Fascism or Imperialism: It’s a two party system for archaeologists.

Posted on August 14, 2008


Today on CultureKiosque, intellectual property lawyer Alan Behr reviewed James Cuno’s recent book Who Owns Antiquity? In his book, Cuno points out that nationalistic patrimony laws do not necessarily hand cultural artifacts over to the descendants of the creator cultures.  In The Ethical Trade of Cultural Property, I argue that the implication of this fact is that the creator cultures are often disadvantaged by patrimony laws, and that for this reason it is not necessarily ethically worthy to attempt to comply with patrimony laws that have no legal force.  Who Owns Antiquity? takes the point to another conclusion, as Behr explains that the unstated implications of Cuno’s argument are that nationalistic patrimony laws are a stop on the road to fascism.

Meanwhile, Kwame Opaku, a prolific commentator on international cultural property practices, reviews Cuno’s book and is not so pleased.  He explains:

Cuno is a defender of the so-called “universal museums”, now called “encyclopaedic museums” and perhaps more correctly, imperialistic or totalitarian museums. The museum that never has enough of anything and seeks a total control of all cultural objects by all means… These museums now lament the end of the imperialistic and colonial period in which they amassed most of their stock. This was the period when the Europeans could take virtually from any country whatever cultural object they desired. That period is, mercifully, at an end and Cuno and co are agitating for the return to that system…

One tactic in argument is to take your opponent’s position and push it to its logical philosophical extreme (akin to the “slippery slope argument”).  I have to believe that there is a place in between fascism and imperialism where cultural property policies can be developed that will benefit source cultures, without undue detriment to the nations who currently host the source cultures, or to the world that appreciates their work.  Unfortunately, for as long as those policies are developed within the property rights framework, the ethical consideration of protecting creator cultures will remain ancillary to the tug of war between nations.

Read Alan Behr’s article on Cuno’s book, “A Humanist Plea for Free-Ranging Antiquities”

Read Kwame Opaku’s review of Cuno’s book on Amazon