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The reasons for retention

Another review of James Cuno’s book [1] on why museums should be holding onto cultural property of questionable provenance.

The Australian [2]

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Ingrid D. Rowland | October 04, 2008

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage
By James Cuno
Princeton University Press, 228pp, $US24.95
The encyclopedic museums’ argument against repatriation of classical artefacts is self-servingly flawed, writes Ingrid D. Rowland

EARLY this year, the state apartments of the Palazzo del Quirinale hosted a remarkable exhibition of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, all found on Italian soil but held until recently in museums and private collections in the US, notably the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition was a diplomatic coup for Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, who until April was minister of culture for two years in the left-wing government of Romano Prodi.

Through long-term loans and the deft application of diplomatic pressure, Rutelli had convinced museum directors that returning these artefacts, all acquired from dealers whose methods were not entirely scrupulous, would help discourage the illegal looting of archeological sites in Italy.

The exhibition was also a triumph of Italian taste. The 17th and 19th-century frescoes in the vast halls of the presidential palace echoed the classical grace and mythological themes of the ancient objects; the palazzo’s Ming vases provided a cross-cultural comparison, and the crowds who gathered to see the show, mostly Italian, were impeccably coiffed and dressed. To judge from their conversations, most were also impeccably knowledgeable.

The occasion provided an evocative portrait of contemporary Italy, a country with cultural traditions that reach back millennia, but also one that has transformed itself since World War II from a recipient of UNICEF funds into one of the eight most formidable economic powers on the planet, not least because of that Italian reputation for style.

The exhibition took place in buildings saturated with history and symbolism, and stands as a challenge to the picture of museums, nations, and archeological material that James Cuno presents in his new book.

Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, faces directly the complex problems posed by the immense global market in antiquities. His position raises the expectation that his analysis of this tangled issue would be reasoned, thoughtful and historically as well as politically informed.

But his book begins with a series of scenarios more fit for a polemicist’s pamphlet.

‘‘The emotional ‘national cultural identity’ card played by some proponents of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws is really a strategic, political card,’’ Cuno writes.

‘‘National museums are important instruments in the formation of nationalist narratives; they are used to tell the story of a nation’s past and confirm its present importance. That may be true of national museums, but it is not true of encyclopedic museums, those whose collections comprise representative examples of the world’s artistic legacy.’’ In other words, attempts by nations such as Egypt, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Cambodia to hold on to their archeological legacy prevent the acquisition of artefacts by ‘‘great encyclopedic museums’’. This is bad because looting will continue anyway, and the museum-going public will be denied the sight of inspirational works of art. Retentionist nationalism is the dragon that Cuno would slay in this book, rather than the greedy trade that has inspired such retentionist legislation in the first place.

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.

It was undoubtedly a product of Enlightenment idealism, as Cuno notes repeatedly, but that idealism more than coincidentally assumed that being British was the best of all possible human conditions, just as Napoleon Bonaparte, across the Channel, assumed that true Enlightenment could speak only French and was willing to pillage the Vatican museums to prove his point.

The great encyclopedic museums were predicated on the idea that their local public constituted the world’s best people and hence the most deserving to stand in the presence of high culture. It is either naive or tendentious to argue that they were founded instead to serve some great multicultural vision of human fraternity.

Indeed, a certain basic confusion of arguments nags Cuno’s book from beginning to end.

However earnest its purpose, Who Owns Antiquity? plays so fast and loose with history and logic in its opening chapters that it cannot possibly gather together its dissipated forces to deliver the intended final punch, which is a plea for those great encyclopedic museums to act as peacemakers in today’s fragmented, polarised, conflict-ridden world. Peacemaking is a novel role for institutions that were founded to serve as the monumental trophy cases of great powers.

Cuno takes special pains to disparage the very country that should be one of his most promising allies in his new humanitarian mission for large museums: Italy. His opening chapters aim a few choice blows at Italian antiquities laws for their ‘‘nationalist retentionist’’ folly, and a long footnote blasts Rutelli for ‘‘political antics’’.

