Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Whose Culture?

Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities

EDITED BY James Cuno
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 232
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Whose Culture?
    Book Description:

    The international controversy over who "owns" antiquities has pitted museums against archaeologists and source countries where ancient artifacts are found. In his bookWho Owns Antiquity?, James Cuno argued that antiquities are the cultural property of humankind, not of the countries that lay exclusive claim to them. Now inWhose Culture?, Cuno assembles preeminent museum directors, curators, and scholars to explain for themselves what's at stake in this struggle--and why the museums' critics couldn't be more wrong.

    Source countries and archaeologists favor tough cultural property laws restricting the export of antiquities, have fought for the return of artifacts from museums worldwide, and claim the acquisition of undocumented antiquities encourages looting of archaeological sites. InWhose Culture?, leading figures from universities and museums in the United States and Britain argue that modern nation-states have at best a dubious connection with the ancient cultures they claim to represent, and that archaeology has been misused by nationalistic identity politics. They explain why exhibition is essential to responsible acquisitions, why our shared art heritage trumps nationalist agendas, why restrictive cultural property laws put antiquities at risk from unstable governments--and more. Defending the principles of art as the legacy of all humankind and museums as instruments of inquiry and tolerance,Whose Culture?brings reasoned argument to an issue that for too long has been distorted by politics and emotionalism.

    In addition to the editor, the contributors are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sir John Boardman, Michael F. Brown, Derek Gillman, Neil MacGregor, John Henry Merryman, Philippe de Montebello, David I. Owen, and James C. Y. Watt.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3304-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Business, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    James Cuno
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)
    James Cuno

    Whose Culture?The modern nations’ within whose borders antiquities—the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared—happen to have been found? Or the world’s peoples’, heirs to antiquity as the foundation of culture that has never known political borders but has always been fluid, mongrel, made from contact with new, strange, and wonderful things?

    The Promise of Museums. As a repository of objects, dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.


  5. PART ONE The Value of Museums

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 37-38)

      Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum, with collections representative of the world’s diverse, artistic production, encourage tolerance and inquiry. They are a legacy of the Enlightenment, and are dedicated to the principle that access to the full diversity of human artistic industry promotes the polymath ideal of discovering and understanding the whole of human knowledge, and improves and advances the condition of our species and the world we inhabit.

      Some hold that recent nationalist, retentionist cultural property laws are challenging the very basis of encyclopedic art museums. When the United Nations was founded in 1946, there were fifty-one member nation-states....

    • To Shape the Citizens of “That Great City, the World”
      (pp. 39-54)
      Neil MacGregor

      The idea of the world under one roof, as in the encyclopedic museum, was one of the great possibilities of the eighteenth century and the great intellectual challenge to people who wanted to think differently about the world. The British Museum was established very specifically for everybody, for the whole world. Its founders had no doubt what its purpose was. It was established on the proposition that through the study of things gathered together from all over the world, truth would emerge. And not one perpetual truth, but truth as a living, changing thing, constantly remade as hierarchies are subverted,...

    • “And What Do You Propose Should Be Done with Those Objects?”
      (pp. 55-70)
      Philippe de Montebello

      I shall begin by quoting George F. Comfort of Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, in a speech he gave in 1870, incidentally the year in which the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan were founded. It describes an encyclopedic museum.

      True art is cosmopolitan. It knows no country. It knows no age. Homer sang not for the Greeks alone but for all nations, and for all time. Beethoven is the musician not of the Germans alone but of all cultivated nations. And Raphael painted not for the Italians alone, but for all of whatever land or...

    • Whose Culture Is It?
      (pp. 71-86)
      Kwame Anthony Appiah

      “There is no document of Civilization,” Walter Benjamin maintained, in his most often-quoted line, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He was writing—some sixty-five years ago—with particular reference to the spoils ofvictorycarried in a triumphal procession: “They are called cultural treasures,” he said, but they had origins he could not “contemplate without horror.”

      Benjamin’s provocation has now become a commonplace. These days, museum curators have grown uneasily self-conscious about the origins of such cultural treasures, especially those that are archaeological in nature or that come from the global south. A former...

