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Who Owns Antiquity?

Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Who Owns Antiquity?
    Book Description:

    Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But inWho Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

    Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities,Who Owns Antiquity?is sure to be as important as it is controversial.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3924-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Archaeology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xl)
    James Cuno
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Crux of the Matter
    (pp. 1-20)

    For years, archaeologists have lobbied for national and international laws, treaties, and conventions to prohibit the international movement in antiquities. For many of these years, U.S. art museums that collect antiquities have opposed these attempts. The differences between archaeologists and U.S. art museums on this matter has spilled over into the public realm by way of reports in newspapers and magazines, public and university symposia, and specialist—even sensationalist—books on the topic.²

    At the center of the dispute is the question of unprovenanced antiquities. In conventional terms, an unprovenanced antiquity is one with modern gaps in its chain of...

  5. ONE Political Matters
    (pp. 21-43)

    At my job interview for the directorship of the Harvard University Art Museums in the summer of 1990, a panel member called me aside during a break and asked my position on acquiring antiquities illegally exported from other countries. Caught off guard, primarily because it was such a hurried and almost informal question, I gave an honest, and the obvious, answer: I would never approve of acquiring objects that were illegally exported from other countries.

    That was pretty much the last I thought of the matter for a few years. Then in 1996, we organized an exhibition of large-scale Roman...

  6. TWO More Political Matters
    (pp. 44-66)

    Over the three decades since UNESCO 1970, the organization has adopted four additional conventions that bear on cultural property, including antiquities. In 1972, UNESCO passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This developed from the merging of two separate movements: the preservation of cultural sites and the conservation of nature. The event that caused particular international concern was the Egyptian government’s decision to build the Aswan Dam, which would have flooded a valley containing numerous self-declared treasures of “Egyptian civilization.” In 1959, following an appeal from the governments of Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO launched...

  7. THREE The Turkish Question
    (pp. 67-87)

    We saw in the example of Iraq how the consideration of a nation’s cultural property laws must take into account that nation’s cultural politics—how, that is, it sees its culture as a source of its identity and esteem—within the context of its contemporaneous political circumstances. This chapter and the next will consider in depth how the cultural property laws of Turkey and China are embedded in the politics of modern nation building, and the consequences of this for the practice of archaeology in those countries.

    Turkey’s history is a palimpsest of different cultures. When conquered by the Muslim...

  8. FOUR The Chinese Question
    (pp. 88-120)

    Dunhuang is a small town in a poor agricultural area of northwest China. It was once a famous oasis, the westernmost outpost of China under the Han dynasty and the point of embarkation on the dangerous trek across the Taklimakan Desert along the Silk Road heading west. Just outside Dunhuang to the north is the famous Jade Gate, a stone fortress built during the second century b.c. as part of the Han dynasty’s Great Wall fortification system. A few miles to the southeast are the famous Mogao caves, Buddhist frescoed cave temples carved into a cliff face above a small...

  9. FIVE Identity Matters
    (pp. 121-145)

    Born in Jerusalem, raised a proud Palestinian and a Christian; educated in English and American primary schools in Cairo (in the first case, with Armenian, Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, and Copt students; in the latter, with American students almost exclusively) and then in a U.S. prep school and U.S. universities; by profession, a literary scholar (Western literature); by love, a music critic (European piano music and opera); and by commitment, a social critic (mainly of matters in the Middle East and how they are represented in Western media), Edward Said was no one simple thing. No one is, he would insist....

    (pp. 146-162)

    I have focused in this book on the question,Who Owns Antiquity?This is the real question, the one that lies behind the recent arguments between museums and archaeologists, and between museums and “source” countries’ nationalist governments. I question the premise of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws: that it is the right of sovereign nations to legislate the protection of and access to whatever they consider to betheircultural property, that which they claim to be important to their national identities and self-esteem. Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws serve the interests of one particular modern nation at the expense...

    (pp. 163-176)

    In this book I question the efficacy and intentions of the current legal regime controlling the world’s access to our ancient heritage. Originally published in 2008, the book met with mixed reviews. Some reviewers liked it. Others hated it. Some thought it provocative. Some called it self-serving. Some were downright hostile to it.

    One reviewer called me “the pit bull of the American mega-museum establishment.” Another called my book “an example of US cultural imperialism at its worst.” My favorite review concluded with these words: “I assume that many will hope, and some I know will pray, that this book...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 177-222)
    (pp. 223-232)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 233-244)