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Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle…
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Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

by James Cuno

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While still conspicuously ignorant of the subjects, museum acquisitions, museology in general, and the debates concerning (re)appropriation of “culturally significant objects” all fascinate me. James Cuno manages to cover all these bases in this book whose major question is: Do modern states have the right to demand the return of objects that may be deemed to have cultural, aesthetic, or national value? And if they do, what reasons validate this demand?

Cuno’s short answer is that states don’t have this right at all. Instead, he sees the rise of these cultural reappropriation laws as a way of shoring up nationalist pretentions. His argument seems strong. Two of his chapters, “The Turkish Question” and “The Chinese Question,” examine this assertion in detail. For example, when the Ba’athists took control in Iraq in 1968, they adopted strict laws of cultural appropriation in concert with their virulently nationalist rhetoric. “Their intention was to create a ‘national-territorial consciousness resting upon the particular history of Iraq and, equally significantly, of what the regime, or a powerful circle within it, presented as the history of the Iraqi people.’ Central to this effort was an official drive to foster archaeology as a way of making people aware and proud of ‘their ancient past,’ including that of the pre-Islamic era. At the same time, the Party encouraged local folklore for the purpose of inspiring communities with a sense of internal Iraqi unity, and emphasizing Iraq’s uniqueness among the nations of the world at large” (p. 58-59). In other words, at least on the level of political propaganda, the purpose of these new laws was not to maintain and preserve ancient artifacts, but rather a proxy for a relatively new country to build a sense of cultural and national identity.

Much the same thing happened to the young Turkey while trying to survive the birth pangs of early Ataturkism and subsequent westernization. “The emergence and the development of archaeology in Turkey took place under constraints that are deeply rooted in history. Confrontation between the traditional Islamic framework and the Western model, the endeavor to survive as a non-Arabic nation in the Middle East while the empire was disintegrating, the hostile and occasionally humiliating attitude of Europeans, and growing nationalism have all been consequential in this development … The pace that archaeology took in Turkey is much more related to the ideology of the modern Republic than to the existing archaeological potential of the country” (p. 83, a direct quote from Mehmet Ozdogan’s article “Ideology and Archaeology in Turkey”). In a similar way, the Elgin Marbles served as political symbols critical to the identity and “national spirit” of the modern nation-state of Greece, not just as archaeological artifacts.

The claim to national identity is also a common one, and one that Cuno rejects with equal fervor. We are so used to the argument that this object or that belongs here or there because of the important part it plays in making a people who they are. However, these objects are often so removed in historical time that the number of things these artists shared with the supporters of cultural appropriation shared is vanishingly small. Look at contemporary Egyptians. They share neither a common language, a body of customs, a religion, or law with ancient Egyptians, yet we are still urged to believe that one is an integral part of the identity of the other – presumably because of geographical proximity. That dynamic thing we call culture has worked over dozens of centuries to produce these widely divergent changes. The claims of contemporary Egyptians on the cultural artifacts of ancient Egypt seem tenuous at best. The ever-presence of boundary-crossing and the impermanence of cartography both speak to the capriciousness that is “cultural identity.”

Cuno argues for what he calls “partage,” the provision of archaeological and historical expertise in return for the partitioning of important discovered objects. One of the only other alternatives would be to potentially let these objects onto the black market, where they would certainly lack the curatorial and historical expertise they would be afforded in a museum.

While Cuno effectively cottons on to an important lesson of the last few centuries – that the modern nation-state will stop at nothing to traduce any obstacle that gets in the way of imparting its influence - he does go out of his way to paint many of these states as heterogeneous and uniform in their power, which is misleading at best. Not all nascent nations practiced nationalism, either on an ideological or pragmatic level, with equal vim and vigor.

As convincing as Cuno’s arguments were, I often found myself reversing the cultural tables and asking myself what I would do if, for whatever counterfactual historical reason, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution had found its way into the halls of the Kremlin or the Forbidden City. Could Americans who argue against cultural reappropriation laws have the intellectual courage to say, with a straight face, that it doesn’t matter that these objects are not permanently housed in the United States? Then again, we’re much closer in historical time – in language, heritage, culture, and mores – to the people that created this country than the contemporary Chinese are to Shang-era potters or the contemporary Greeks are to those brilliant artisans who created the Elgin Marbles, which may further complicate an already intricate argument.

Whatever your opinion on the issues, provided you had one prior to exposure to this book, it will make you re-think how art, identity, cultural appropriation, and museum-building are all intimately connected. It does a wonderful job at raising intelligent questions about how these concepts are linked. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Aug 4, 2013 |
James Cuno understands Museums and that's important in a book like this. Ways of thinking about antiquities, value and culture will continually evolve. We may never come to a consensus on ownership and that's what keeps this industry on its toes. ( )
  lizzybeans11 | Mar 17, 2011 |
An excellent exploration of the issues dividing the world's great museums and the countries in which great works were taken. What right do museums have to retain treasures obtained illegally or extralegally in previous centuries? What about Egyptian treasures willed to the British Museum by the Turkish leader when Egypt was under his control? And then you get the other side. Many of the treasures would have been destroyed, or have ended up in private collections, owned by people who wouldn't share them with the world. And then you read, theft is theft, and then you read they are world treasures. And by the end the whole topic is one gigantic collection of grey shades. Absolutely NOT cut and dried. And for that thought provoking roller coaster, I am very grateful to the author. ( )
  Oreillynsf | May 7, 2010 |
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Book description
An argument against national retention and repatriation of antiquities, which according to Cuno serve nationalist interests more than they do scholarship, and in favour of the 'universal museum'.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691137129, Hardcover)

Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:46 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."" "Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities - and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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