What’s Yours Is Mine
- Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno
Princeton, 228 pp, £14.95, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13712 4
James Cuno is currently the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He used to be the director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; before that he was the director of the Harvard University Art Museums. He should be well qualified to write about the role of museums in the antiquities market. His book, essentially, has one argument: that what Cuno characterises as the ‘nationalist retentionist’ policies adopted by many countries and international organisations such as Unesco, which vest ownership of antiquities in the state where they are discovered and limit their export, are damaging because they make it more difficult to establish ‘encyclopedic’ museums – such as the Art Institute of Chicago – whose collections comprise objects from many cultures. Such museums are, Cuno argues, a force for good because they promote an awareness of different cultures.
Vol. 30 No. 24 · 18 December 2008
Roger Bland has misread Who Owns Antiquity? (LRB, 6 November). My argument is that cultural property is a political construct put to the service of modern governments’ agendas. What I would like to see is the international sharing of antiquities and the return of partage, or the sharing of excavation finds as it was practised before the institution of modern, nationalist cultural property laws. That practice, almost nowhere permissible today, built museum collections not only where the artefacts themselves were found but elsewhere in the world, too, wherever they were valued as important reminders of our ancient, pre-nationalist history. Archaeological artefacts found in what is now Iraq, for example, were once shared between the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the University Museum at Penn and the British Museum. Since then all finds have had to remain in Iraq, where they were used to prop up the Baathist regime’s propaganda claims to the legacy of ancient Babylon (‘Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein’) and subject to decades of warfare, sectarian violence and wanton destruction. Bland calls my arguments ‘US cultural imperialism at its worst’. On the contrary, my book is an argument against the nationalism of culture (on the part of the US and all other governments) in favour of encyclopedic museums like the British Museum (Bland’s employer).
Art Institute of Chicago