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Who Owns the Past?: Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, And the Law

by Kate Fitz Gibbon (Editor)

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"Who Owns the Past? challenges all who care about the arts to work together toward policies that consider traditional American interests in securing cultural resources and respect international concerns over loss of heritage."--BOOK JACKET.

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Though I am constitutionally sympathetic to arguments that no single group, however it has suffered, can claim to own portions of human heritage, this book mostly managed to push me in the opposite direction by its largely smug insistence that only the values of those who want nearly unrestricted commerce in art and antiquities matter. There were good points made, and I understand why the people on the authors’ side might feel highly defensive, and yet. If your conclusion is “Having taken much, we should make restitution, not by returning mummies or amphorae but by sharing our own riches: technology and expertise in management and conservation,” I’ve got to wonder: what if the beneficiaries of our restitution actually want the mummies and amphorae, instead of or in addition to our technology and expertise?

The collection would have been a lot stronger if there’d been an actual debate in its pages; the strongest restrictionist argument was a decades-old reprint about the destruction caused by looting of archaeologically important sites to serve the collectors’ market. The modern essays, by contrast, took demand for artifacts as a given that couldn’t be changed and blamed, with greater or lesser degrees of sensitivity to the economic conditions involved, corrupt source country officials and the poor people who engage in looting when subsistence farming doesn’t provide enough security, and who still don’t get much of the money involved. (The best point made there was that a lot of historically significant sites are more threatened by development projects, like the construction of dams, than by excavations looking for artifacts. But mostly the contributors seemed to think that problem should be addressed by someone else, ideally someone making sure that the artifacts there should be made available for market transactions.)

One impetus for the US law encouraging the return of Native American remains to tribes connected to those remains was the following incident: a road crew in Iowa excavated a gravesite with the skeletons of 26 whites and one Indian woman. “State officials reburied the white bones in a new cemetery, but shipped the Indian remains to Iowa City for further study.” Respect can be tangible. Nor are fights about cultural appropriation some new evolution: As the essay on the Elgin marbles points out (while generally supporting the idea that the marbles are better off in Britain where they can be taken care of and are part of the “common heritage of mankind,” since they apparently wouldn’t be so if they were returned to Greece), even at the time Elgin took the marbles there were Britons and others who argued that he had committed a wrong.

Most of the contributions are contemptuous of restrictions on objects leaving their source countries, with varying degrees of insistence that importing countries can take better care of them (or at least just as good care). Again, there are serious questions here—UNESCO’s delay in allowing Afghanistan’s major art museum to get artifacts out of the country ahead of the Taliban, on the ground that objects should stay in their source countries, meant that, by the time UNESCO figured out that applying its policy was ridiculous, huge numbers of irreplaceable pieces of art and history had been destroyed.

Historically and artistically significant artifacts may indeed be “ours” as a species rather than the “property” of one particular group, but turning that into a conclusion that “our” stuff should be in “our” (this time meaning rich nations’) museums where “we” (ditto) can see it was hard for me to accept, even in the face of the argument that source-country claims to stewardship contribute to the “uncritical adoption of nationalist programs” that have “encouraged the falsification of history and the promotion of religious and ethnic prejudice.” When the authors ask, “should we be willing to define ‘culture’ as if it were a sort of national corporate brand, with governments holding the rights to reproduction and dissemination?” I want to ask: what are my alternatives? If the only other choice is to put everything up for sale (the various authors unanimously and generously concede that national museums should be allowed to keep some really important stuff and only sell duplicates into the private market, as long as the really important stuff hasn’t been installed in the British Museum already, but this has to be a concession to reality rather than a logical conclusion given the ideology of common ownership), then I might at least want to take a look at what the governments are doing. Here’s a hint: it’s rarely controlling reproduction and dissemination of information.

Museums in America, so dependent on private contributions, may naturally be more sympathetic to the passions of wealthy private collectors, in the hopes of getting the benefit thereof since American collectors rarely pass the habit on to their children (several essays say this, and I’ll take the museum folks at their word on this one). But when I read statements like “Thaw sees his collecting as an intellectual activity—the putting of things in order—rather than a manifestation of power or status,” I have to wonder who else sees it that way, and who doesn’t. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Apr 21, 2012 |
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"Who Owns the Past? challenges all who care about the arts to work together toward policies that consider traditional American interests in securing cultural resources and respect international concerns over loss of heritage."--BOOK JACKET.

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