-called universal museum. Or did he want to avoid conflict with the museum directors who bring no sympathy for the deprived people of Benin and are only interested in saving every artefact, however acquired for their museums? But even in his refusal to discuss the Benin artefacts, Merryman provides us elements that may indicate his own general orientation. He refers to the “age of imperialism” where Cuno and others argue that the presence of African and Asian artefacts in the British Museum has nothing to do with imperialism or colonialism. Merryman characterises the stolen/looted objects from Nigeria as “objects improperly removed”. These are facts denied by Cuno and others who do not appear to be interested in any meaningful dialogue about the issue of restitution.

Most of us would agree with need to reduce the influence of nationalism in the area of culture if this attack on nationalism also applied to the nationalism of Cuno, MacGregor and the rest of the retentionists of looted cultural artefacts of others. The British, French, Germans and the US Americans only seem to recognize the obstacles posed by the nationalisms of others: the nationalism that prevents Western museums from obtaining more artefacts as in the past when the West reigned supreme over the rest of the world. On the other hand, the nationalisms which dictate that all cultural artefacts should be brought to Europe and North America are conveniently ignored. Even Merryman, who sets up criteria for determining the location of contested cultural objects – interdependent considerations: preservation, truth, and access, in declining order of importance – weighs those factors in favour of the West.

Readers should note that since Merryman prepared his contribution , the following States have ratified or accepted the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris, 14 November 1970.: Belgium (2009, Denmark (2003), Finland (1999), France (1997), Germany (2007), Great Britain (2002), Iceland (2004), Japan (2002), Norway (2007), Sweden (2003), and Switzerland (2003). (62) The editor could have ensured that texts written for other occasions were revised for this publication.

Read the rest of this article here.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , , , ,

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away