  6. PART TWO The Value of Antiquities

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 87-88)

      Archaeologists often argue that antiquities have no meaning outside their archaeological contexts. If we don’t know where they were found, they argue, antiquities are meaningless and only of aesthetic value, which they judge to be subjective and inferior to the “objective” value of the excavated antique artifact. But of course antiquities have all kinds of meanings outside their specific, archaeological contexts: aesthetic, technological, iconographic, even, in the case of those with writing on them, epigraphic.

      Museums are dedicated to the preservation of objects and to providing them a new, different kind of context, one that both emphasizes their aesthetic qualities...

    • Antiquities and the Importance—and Limitations—of Archaeological Contexts
      (pp. 89-106)
      James C. Y. Watt

      One Of the key words in the pronouncements of certain professional archaeologists quoted in the popular press iscontext. It is said that without archaeological context all information relating to an excavated object is lost, “regardless of its artistic merit.” This is a harsh position worthy of the early Church Fathers. It is rather like saying: “there is no redemption for the unbaptized, whomever they are and wherever they are.”

      Here I present some thoughts and reflections on the study of antiquities in the context of the quest for information. I shall address the subject with reference to an area...

    • Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums
      (pp. 107-124)
      John Boardman

      This essay is a response to Colin Renfrew’s recent book on the “ethical crisis in archaeology.”¹ I am grateful for the opportunity to try to formulate my views on the collecting issue. I have long sensed that there was something wrong about the course of legislation for the control of antiquities, and its effects on scholarship and public museums, not just collectors. I can now better define these worries and perceive the serious dangers of the situation that has developed, not apropos of deliberately plundered antiquities but of the safety of all antiquities per se, of accessibility to scholarship and...

    • Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets
      (pp. 125-142)
      David I. Owen

      It is, perhaps, ironic to be arguing the value of publishing unprovenanced cuneiform records. It should be self-evident that a scholar’s role is to promote knowledge, not to censor it, to publish new finds, not to ignore them, and to preserve those finds, not to relegate them to oblivion. Yet here I am arguing this very issue. The general assertion made by many archaeologists that artifacts without provenance have little historic value has impacted heavily on the publication of cuneiform tablets, many of which have become available in recent years primarily, but not exclusively, as a result of the two...

  7. PART THREE Museums, Antiquities, and Cultural Property

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 143-144)

      The politics of nationalist and ethnocultural identities are putting tremendous pressure on museums, with regard to what they can collect, and how they identify and exhibit certain kinds of objects claimed by nations and indigenous peoples as their cultural property. Antiquities are increasingly subject to these constraints, often at the expense of their preservation and public access.

      Essays in part one of this volume argued that museums and antiquities have value for what they can teach us about our common human heritage, and how knowledge and respect for our common past can lead to respect for and understanding of different...

    • Exhibiting Indigenous Heritage in the Age of Cultural Property
      (pp. 145-164)
      Michael F. Brown

      As Neil MacGregor reminds us in his essay in this volume, the encyclopedic museum was an institution of the Enlightenment, committed to the proposition that “through the study of things gathered together from all over the world, truth would emerge.” A corollary belief was that museums would broaden the cultural horizons of the general public in ways that might foster greater understanding of human cultural diversity. For the past quarter-century, however, an array of social forces has called these principles into question and turned the encyclopedic museum into a site of conflict. Global processes of ethnic assertion and redefinition, changing...

    • Heritage and National Treasures
      (pp. 165-182)
      Derek Gillman

      “It is not a big issue. The statues are objects only made of mud or stone.” Thus spoke Qudratullah Jamal on March 3, 2001 as the militia began its systematic annihilation of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the largest surviving early Buddhist figures in the world. The elimination of the two Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan shocked many people, and especially those who highly value the material culture of Asia. “The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can’t knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a...

    • The Nation and the Object
      (pp. 183-204)
      John Henry Merryman

      This essay attempts to add a second dimension to the traditionally one-dimensional discussion of cultural property policy.¹ It does so by addressing a central policy question: when, if ever, may museums, collectors, and dealers properly provide a market for cultural objects that have been exported from a foreign nation contrary to that nation’s laws?² A related policy question is whether the legal authorities of one nation should enforce the cultural property export controls of another. Two different approaches to these questions lead to divergent results in some situations but are mutually reinforcing in others. We can call these approaches “nation-oriented”...

  8. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 205-208)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 209-212)
  10. Index
    (pp. 213-220)