[Ancientartifacts] Flynn puts on the brass knuckles

Mr Cuno takes the gloves off


James Cuno … director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has never been
backward in coming forward over cultural heritage issues and it's all grist
to the mill. But his article in the online Yale Global (Who Owns the Past?),
deserves a response. I assume it's a précis of some of the ideas in his
latest book, Who Owns Antiquity?, which I haven't yet read.


In his Yale piece, Mr Cuno states, "Most nation states have cultural
property laws that restrict the international movement in archaeological
artifacts found within their borders."

Why do most nation states have those laws? Might they be a response to what
they have seen unfolding in Iraq, for example, where reckless American
neo-imperialism has exponentially exacerbated the desecration of that
country's cultural heritage? Yes, Mesopotamian antiquities might be the
birthright of humanity in general, but ought we to deny their value to the
Iraqi people? And where is most of it ending up? In the hands of wealthy
collectors who value private over public ownership. (On which subject, see
this article from the New York Times posted on Ton Cremers's Museum Security
Network, relating to a collector on the board of Mr Cuno's own museum.)

"Antiquity belongs to all of humanity" says Cuno. I'm afraid until we can
rein in America's tendency to exercise its ambition and power beyond its
borders we need these cultural property laws, however frail they might
occasionally seem.

"Government serves the interest of those in power," writes Cuno. "Once in
power, with control over territory, governments breed loyalty among their
citizens, often by promoting a particular identity and history. National
culture – language and religion, patterns of behavior, dress and artistic
production – is at once the means and manifestation of such beliefs,
identity and loyalty, and serves to reinforce governments in power."


"Governments can use antiquities – artifacts of cultures no longer extant
and in every way different from the culture of the modern nation – to serve
the government's purpose," argues Cuno. The Parthenon Marbles are relics of
an ancient culture from which modern democracy originates. The Greeks are
understandably proud of that. The British, however, do use them as an
expression of political power and nationalism. Moreover, I would argue that
often the "extinct cultures" to which Cuno refers cannot properly be
described as extinct while important objects survive as material testimony
to a set of ancient cultural ideas and practices that are themselves worth
preserving. Material culture reminds us of our social duties and moral
obligations, which are often as local as they are universal.

At the core of Cuno's argument against what he derisively stereotypes as
"retentionist cultural property laws" (as if there were no diversity in the
nature and purpose of cultural heritage struggles) is "their basis in
nationalist-identity politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for
the rich diversity of the world's culture as common legacy."


Cuno's dismissal of UNESCO as an organisation grounded in nation-state
politics and respect for nationalism is more than a little reminiscent of
the scorn poured on UN resolutions against the Iraq war (UNESCO is indeed
the UN's cultural body and thank heavens for that).


The UNESCO Convention has not failed. But no amount of international
conventions and agreements can overcome the obstacle represented by
bellicose developed economies imposing their will on weaker nations, which
has become a signal factor in the rise of cultural heritage desecration.

Mr Cuno, like many leading museum directors, is currently suffering from
post-colonial tristesse — that melancholy condition which descends with the
realisation that the great universal museum collections over which they
preside are no longer able to maintain the upward growth curve that began
during the imperial era. Get over it.


Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner


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