Yet when the book moves on to specific examples of nationalism and its perils, it concentrates on the history of Ottoman and then modern Turkey, 20th and 21st-century Iraq, and the People’s Republic of China, nearly bypassing Italy altogether. Each of the countries that Cuno considers at length has certainly posed dangers for its archeological record in our time, but for drastically different reasons, and they are all still struggling out of the Third World into the First.

But not so Italy. It is both a source country, a producer of antiquities, and, owing to its wealth and millennial culture, a prime consumer. In many respects, Italy is where China, Turkey and Egypt would like to be.

Nor will it do to hit at Italian laws and then dodge a forthright look at Italy’s relationship not only with antiquity, but indeed with the discipline of archeology. Italy, after all, is rare among nations because it is both a prime producer and a prime consumer of archeological artefacts.

Because of this, it poses the most specific and sophisticated challenge to the directors of museums now facing the consequences of rapacious acquisition policies.

Italy has a long acquaintance with traffic in antiquities. The Roman siege of Corinth by Lucius Mummius in 146 BC ended in widespread looting, including of ancient Corinthian graves for their jewellery and ceremonial vessels. A radically different idea of cultural property dominates a legal case that was argued in Rome, Rutelli’s native city, in 70 BC by a rising young lawyer named Marcus Tullius Cicero. Early in his career, Cicero made the risky choice to prosecute the corrupt and greedy Gaius Verres for misconduct as governor of Sicily. Despite Verres’s powerful social connections and bullying ways Cicero won, because he prosecuted his case with hardheaded clarity. Imperial power and imperial amounts of money, he would claim convincingly, do not justify disrupting the integrity of a culture.

‘‘You will say, ‘I bought it’,’’ he scoffed to Verres.

‘‘So what? It is simply arrogant to say ‘Sell me those vases’ — that is to say, ‘You’re not worthy to have something so well made. Those fit better with my own rank.’ ’’ Italy poses other problems for Cuno’s line of argument. He insists there is no connection between the present populations of Turkey and China and the creators of those territories’ archeological remains: a Turk is not a Hittite, any more than Han Chinese are responsible for the marvels found along the Central Asian stretches of the Silk Road. Consequently, he argues, there is no reason that the archeological heritage should be of national rather than general human interest. By extension, ancient objects that these territories contain may as well be at Harvard or Berlin rather than Dunhuang and Turpan.

Yet it is impossible to insist on a gap between the archeological and biological heritage of the Italian peninsula’s present-day inhabitants. DNA tests have shown that modern Tuscans are indeed related to the Etruscans found in local tombs: one family in Volterra, the Cecina, boasts both a close friend of Cicero and an 18th-century antiquarian.

The cultural connections are unbroken. By the 15th century the artists, writers, statesmen and natural philosophers of the Italian Renaissance had developed an acute awareness of their Etruscan and Roman pasts, and expressed it in such a way that their legacy still stands as a basic component of modern Italian — and Western — culture. Italy is also the place where, in the 15th century, archeology was invented, along with the first public art museum, which was opened on Rome’s Capitoline Hill in 1471 by pope Sixtus IV.

Cuno’s desire to make an enlightened argument invites an Enlightenment response: it is a different thing to see the ancient statue called the Spinario right there in Rome where Sixtus put it in 1471, where many of the great artists of the Renaissance drew it, where J. J. Winckelmann and Goethe saw it, than it is to see an ancient bronze in the Met in New York.

It is one thing to stand in the theatre of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, right there where the riot broke out among the silversmiths who made votive trinkets for the Temple of Artemis and feared the influence a wandering preacher named Paul of Tarsus might have on their business, and quite another matter to see a column from that temple in the British Museum.

The Elgin Marbles have been spared the foul air of modern Athens, but they were not spared a good British scrub-down with soap and water when they arrived in the early 19th century.

Cuno’s earnest plea for great encyclopedic museums reveals certain mundane set of interests.

As Cicero said, ‘‘Cui bono? ’’ For whose benefit? Who is this book’s real audience? It can be no coincidence that several words fundamental to a proper understanding of the present-day antiquities market never appear in Cuno’s book: words such as greed, hubris and organised crime.

