Sun, 02 Nov 2014 Feature Article

Dr. Cuno Again: Reviving Discredited Arguments To Prevent Future Repatriation Of Museum Artefacts.

Dr. James Cuno president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty TrustDr. James Cuno president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

When I read Dr. Cuno's latest article entitled “ The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
” in the American journal Foreign Affairs,(Nov/Dec 2014) appearing under a bold heading, “Culture War”, I was very surprised.(1) The last time I commented on the work of the American scholar and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust , I had written that Professor Cuno, whose writings had been heavily criticised by scholars all over the world, was changing and seemed to be moving away from his provocative positions and adopting a more reconciliatory approach in contrast to the abrasive tone of most of his comments. (2) His latest output however, is a full blast of the well-known but often unsubstantiated attacks on his opponents whom he seems to lump into a group of undifferentiated nationalists and nationalist States that, in his view, are constantly making “frivolous” requests for the repatriation of their cultural artefacts that belong to the whole world, not being subject to any geographical limitations and are, according to the cosmopolitan Cuno, better kept in the so-called 'Universal museums'/Encyclopaedic museums” - the British Museum in London, Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

“Rather than acquiesce to frivolous, if stubborn, calls for repatriation, often accompanied by threats of cultural embargoes, encyclopedic museums should encourage the development of mutually beneficial relationships with museums everywhere in the world that share their cosmopolitan vision. Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite.”

As we have argued before, the use of the term”culture war” is completely misleading and unfortunate in the context of restitution of cultural artefacts. When Egypt, Greece, Italy, Nigeria or Turkey ask for the return of their looted/stolen artefacts they do not consider themselves as being at war with the holding countries. In a world in which there are real wars that result in great loss of lives and people experience untold suffering and great deprivation, one must be careful in the use of terminology that would tend to obscure the tragedies of wars. Perhaps coming from a non-warfare nation, we are rather too sensitive about such terminology in an area where co-operation should be the basic principle.

Cuno is back presenting again the false view that it is nationalism that fuels demands for return of cultural property and laws tending to control the handling of cultural property:

“Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states' cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO's declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity”, governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image -- Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states' national identities.”

Many persons support restitution of cultural artefacts who can by no means be described as nationalists. But who are more nationalistic than the British, US Americans and the other States that stubbornly refuse to return artefacts that are undoubtedly looted, stolen or acquired under dubious circumstances? Ironically, many of the States demanding restitution are countries that suffer from lack of strong national cohesion or nationalism which explains partly the instability in those areas.

The American scholar starts his essay by presenting as nationalist Francesco Rutelli, a former Italian Culture Minister who was largely instrumental in obliging leading American institutions in 2006 to return a great number of looted artefacts to Italy. Referring to the exhibition of the returned looted artefacts that was held in Rome in 1977, Cuno writes:

“Leading nearly 200 journalists through the exhibition, Francesco Rutelli, Italy's then cultural minister, proclaimed, “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn't end on the shelf of some American museum. With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.” Rutelli was not just anthropomorphizing ancient artifacts by giving them souls. By insisting that they were the property of Italy and important to its national identity, he was also giving them citizenship”

Rutelli may have exaggerated a little and been also somewhat lyrical. But even before the grandparents of the Italian Minister were born, the returned artefacts had a home and place in Italy before they were looted and taken to the USA by various devious routes. Does welcoming the pieces back to Italy imply conferring on them a “citizenship” which they did not have before?

One of the museums Dr. Cuno admires most has as part of its name the word ”British” but the American scholar is not unduly worried by this and presumably does not see it as a nationalistic mark. “British” appears to be synonymous with “universal” for some people. On the other hand, “Italian”, “Turkish” or “Nigerian” surely appears to be a nationalistic designation.

Many will remember the Italian Minister and his colleagues for their success in forcing leading American institutions to return to Italy cultural artefacts that had been illegally exported from Italy to the United States. Contrary to the impression created in the essay, the American institutions did not freely agree to return the objects. The Italians forced them to do so through a combination of pressures, legal process and even the imprisonment of a senior curator of a leading American museum. It was realized that there was no alternative but to agree to Italian requests for repatriation. Incidentally more artefacts were returned than the 69 objects in the exhibition Cuno mentions in his essay.

An unflattering image of Zahi Hawass, the dynamic former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, emerges from Cuno's essay under what he titles “Claim Game”:

“Although the UNESCO convention has helped crack down on the illegal trade in antiquities and led to the rightful repatriation of illicitly acquired art, it has also inspired many governments to make combative and sometimes dubious claims for restitution. As Zahi Hawass, Egypt's then long-serving antiquities minister, said in 2010, “We will make life miserable for museums that refuse to repatriate.”

