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Is provenance really always ‘murky’?

A review of James Cuno’s new book in the Financial Times gives the impression that the provenance of all artefacts is somewhat vague. This seems to be a grossly inaccurate statement, which ignores the vast numbers of artefacts with clearly traceable provenance, whilst attempting to legitimise the position of museums & institutions of the west who hold onto artefacts whose provenance is many levels below murky.

David Gill expands on this on his blog [1].

Financial Times [2]

Who Owns Antiquity?
Review by Christian Tyler
Published: August 4 2008 08:08 | Last updated: August 4 2008 08:08
Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over our Ancient Heritage
By James Cuno
Princeton University Press £14.95, 265 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.95

The provenance of antiquities has always been murky. In the past, it didn’t stop museums from acquiring great collections. These days, it is such a political issue that curators have to work hard to defend what their museums already hold, let alone add to their collections.

Many governments are nationalising the antiquities in their countries – by criminalising private possession, banning exports and demanding the restitution of objects which have been held abroad for years.

This, says James Cuno, a distinguished American curator from the Art Institute of Chicago, is tantamount to state hoarding. And if the aim of these governments is to prevent looting, then it has failed – archaeologists report that looting has increased under this new regime. We should not be surprised: with trade so restricted, scarcity has driven up prices, and consequently the incentive for tomb-robbing.

Behind its academic sobriety, Who Owns Antiquity is an anguished manifesto. Cuno implores us to see ancient artefacts as the property not of this state or that, one culture or another, but of mankind in general. He wants to restore the situation whereby museums are allowed to buy on a more or less open market; he also asks that newly rich nations follow us in creating encylopaedic collections which display the cross-fertilisation of cultures. As he points out, mass travel and mass immigration mean that today’s museums have a multi-ethnic public. And dispersal reduces the risk of loss from invasion or civil strife.

Cuno accepts that looting remains an issue. His answer is to restore the old system of partage in which archaeological teams divide the spoils of an excavation with the local government. That would give museums an incentive to dig, and more historic sites would be brought under archaeological supervision. With more archaeologists on the ground, the tomb-robbers would find it harder to operate. Further incentives might be needed, such as financial rewards for people who hand over accidental finds, and a permissive export licensing system.

Looting may be a problem, but it is not the problem. Arguments about provenance, says Cuno, are a distraction from a much greater threat; the artificial division of the cultural record. Antiquities have become political tokens for reinforcing a national identity. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the ruins of Babylon to legitimise his Baathist regime in Iraq. China, having rejected its imperial history under Mao, is today busily repatriating its cultural artefacts from the outside world.

But ancient cultures and modern states do not have the same borders. Who, the author asks, will defend the cultural identity of stateless Kurds in south-east Turkey? How can the Han Chinese claim as theirs Tibetan Buddhist sites in far western China?

The author’s message is that stewardship, not ownership, is what matters. Trade in antiquities should be dictated not by politics, but by the demands of conservation, knowledge and access. The argument presented here is thought-provoking. Cuno may be over-optimistic. But you cannot help feeling he is right.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008