Sunday, January 24, 2010

James Cuno Lectures at George Washington University

On Jan. 21, 2010, Dr. James Cuno lectured about "Museums, Antiquities and the Politics of Cultural Property" to a packed house of mostly students at George Washington University.

Dr. Cuno recounted the themes expressed in his book, "Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage." See

As in that book, Cuno explained how:
  • Source country nationalism rather than a desire to protect archaeological sites motivates most efforts to seek repatriations or import restrictions.
  • Source counties should return to the practice of allowing "partage" in return for help in excavating archaeological sites.
  • Archaeologists are dependent on source countries for excavation permits. Self-interest or fear of offending their hosts has led to unqualified support for source country rights over cultural artifacts even when that results in the neglect or destruction of those same artifacts.
  • Whoever made a cultural artifact, it certainly was not made for a modern nation state.
  • Some source countries unashamedly assert rights over cultural artifacts of peoples and cultures they actively seek to subvert.
  • Encyclopedic museums have become a target for source nations and archaeologists because they stand in opposition to the nationalization of culture.
  • The trend of repatriations and import restrictions runs counter to the even more powerful trend of globalism.

Cuno illustrated his lecture with examples to drive home these points:

  • Images of Italy's trophy art display at the Italian President's flag-draped residence made clear the nationalistic impulses behind Italy's repatriation efforts.
  • Yale's trouble with Peru over Machu Picchu relics can be plotted against declining poll numbers for the Peruvian government-- there is no better way to divert attention from the troubles at home than to go after the most Yankee of institutions in court and the press.
  • Chinese complaints about artifacts stolen by colonial powers must be judged against China's own treatment of its own minorities, i.e., the Tibetans and Uighurs.
  • The cargo from an ancient Turkish shipwreck underscores that artifacts cannot easily be tied to a single culture.
  • An image of a Chinese tea pot shaped in an Indian inspired form with English silver inlays demonstrates that artifacts are created from a mix of cultural elements.

As an antidote to cultural property nationalism, Cuno advocated:

  • A rethink of national cultural property retention statutes to allow partage and licit markets.
  • The creation of encyclopedic museums in countries like China and Greece.
  • The recognition that encyclopedic museums help popularize the culture of countries like Italy, China, Peru and Greece and help keep immigrants visiting these museums attuned to the culture of their home.

Also of interest was Dr. Cuno's self-effacing style, complete with some humorous quotations from some of the more colorful reviews of his book.

For more about upcoming lectures in this series-- including ones by Patty Gerstenblith and Malcolm Bell, see

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