Skip to Content

Arts feature

‘Culture knows no political borders’

Tiffany Jenkins talks to James Cuno about looting, exporting and owning antiquities

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

Tiffany Jenkins talks to James Cuno about looting, exporting and owning antiquities

James Cuno is a busy man. I pin him down between two projects: promoting the new Modern Art Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, opening next year, where he is president and director, and the launch of his new book Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton University Press, £14.95), which is provoking controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was prompted to write it, he tells me, ‘as an intervention into the war, or should I say “discussion”, between museums, archaeologists and nation states, about who can acquire antiquities’.

The work is a strident critique of the cultural property laws that prevent artefacts from antiquity (defined as an object over 150 years old) being exported out of the state within which they are excavated. Cuno is concerned that these laws, designed to prevent the looting of archaeological sites, are at best ineffective: ‘The number of antiquities acquired by museums has slowed to a trickle, but looting has increased. So where’s it going?’ he asks. ‘Worst of all,’ he argues, ‘these laws…advance nationalism and identity politics, which obscures the true meanings of objects and closes down our understanding of them.’

Cultural property laws, according to Cuno, promote a spurious link between antiquities and present-day governments which they use for their own ideological purposes. ‘Those in power in nation states, in whose jurisdiction antiquities lie, want a kind of legitimisation of their political position,’ he says. ‘They use the laws to perpetuate a sense of legitimacy, that the modern nation state is descended from antiquity, which it simply isn’t!’ he exclaims.

Nor is culture created within nations, he argues. ‘Culture knows no political borders. It never has. It’s always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid; and it’s always moved across borders or bears the imprint of earlier contact.’


Cuno clearly has a point. Claims to keep or have artefacts returned today — the most high-profile being the Elgin Marbles — suggest that Greece, for example, has a greater right to and connection with ancient artefacts within its present borders than those of us outside have. That is asserted despite the fact that the Parthenon was created 2,500 years ago in Classical Athens and since then has been ‘owned’ by the Ottoman Empire, the Christian church and an Islamic mosque. Their use changes, their meanings are complex and are not simply ‘Greek’.

Those demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles imply that there is continuity between the Hellenic culture that created them and the modern Greek identity. But no national identity is continuous in this way, Cuno suggests. It is a stance that denies the universal legacy of the artefacts — that, despite our great distance from antiquities in time and place, we all relate to them regardless of birth and background.

To demonstrate this point, Cuno explores the history of and influences on the artistry of a number of antiquities, including a 13th-century ivory casket from Sicily, which is carved from an African elephant’s tusk; a medieval German monstrance, which was used to display relics during Mass and holds a rock-crystal bottle that was once a perfume container made in Fatimid (Muslim Egypt); and a bronze cauldron from 11th-century BC China that documents social, dynastic and ritual practices of the rulers. All testify to varied influences, shifting significance and relationships between peoples.

Modern countries, Cuno posits, have no more right to claim ownership of objects produced in antiquity within their present borders than anyone anywhere else. This is a radical idea which challenges many contemporary shibboleths about identity and culture. He is on strong ground when he describes the interrelatedness of peoples and the intermingling influences on culture. His trenchant disapproval of the static and fixed view of identity and culture is timely.

This critique has angered many in the archaeological and museum sectors with whom, I think, the main battle is taking place. For many critics, those in the West have a responsibility to make reparation for the way they acquired artefacts; and, in the case of Britain, its historical association with colonialism. That is why excavated artefacts should stay where they are found, and also why they should be returned. Indeed, many claims that are presented by governments use the rhetoric of historical suffering when arguing that they should own the antiquities. So Cuno’s characterisation of them as straightforwardly nationalistic doesn’t quite stand up.

This raises the question of whether decisions about where objects should reside should be made on the basis of what happened in the past. I don’t think so. I think they should be made according to the principles of preservation, access and scholarship — on the basis of the present and the future. But this is an argument that needs to be made and Cuno doesn’t do so. He concentrates on the legal and technical detail of who bought what when and evades what some call the moral argument.

Cuno is stronger on the merits of encyclopaedic museums — the term now in vogue for institutions with artefacts from different civilisations — about which he becomes animated. The advantage, he says, is that ‘the object is seen in relation to other histories and cultures and so you see relationships both lateral and vertical in space and in time, and you begin to see the imprint of other cultures in the making of culture itself’. This helps us to understand the varied meanings of objects and how they came to be created.

He has been accused of wanting to hoard all the artefacts in museums in the West. But this is something he vigorously contests: ‘Let’s redistribute wealth and political power, not argue against encyclopaedic museums. Surely they should be everywhere,’ he proposes.

As a solution Cuno recommends partage, a system developed in the first half of the 20th century, by which objects excavated in archaeological digs are divided between the country of origin’s cultural authority (usually the national museum) and the archaeologist’s home institution. In short, ‘they should be shared’.

This enthusiasm for such museums is invigorating but he veers towards overstating the contribution they could make. According to Cuno, they can ‘encourage inquiry and tolerance without prejudice and represent the world’s artistic legacy’, elaborating that ‘inquiry holds out great promise, because from inquiry comes understanding, from understanding comes tolerance’. He argues that ‘context, where objects are seen alongside artefacts from different times and civilisations, particularly in the age we now live — an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence — aids tolerance’.

But while museums can do many things, they cannot resolve political conflict. He teeters too close to promoting a political role for this kind of museum. These caveats aside, his is a thoughtful case about the importance of preserving and giving people access to antiquities. Many of those who are squabbling over objects argue only about who owns them and who wronged whom. It is a refreshing change that James Cuno also concentrates on the artefacts themselves.

Tiffany Jenkins is director of the Arts and Society programme at the Institute of Ideas.


Show comments
Close