Cuno Should Distinguish Between People and Nations

Posted on February 9, 2009

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Museum director James Cuno, the author of Who Owns Antiquity?, has posted to the Princeton University Press on the subject of encyclopedic museums.  His article illustrates a flaw in his understanding of cultural property issues. In a section on “imagined communities,” he explains:

There are many reasons to be critical of nationalism.  But it is enough now to point out simply that national identity based on the presumption of inheritance from ancient cultures is a fiction.

It’s funny, because I actually think he’s got a great handle on cultural property law, but then as soon as we get to the local community (generally, indigenous peoples), his language turns imprecise.

It is imperative to realize that the local community (imagined, by his estimation) is a separate stakeholder from the nation in which the indigenous descendants of creator cultures currently reside.  Sometimes their interests coincide, but at least just as often they conflict.  Indigenous descendants of creator cultures might not have the political pull to assert their interests on the international level, but that does not mean any affection they experience toward the item is a fiction.  Nationalism?  Sure, I’ll give him that, but the indigenous people are another story.

It’s like saying that the United States can’t very well lay claim to Native American artifacts because the dominant culture isn’t remotely Native American.  But to extrapolate that to conclude that Native Americans should not rely on their own history to form their identity is obviously absurd.

I agree with Cuno that there are problems with national cultural property laws, but not because they take artifacts away from Western museums.  I have problems with them to the extent that they use indigenous identity platforms to repatriate artifacts and the indigenous people do not usually benefit in any tangible or direct way from the acquisition.

Also (and this is petty, I know) but Cuno states at the beginning of his article:

[The subject of this article is] “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong?  In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”  This question turns on two presumptions: [1] that antiquities are not where they belong, and [2] that civilizations create things and certain modern nation states have inalienable rights to them as heirs to those earlier civilizations.

Huh?  That question does not presume either of those facts.

Anyway, I encourage Cuno to keep pounding away at Nationalism, but perhaps he could distinguish between indigenous descendants of creator cultures and the Nation in the process, because they are simply not the same thing.

Read Cuno’s “Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong?”



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