Books: Who should artifacts really belong to? And why?

A collection of essays by museum directors worldwide on restitutions and ownership


“Getty curator on trial in Rome.” “Metropolitan Museum repatriates Euphronios Krater to Italy.” “Boston, Cleveland and Getty museums return antiquities.” “Peru demands Yale University return 5,000 artifacts taken from Machu Picchu.”

Recent news headlines have not been kind to major museums. Their behaviour has been portrayed as unethical if not aiding unscrupulous collectors. Attacks by archaeologists, aggrieved nations and indigenous peoples demanding the return of looted items or their national heritage have intensified since the 1990s.

While millions flock to revel in masterworks out front, museum curators and directors, behind closed doors, are divided among themselves about the best approach. Some feel that the Enlightenment ideal of universal knowledge, on which the legitimacy of encyclopaedic museums’ acquisitions and display of antiquities is based, is being threatened. Simultaneously many archaeologists and most members of the Museums Association back the case for restitution.

James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has emerged as the former group’s advocate, the one best suited to champion the right to keep, preserve and display mankind’s ancient treasures. A felicitous writer of clear, impassioned prose, he skillfully takes on the arguments of archaeologists and proponents for restricting the movement of cultural property.

Whose Culture? is Cuno’s third book to appear since 2004. Who Owns Antiquity?, his earliest work, elicited praise from colleagues but found little favour among archaeologists. To them, he’s an apologist for museums’ complicity in fuelling the trade in illicit and inadequately provenanced antiquities. They also deride his suggestion for reviving partage, the equal sharing of excavated spoils with host countries.

Cuno is back, moving the issue once again, this time armed with heavy artillery in fellow directors and scholars Neil MacGregor, Philippe de Montebello, Kwame Anthony Appiah and John Henry Merryman. Seven of the nine contributors to Whose Culture? presented papers at a 2006 conference organised by Cuno and Timothy Potts, then director of the Kimball Museum. David Owen of Cornell University and Michael Brown of Williams College are new contributors.

Cuno effectively mounts a two-pronged attack on archaeologists’ claim that their context trumps all others (including aesthetic context) and the retentionist policies of modern-day nations laying claim to antiquities created a full millennia or more ago. Archaeologists, he claims, have been co-opted by nations, often with repressive regimes, who use antiquities to advance nationalistic identity politics.

For the general reader seeking to get up to speed on this critically important debate, this volume is destined to become an indispensable guide. Each contributor makes salient points in favour of their museological argument. MacGregor emphasises the Enlightenment ideal that gave rise to the British and subsequent encyclopaedic museums and claims the study of other cultures outside their homeland makes us better able to understand our own.

Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton says that the term “cultural patrimony” produces confusion by conflating the two primary definitions of “culture”: both the works of art and the group on which the objects confer their significance. This conflation is at the crux of present lawsuits and loaded language between both warring sides. Cuno agrees with Appiah’s view of culture as “cosmopolitan”. He has said: “Culture has never been ethnically pure; culture is not national.”

Cornell’s Owen criticises the archaeological prohibition against publishing studies of unprovenanced cuneiform tablets, most from the two Gulf wars. This is censorship and runs counter to every academic discipline’s protocol for advancing knowledge.

Stanford legal scholar John Henry Merryman proposes replacing “nation-oriented policy”, the basis for export control legislation, with an “object-oriented policy” of preservation and access. Such a regulatory trinity shifts the ethical balance from ownership to stewardship of antiquities, an idea underlying the long-term loan agreements negotiated with Italy by the Met and the Getty.

The nation-orientated policy now enjoys the upper hand in the media and with public opinion. If that continues, Philippe de Montebello said, museums will “simply become turntables for incoming and outgoing loans”. He claimed, in an interview with this reporter, that museums are “the cultural family tree on whom all peoples can find their roots”.

Both sides are talking past each other. We need the archaeological equivalent of Cuno’s book for a truly rounded overview. This book might have been improved by including a free-ranging debate at the end.

Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museums and Cultural Law at DePaul University in Chicago, was one of several archaeologists invited to participate in the conference with assurances that their papers would be published. Instead, she says the promise was revoked and the current volume presents only this particular museum perspective.

Both sides might consider convening a conference in search of peace. Each side proclaims a partial truth as gospel while the larger truth remains elusive. A neutral referee might help; a tough negotiator like Richard Holbrooke perhaps or someone of more transcendent stature, like the Dalai Lama. It may take nothing less.


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