Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cuno's Case Against Repatriation

James Cuno has made a well-reasoned case against repatriation.  What a welcome contrast to the blatant propaganda that has become associated with the archaeological lobby.

If Cuno fails at all, it's in his ignoring the interests of collectors, who have traditionally supported healthy museums.

And then there is his failure to reach as a conclusion the all too obvious end result of the cultural nationalism he decries:  if anything, the reality on the ground in Egypt, Syria and Iraq proves that sites are looted and museums are destroyed precisely because angry, disenfranchised locals associate state owned antiquities with hated dictatorial regimes who have appropriated the past to serve their own purposes.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Bill Pearlstein graciously consented to CPO publishing this comment:


Not sure I agree with Prof. Cuno's characterization of UNESCO. I think the White Paper's discussion of UNESCO is more accurate (if not more perceptive) and not necessarily because I wrote it.

UNESCO was really focused on a narrow subset of items important to the national heritage. Of course, much of the drafting (and the translation) is terrible, you have to parse it carefully, and the arguably high standard for national retention is discretionary and self-defined. But the intent is clear. UNESCO was not a declaration of universal national ownership or of universal national retention. The focus is instead on the retention of a limited class of items important to the national heritage, whether owned privately or by the State. Archeology barely gets a mention, as a pretext for national retention or otherwise. UNESCO also imposes a variety of affirmative obligations on State Parties to regulate the domestic and export markets in cultural property. What AAMD did in 2008 was to selectively pluck the 1970 Rule out of UNESCO, and apply it out of context (no pun intended) and without reference to the rest of UNESCO and its overall thrust and requirements. Instead of taking an integrated interpretive approach to UNESCO, AAMD cherry-picked the part that got the US Museums off the hook and out of the line of fire, while doing a disservice to the concept of selective national retention, with which nobody really disagrees in principle. AAMD adopted the 1970 Rule in a climate of fear, when major US institutions were defending restitution claims resulting from the existence of organized looting rings in Italy and elsewhere, abuses of the market which facilitated the dissemination of the looted objects through the international market (e.g., Medici to Hecht to Symes to Summa to Fleischman, the Getty, etc.), the absence of clear acquisition standards (or common-sense inquiry) and, in some cases, lax or complicit Museum decision making (and decision makers). But trying to retrofit a requirement for documented provenance onto the reality of a market where nothing was ever documented is disingenuous, and creates the Orphan Problem without solving the looting problem. The bright line test of the 1970 Rule may be sufficient for AAMD's current purposes, but let's face it—the 1970 Rule does not reflect a fair reading of UNESCO.

See Part II

Cultural Property Observer said...

Part II

Moreover, It's silly to pretend that every unprovenanced piece may have been recently looted. Some objects have come down through antiquity without being buried. The likelihood of privately owned Orphans that were never buried and never looted is simply outside the conceptual box of the 1970 Rule. There's another problem—by focusing entirely on the sufficiency of State Party loans to US Museums and distancing themselves from the private market and private collectors (and donors), Museums have fallen into the Statist trap set by State Parties and archaeologists. Again, UNESCO is not a benchmark for universal nationalization of archaeological material or cultural heritage. UNESCO clearly contemplates domestic markets and export markets. Why then are foreign nation's commitments to international cultural exchange tested solely by their commitment to institutional loans to US museums instead of to a more progressive notion of national heritage that contemplates private ownership and export of non-critical objects? Viewed from the outside, the 1970 Rule is conceptually flawed and badly in need of rethinking. And while Prof. Cuno's arguments against automatic repatriation are helpful, they represent an institutional, museo-centric (?) view perspective that suffers from limitations of its own. All of which contributes to the notion that private ownership is immoral and ought to be illegal. Which is clearly the position of the archaeological lobby, which is by now thoroughly radicalized and opposed to any international exchange or export other than carefully controlled institutional loans (a position which is not necessarily inconsistent with the most defensible Museum position). All of which is simply to say that the view from the collector's perspective continues to deteriorate, and will not improve absent meaningful policy reform. CCP has tried to initiate a discussion among the collecting constituencies but none of the stakeholders seems inclined to challenge the status quo. Which in itself is troubling.


kyri said...

you say "cuno fails in his ignoring the interests of collectors,who have traditionally supported healthy museums" and over on the chasing aphrodite twitter account "he is ignoring his institutions history of corruption" sometimes its best not to say anything.when both sides in the debate are so intransigent, anything you do say is wrong,even if its right.