Whose culture? The promise of museums and the debate over antiquities
James Cuno (ed.), Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2009
ISBN: 978 069113 3331 (hbk), RRP A$41.95
review by Graeme Clarke
Whose culture? The promise of museums and the debate over antiquities

In this book a range of museum directors, art historians, cultural historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and experts in cultural property law fight back. And they fight back against an all-too-long prevailing post-colonial ideology that characterises museum collecting as imperial despoliation of cultural property, as the dispossession of the colonised of their cultural identity and, in the case of some high-minded archaeologists, of robbing artefacts of all meaning by the acquisition of unprovenanced material. Part of the background problem is identity politics, the need felt by many modern nation-states (especially recently emerged and artificially created states) for cultural nationalism as integral to identity formation. This confuses cultural property or cultural patrimony with cultural heritage. Italians may feel proud that the celebrated/notorious Euphronios crater was found on Italian soil within an Etruscan tomb — they can, not unreasonably, argue for it to be, as such, their cultural property. But the crater was manufactured by a potter and a painter in far-distant Athens and acquired as an exotic item and buried by Etruscans of the fifth-century BCE — who, culturally, have no connection whatsoever with twenty-first century Italians. It is not part of Italian cultural heritage. Likewise, the people of modern-day Iraq (Kurds, Arabs, Mandaeans, Turks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Lurs) have every reason to feel pride that the treasures of Ur or Uruk-Warka were discovered within their borders and can reasonably regard them as their nation's cultural property: but it is pure mythology that those artefacts are essential to their cultural identity, integral to their sense of national identity. This is simply to deny the hiatus of millennia of history. Iraq, as a nation, has existed only since 1918.

No one would condone the criminal activities of looting antiquities nor fail to regret the potential loss of information if the archaeological context of such antiquities is lost. But it remains a moot point that the way to prevent such activity is to restrict entirely the publication of unprovenanced material (a current fiat of the Archaeological Institute of America, high-minded and well-intentioned though it is) rather than dealing with the criminality at source in the country of origin and the often shady activities of middlemen and unscrupulous dealers. And the situation is not helped by the general weakness of export-restrictive laws in source nations. It has reached such a point that it is almost lost to sight that there can still be a licit international trade in artefacts.

It is against this highly politicised background that the contributors to this volume make their spirited arguments. In Part One ('The value of museums') Neil MacGregor (director, British Museum), Philippe de Montebello (former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Kwane Appiah (professor of philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University) defend the eighteenth-century concept of the encyclopaedic museum, arguing that such collecting institutions provide insight into the lives and achievements of humankind generally, develop tolerance and understanding of mankind's heritage, are centres for scholarship, conservation and restoration of their respective collections, enable aesthetic evaluation across cultures, and, in the words of the UNESCO Hague Convention of 1954, act as custodians 'to the cultural heritage of all mankind'. Aware of the competing demands of modern nation-states, such institutions are now increasingly engaging in arranging loans from their collections and organising transnational travelling exhibitions in order to reach a more global audience. Their reasoned arguments and cosmopolitan stance certainly won't make strident cries for the repatriation of artefacts go away but they certainly call for a measure of good sense against the worst excesses of cultural nationalism.

In Part Two ('The value of antiquities') James Watt (chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Sir John Boardman (emeritus professor of classical art and archaeology at Oxford University) and David Owen (professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Cornell University) tackle the thorny issue of unprovenanced antiquities. They collectively argue, from the point of view of their own areas of expertise, for what we can learn from objects even if we do not know the archaeological contexts of their discovery — which may well not be their original location, in any case. In particular Sir John Boardman locks horns with Lord Renfrew over the issue of the value of undocumented artefacts and the loss to scholarship and the public if such objects may not be conserved and displayed, objects which still have multiple meanings and which provide an insight into the lives and achievements of people otherwise only known from their texts. And he roundly castigates the deleterious effects of the embargo on publishing — or even lecturing on — material that might possibly be deemed (not proved) to be 'tainted', that is not demonstrably stolen or the result of plunder. He cites the value of university teaching collections of objects, built up over the years from gifts and acquisitions from the legitimate antiquities market (itself generally sourced from the break-up of private collections), as providing 'the source of academically important discoveries often the only opportunity a student has to observe and handle real objects of antiquity. And they can be a major source of inspiration as well as an encouragement for research.' He concludes: 'The justifiable rage of many at criminal plunder and marketing of antiquities is merely leading to thoughtless censorship and restrictive practice in the profession they believe they are protecting, as well as the probable, sometimes certain, loss of much that they profess to safeguard.'

In the third, and final, section ('Museums, antiquities and cultural property') Michael Brown (professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at Williams College), Derek Gillman (executive director and president of The Barnes Foundation) and John Merryman (emeritus professor of law and affiliated professor of art at Stanford University) confront the pressures placed on museums by the politics of nationalist and ethnocultural identities, by the claims of Indigenous peoples of what constitutes their cultural property — a concept increasingly expanded to encompass intangible expressions of a community including language, music, folklore, technical knowledge, art styles, religious practices, even down to tattoo motifs and, in some cases, native flora and fauna. This propertisation of culture has dramatically complicated the work of museums that seek to represent the art and culture of Indigenous peoples. How do museums, which aim to broaden our understanding of and appreciation for the interrelatedness of the world's many and diverse cultures and common humanity, negotiate such cultural claims? Merryman proposes a triad of 'preservation, truth, and access' regulating the acquisition of such material. How can we best protect the object and its context from impairment, how can we best advance our quest for 'the historical, scientific, cultural, and aesthetic truth that the object and its context can provide', and how can we best assure that the object is 'optimally accessible to scholars for study and to the public for education and enjoyment'. This proposal seeks to divert attention away from cultural nationalism to object-oriented concerns, with its emphasis on preservation and truth. But it will, however, not silence the continuing debate.

Altogether a timely and stimulating contribution to the international controversy over who 'owns' antiquities.

Graeme Clarke is a former director of the Humanities Research Centre (The Australian National University) and emeritus professor of classical studies (University of Melbourne). He has been director of archaeological
excavations at the Hellenistic site of Jebel Khalid on the banks of the Euphrates in North Syria for the last 25 years.