Thursday, January 31, 2008

James Cuno on Antiquities

James Cuno has been interviewed by Richard Lacayo for Time ("A Talk With: James Cuno", January 27, 2008; "More Talk: With James Cuno", January 28, 2008).

The emphasis of the interview is on ownership (including Cuno's forthcoming book, Who Owns Antiquity? [Princeton UP] [WorldCat]) and where objects are displayed. So there are comments on "retentionist cultural property laws" that are felt not to work.

But for archaeologists the issue is about the protection of archaeological contexts and the recognition that recently surfaced antiquities are likely to come from looting.

There is a focus on partage which has allowed the share of archaeological finds to be dispersed among museums and indeed form the basis of university teaching collections. To Cuno's list of North American examples we could add British university museums such as The Ashmolean Museum or The Fitzwilliam Museum. But partage is not an issue. As the items come from excavations we (usually) know the contexts, and so it is of little archaeological importance if the piece is displayed in, say, Athens, Cambridge (UK) or Boston.

Cuno tries to belittle attempts by countries such as Italy to seek the return of their cultural property. Indeed he suggests the motives are political. But surely one of the reasons we have seen returns to Italy from Boston, Malibu, New York and Princeton is that there has been clear evidence of wrong-doing that has convinced museum authorities to hand over part of their holdings? No doubt the documentary evidence from the Geneva Freeport helped.

Cuno closes the interview with this:
Museum [sic.] recognize that there is a relationship between the marketplace and looting, and we want to distance ourselves from it as much as we can and still preserve these things that will otherwise be lost. How do you behave responsibly in this realm? There has to be a package of responses. One part of the package is partage. And another part has to do with allowing museums to reasonably acquire.
But it is not about having a reasonable acquisition policy. It is about having an ethical acquisition policy.

Lacayo has once again failed to ask the difficult questions. What about Cuno's position on acquiring and displaying potentially looted material at Harvard? But perhaps we will have to read the book.

2 comments:

Kavita Singh said...

Dear David Gill,
I teach art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. I have an article in the June issue of the art newspaper where I look at what the 'Universal Museum' looks like from the margins. It might be of interest to you. The link is:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=7962
Best wishes
Kavita Singh

WBUR said...

Dr. Gill-

This may perhaps be of interest:

James Cuno was recently interviewed by Robin Young on the show "Here & Now" for 90.9 WBUR in Boston. They talked about Cuno's controversial views and his new book Who Owns Antiquity?. You can listen to the full interview at http://www.here-now.org/shows/2008/08/20080820_17.asp.

-Regards from WBUR

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