04.07.2008 Feature Article

Is James Cuno A “nationalist Retentionist”?

Plaque of a War Chief, BeninNigeria, Art Institute of Chicago ,Chicago, USA.Plaque of a War Chief, Benin/Nigeria, Art Institute of Chicago ,Chicago, USA.
04.07.2008 LISTEN

James Cuno, Director, Art Institute of Chicago, has become known for his constant attacks on those he terms “nationalist retentionists” and who, according to him, pretend to be successors to ancient civilizations and inheritors of their cultural objects with which they have no real connections except that these objects happen to be within the territories of the present nation States. In his recent book, Who owns Antiquity? Cuno declares:

“What is the relationship between, say, modern Egypt and the antiquities that were part of the land's Pharaonic past? The people of modern-day Cairo do not speak the language of the ancient Egyptians, do not practice their religion, do not make their art, wear their dress, eat their food, or play their music, and do not adhere to the same kind of laws or form of government the ancient Egyptians did.”(1)

Cuno attacks those countries that seek to regulate the export of antiquities as nationalist retentionist more concerned with politics than with the spread of knowledge about culture:

“Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws segregate the world's cultural property within the borders of modern nation-states. Most often, as I have discussed them in this book such laws are focussed on antiquities; that is, on works of art made long before there were nations. National and international laws, regulations, and agreements typically define antiquities as works of art made at least 150 years ago. They claim antiquities found (or thought to have been found) within their national borders as a nation's patrimony, as important to that nation's identity and esteem, and not to our understanding of the world. Quite explicitly, they claim them as a nation's property, as bearing the imprint of a national identity.” (2)

This basic theory of Cuno, negating the rights of States to control antiquities on their territory, is also stated in his interviews with Richard Lacayo
“Anthony Appiah said something wonderful in his book Cosmopolitanism. He says, Look we don't know who made these Nok sculptures, these ancient sculptures that are found today in Nigeria. We don't know if they were made for royalty or for one's ancestors or on speculation. But what we know for sure is that they weren't made for Nigeria. Because at the time there was no Nigeria.” (3) A Talk With: James Cuno

So we have Cuno denying any rights to Nigeria over the Nok sculptures because when they were made Nigeria had not yet been born. Peter Stone has commented that Cuno “is of course correct in arguing that the Nok sculptures were not made for Nigeria - Nigeria did not exist when the sculptures were crafted - but equally certainly they were not made to be in a museum in New York or London or Berlin.” (4)

Given Cuno's attacks on the nation States and their efforts to control antiquities found within their territories, it came as a shock to read an article, entitled “James Cuno, On Heritage”, in the Exhibitionist of June 23, 2006 in which, as reported, Cuno makes a very vigorous nationalist defence for the rights of the United States to control the cultural objects found on their territory:

“An Italian government official's remark caught the attention of Jim Cuno, the former Harvard Art Museums director who now heads the Art Institute of Chicago. Cuno writes us: "I was surprised by Mr. Proietti's remark that 'The United States doesn't have an ancient heritage.' It is true that the United States, like the Republic of Italy, is a modern political entity that by definition can not have an ancient heritage. But if the Republic of Italy can claim the artifacts of ancient Rome and Etruria as its ancient heritage, the US can claim as its ancient heritage the artifacts of the peoples who lived throughout the Mississippi River region, the Southwest, and so many other places on the land that now lies within our national borders. Surely Mr. Proietti knows the recent research that shows that long before Europeans arrived on this continent, the land had been considerably changed by large populations of people who lived in settled areas with cultural and utilitarian objects and dwellings of distinction. It is even argued that there were cities in the "new world" larger than any in Europe before 1492. Our obligation, as custodians of the ancient artifacts of the peoples who once lived on land within our modern borders - like Italy's with regard to the antiquities of Rome, Etruria, not to mention Greece - is to scientifically excavate, preserve, and share them with the world whose heritage it ultimately is.” (5)

Here we have Cuno referring to the peoples who lived in the areas now occupied by the United States and presenting this fact as basis of the right of the USA to control and regulate cultural artefacts found there. He states that there is
“Our obligation, as custodians of the ancient artifacts of the peoples who once lived on land within our modern borders - like Italy's with regard to the antiquities of Rome, Etruria, not to mention Greece - is to scientifically excavate, preserve, and share them with the world whose heritage it ultimately is.”

Cuno asserts the existence of an obligation on the sole basis of occupation of territory. What are the rights and obligations of such a custodian? How can the custodian share the objects he is supposed to take care of with others? Does the custodian have a right to sell? How does his position differ from that of an owner or possessor of such artefacts? It would be recalled that in the case of the present day Egyptians Cuno referred to their not eating the same food, not speaking the same language, not practising the same religion, not having the same art, not wearing the same dress or playing the same music as the ancient Egyptians whose artefacts they now seek to control and keep. So what is denied the Egyptians seems to be allowed to the US Americans. Cuno does not establish any other connection between the first inhabitants of the territories the US occupies and the present day US Americans except that they occupy the same territory. One does not need the recall here the wars of extermination waged against the earlier occupants of the territory now occupied by the USA.It is not known whether the USA shares those cultural objects they inherited from the previous occupants of their territories with any other nations. So is the USA custodian of those artefacts for humanity or do those artefacts not count as part of human heritage to be shared by all? Cuno grants to the USA what he vigorously denies to Nigeria: The right to control artefacts found on its territories.

As readers know, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property gives States certain obligations and rights over antiquities found on their land without any requirement of sharing the same language or food. Cuno, of course, could not refer to the UNESCO Convention since he considers it as giving the nation-States unnecessary rights. He would have had to admit that the provisions of the Convention contain reasonable measures agreed upon by modern States and are preferable to the free-for-all that Cuno and co seem to wish to establish. In any case he thinks the whole UNESCO scheme to regulate antiquities and to control the illicit trade has been a failure and needs to be seriously questioned.

Those countries Cuno attacks as “nationalist retentionists”, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, Greece and Nigeria have many of their cultural objects in many museums in Europe and in the USA. There are not many museums in those countries that can boast of having many artefacts from the USA. So who is being “nationalist retentionist” here? Those who are trying to control the looting of their cultural objects thousands of which are already outside their countries and are in the USA and elsewhere or those who do not share their artefacts with others and never seem to have enough of the artefacts of others?

Cuno may wish to explain to the Nigerian representatives who will be attending on 10 July, 2008 the opening of the Benin exhibition hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago why there are thousands of African artefacts in USA but no artefacts from the USA in the African countries. He might also wish to explain to them the effects of “nationalist retentionist” policies on the US American museums and elicit from the African guests information on the effects these policies have on their museums.


(1) James Cuno, Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008, p.9

(2) Ibid. p.124.

(3) A Talk With: James Cuno, January 27, 2008;

(4) Peter Stone, “Clinging on to their marbles”
(5) Geoff Edgers, James Cuno, On Heritage June 23, 2006


Queen-mother Idia, Benin/Nigeria, British Museum.

Plaque of a War Chief, Benin/Nigeria, Art Institute of Chicago ,Chicago, USA.

Nefertiti, Egypt, Altes Museum, Berlin