For that matter, the word money barely appears, despite the mountains of lucre the great encyclopedic museums require and dispense.

Italy and its cultural property laws illustrate with precision that nationalism is not a simple phenomenon. Through the ages, nationalism has been one of the mechanisms by which an agrarian society transforms itself into an urban society with a healthier, wealthier and more literate population. Italians once served foreign archeologists as workmen, cooks, maids and washerwomen because they lacked education.

Now Italian scholars, including archeologists, are as erudite as any, and it is the foreigners who have the disadvantage. The reasons are political, to be sure, but more emphatically they are practical: how can an American professor who comes to Italy only in summer claim superior knowledge to someone who lives and studies there? The idea of Italy as a latecomer among nations, because it unified in 1870, is a bit of a canard. Here are two anecdotal refutations. A manuscript from 1493 in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich contains a series of scurrilous Latin poems aimed at ‘‘Itali’’ who have accused these German writers — whom the Itali called barbarians — of drunkenness; the Germans retaliate by accusing the Italians of pederasty.

Thirty years later, the Adages of Erasmus of Rotterdam proclaimed that a bald man from Mykonos was as hard to find as a brave Italian: an italus bellicosus .

As Italy went after World War II, so the rest of the world hopes to go. A growing number of modern Egyptians are no longer illiterate fellahin.

The new Library of Alexandria stands across the street from the University of Alexandria, with its 140,000 students; its alumni include the Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail. Zahi Hawass may be a baron in his position as head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, but he serves notice to the barons who dwell in the world’s encyclopedic museums that they must now take the bright, eager young people of Egypt into account.

Cuno gives a detailed analysis of the way in which China has been grappling, on a colossal scale, with some of the problems that Italy faced in the 20th century: a deep, complex cultural tradition; the dual status as archeological source and increasingly wealthy consumer; the legacies of totalitarianism. China is also sensitive to what it sees as international disdain. Its environment, its past, its myriad traditions, its diverse archeological heritage: all have come under devastating pressure in an aggressive modernisation.

This is not simply a problem of nationalism, but also one of of what is considered old, what is new, what is enlightened, what is barbarous. In the name of internationally recognised ideas of progress — many going back, alas, to the Enlightenment — the Three Gorges Dam, like the Aswan High Dam before it, threatens general environmental disaster, of which archeological disaster is only a subset.

Cuno’s solution to the ills of the antiquities market is to rehabilitate the 19th-century scheme of partage, in which a museum sponsors excavations in exchange for rights to some of the excavation’s findings. But in the 19th century, museums were unabashed instruments of imperialism, and ownership was proof of dominion.

Imperium is no excuse. Cicero saw this long ago.

The only plausible arrangement for museums today is to work as a peer among peers in schemes of international co-operation, already increasingly the norm for archeological expeditions.

Another solution lies in long-term loans of archeological material from source countries to the countries that want to display it. Cuno complains about the short terms of loans granted by the Italian government, while noting that the law was recently changed to lengthen those terms. Rutelli was negotiating still longer terms for the loan of specific objects in his dealings with the Met and Boston: that is, quietly finding a solution to some of the very problems that Cuno expatiates on.

Cuno has scant patience for UNESCO, the single worldwide body that addresses cultural concerns. In his view, it is an arena for nationalist grandstanding. But attacking the UN is like attacking democracy or the nation-state: these earthly things are all terribly flawed, but they are nonetheless some of the best tools we have for driving back the darkness.

Would then that his brief for a more truly global mission for himself and his colleagues were argued with the punch and eloquence of Cicero, who was not afraid to face the real problems posed by the antiquities market: the hubris, greed and lust for possession that beautiful things have always exerted on us. Only by facing down those problems squarely, with relentless logic, was Cicero able to persuade the Roman Senate—and us, two millennia later — that, precisely because of our appetite for beauty, we are capable of, and bound to exercise, our nobility too.

The New Republic Ingrid D. Rowland’s new book, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.