A museum director examines the controversy over whether nations own their cultural artifacts
By Susannah Rutherglen
June 1, 2008
Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, by James Cuno, Princeton University Press, 248 pp., $24.95
In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired, for the then-astounding price of $1 million, an exceptional artifact of Greek vase painting dating from the sixth century B.C. Executed in black glaze on red clay, the Euphronios Krater’s decoration depicts an episode from the Iliad in which the slain warrior Sarpedon, son of Zeus, is carried toward his homeland by the figures of Sleep and Death. Perhaps the most famous example of Attic red-figure painting known to the modern West, the vessel has offered millions of viewers a portal into the ancient world and a potent initiation into the mysteries of painting. Endlessly reproduced and carefully studied during its three decades on display in New York, the work has enlightened generations of Americans and visitors.
According to Italian authorities, however, the vase is stolen property. Two years ago, facing evidence that the object had been looted from an Etruscan archaeological site near Rome, the Metropolitan agreed to return it to Italy. In January of this year, Euphronios’s masterpiece received a hero’s welcome in Rome, where it was proudly displayed on the RAI television network and featured in an exhibition called “Nostoi”—homecoming.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno’s latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work’s archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum—one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
According to Cuno, the logic whereby so-called source nations claim ownership of artifacts extracted from their territories is faulty, for such valuable relics of our human history really belong to a common, global cultural patrimony shared by all the world’s peoples—not only present-day Italians, but also all descendants of the Greeks and Romans the world over, as well as Turks, Chinese, Indians, and Africans. He contrasts the values of nation-states, which advocate strict “retentionist cultural property laws” and manipulate archaeological objects to advance questionable political agendas, with those of “encyclopedic museums,” cosmopolitan institutions like the Met and the British Museum, which seek to draw together diverse artifacts for the education and delectation of a global public.
Drawing on careful legal research, the book’s central chapters argue that the laws governing the movement of antiquities today are political constructs heavily influenced by nation-states. Over the past three and a half decades, the conventions of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have increasingly favored the narrow interests of countries like Greece, China, Turkey, and Egypt that lay claim to particular artifacts. They make these claims not out of concern for the welfare of the works themselves, but to assert their authority over, and to profit from, riches originating in their territories. In turn, they incorporate these artifacts into national “histories” that, not coincidentally, exclude ethnic minorities and shore up the power of ruling parties.
China, for example, while agitating for the return of cultural properties exported from its lands, has ignored the archaeological history of the Uighur minority within its borders and instead has collected and exhibited ancient objects that endorse the reigning Han Chinese. Meanwhile, Cuno asserts, China’s ostensible care for its material past is belied by the government’s failure to control the internal looting and sale of artifacts and by projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which upon its completion will flood as many as 1,300 archaeological sites. Similarly, he argues, Greece’s calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain, where they have been located since the early 19th century, are born of nationalist greed: Greek authorities want the marbles back not in the interests of archaeological consistency, but in order to confer ancient legitimacy on their modern government. The objects are co-opted as a “political symbol of the new Greece . . . said to belong to Greece and to hold within them the very spirit of its people.”
Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno’s book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras. Yet it also raises complicated questions that will surely provoke further debate within the art community. Most important, the dichotomy between tribal nation-states and cosmopolitan museums cannot be so simple as Cuno pretends. The encyclopedic museum is, after all, a product, even an instrument, of modern national and imperial interests. The Louvre was populated by Napoleon’s rapacious plunder, then used as a political tool to demonstrate France’s dominance in the theater of Europe. And who can walk the halls of the British Museum without thinking of the empire on which the sun never set? A related question that could be posed by nation-states demanding restitution of valuable artifacts is: If encyclopedic museums are truly institutions of “international, indeed universal aspirations,” then why are they located primarily in powerful First World countries? Cuno advocates their extension to nations all over the globe, but the fact is that no such collection will be coming to the Darfur region anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the encyclopedic museum and policies that promote it will chiefly serve rich Westerners.
The broader issue here regards cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that informs Cuno’s defense of the modern museum. As formulated by Jacques Derrida, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others in conversation with a tradition stretching back thousands of years and through many intellectual traditions, cosmopolitanism asserts that our common humanity gives us grounds for mutual understanding. It requires us to try to comprehend alien points of view. If cosmopolitan values call attention to the importance of the museum—helping us to look beyond its sometimes exploitative past toward a future in which it deepens the cultural awareness of people across the world—then they also demand that we take a tolerant approach to its foes. We owe something to countries laying claim to artifacts, even if they are doing so in ways that appear “tribal,” selfish, or politically motivated. After all, the priorities of these nation-states may be just as important for them as sharing a common artistic patrimony is for “enlightened” members of the world community.
One such priority is surely money, which receives scant attention in Cuno’s argument. Most cultural properties are excavated from poor places and brought to richer ones, where they attract further economic bounty in the form of tourism. Why should such benefits accrue to New York rather than Cairo or Athens? Another value is archaeological preservation: the exceptions documented by Cuno notwithstanding, many source nations harbor a genuine interest in establishing or re-establishing historical and geographic contexts for lost objects. Surely archaeologists working in the field should be taken as authorities on the need for cooperation, not confrontation, with governments in these matters.
In truth, there is no need to reject the premises of the contemporary nation-state—a move likely to alienate the very parties with whom compromise is needed—in order to advance the changes Cuno proposes. Try as they might, Italy, Greece, and China cannot hope to repossess all the antiquities ever removed from their soil. As he suggests, agreements that give these countries custody of certain objects while promoting long-term loans, reciprocal education, and responsible archaeology are an obvious way forward. Such governments could even be convinced that sharing their patrimony with others will advance their national reputation abroad. Cuno’s concept of a change in terminology from “ownership” of cultural properties to their “stewardship”—different nations holding such objects in trust for the benefit of various audiences—could also attract the support of these states. However, in order for agreements to happen, First World museumgoers will have to respect the concerns and claims of source nations.
In some cases, this may mean parting with objects we have known for decades. When I was growing up, a reproduction of the Euphronios Krater, flattened onto a small varnished panel, hung on a wall of my family home. I used to wonder at the scene and its coded urgency: who were the strange winged and masked figures, and why were they grappling with the muscular body of the young man? When I finally saw the original, it seemed to be a flashback to a death I had actually witnessed, so visceral were the outlines. Encountering more of the vase’s history, I wasn’t happy to discover that my education in art had been facilitated by looting and smuggling. Neither am I happy that the Krater is no longer in New York, where other schoolchildren might have profited from it. But I’ve also learned that a productive approach to this controversy requires seeing the good side of the bad and the bad side of the good. Perhaps the Euphronios Krater has finally come home; but “homecoming” is a concept as many-faceted as the people who wish to shelter and treasure such an extraordinary object.
Susannah Rutherglen is a graduate student in art history at Princeton University.
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