Many who did not always agree with the former Egyptian Minister will remember him for his untiring efforts to secure the return of Egyptian artefacts that are illegally in Western museums, including Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, London. Hardly anybody now speaks for the return of African artefacts after the departure of the active Egyptian archaeologist from his post. Zahi Hawass was a great voice in discussions on repatriation.

Cuno refers to UNESCO declaring that” no culture is a hermetically sealed entity”. One wonders whether any of the claimants for restitution has ever asserted that their cultures were completely sealed from other cultures. Besides, this point could not reinforce or weaken any demand for repatriation. Even if two States have the same or similar cultures, the fact that one is holding illegally cultural artefacts stolen or looted from the other would not be affected by evidence that the two cultures are related. One is reminded of the noble British Lord who, with respect to claims for restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, suggested the Greeks should be informed that admiration of Greek culture is part of British culture and history.

Dr. Cuno does not mention that it is the same UNESCO that in the interests of mankind puts certain obligations on States where cultural objects are located. Who else can better take care of artefacts than the States where they are located? It is interesting to see Cuno relying on a UNESCO citation for he has not always been supportive of the aims of that organization in its efforts at cultural preservation.

Cuno criticizes UNESCO and ICOM for encouraging and assisting States to demand repatriation of cultural objects:

“UNESCO, despite what it says about cultural fluidity, has joined with nation-states to assist in the repatriation of cultural objects on the grounds that they represent countries' exclusive national heritages. Its repatriation and restitution committee has a broad mandate to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the return of “any cultural property” that a state deems to have “fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of [its] people.”

Dr.Cuno does not seem to accept that international bodies exist to assist the international community and all member States and not only the powerful States of the West which were instrumental in establishing these organizations. But what Dr. Cuno laments above all is that it is up to each State to determine what objects form part of its culture:

“But individual countries alone determine when something is part of their cultural heritage: there is no international institution with the authority to make that determination. A national government or state-backed entity can even declare a preceding state's or regime's self-proclaimed national cultural property idolatrous and destroy it, and there is nothing any other country or any international agency can do to stop it. In 2001, UNESCO tried in vain to prevent the Taliban from demolishing the Bamiyan Buddhas, two monumental sixth-century statues carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan. Not even a meeting between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives of the Taliban leader could spare the statues.”

It would appear that Cuno and his supporters would prefer to have a situation where a body, preferably controlled by the West, determines what is and what is not part of the culture of the non-European States from which many artefacts have been looted or stolen. That body could then decide that modern Egyptians have nothing in common with ancient Egyptians. Could such a body also determine that modern Europeans have nothing in common with ancient Europeans?

Dr. Cuno writes about his first visit to Louvre and how he was fascinated and captivated by an object he saw there which came from the ancient Near East and goes on to attribute to the universal museums a power and promise and praises them for offering to visitors examples of the diversity of cultures in one place:

“And in doing so, they protect and advance the idea of openness and integration in a changing world. Over the last three decades, more people have moved across or within national borders than at any point in human history, straining the very contiguity and definition of nation-states, which are now less politically defined and territorially circumscribed than ever before. But all too often, as a result, governments seek fixed national cultures to shore up their hold on their states' identities”.

Probably Prof. Cuno does not care to know the impression the so-called universal museums make on young persons from Africa, Asia and Latin America who visit these citadels of Western culture for the first time. My own recollection of my first visit to the British Museum more than forty years ago was one of shock and anger. I was jolted by the architecture of the building, its vast size and fortress character reminded me of the forts and castles European imperialists- British, Danes, Dutch, French, Germans, Portuguese, and Swedes-built on the west coast of Africa in order to protect their goods and later to hold slaves they had acquired. But what could a museum have that required such massive protection?

Once I entered the museum and had recovered from the shock of seeing so many huge artefacts from all over the world, I thought I understood why they needed a fortress like this. There seemed to be so many looted and stolen objects there that they had to protect them from possible attempts by the enraged original owners to retake their artefacts.

My anger boiled over when I realized there were many objects from Africa which one would no longer see on our continent. I wondered whether our ancestors had made gifts of all these objects to the British or were forced to deliver them or face punishment or worse. And when I read that the Benin artefacts had been looted as a result of British invasion of Benin in 1897, my suspicions seemed to have been confirmed.

Cuno cannot expect us to see in universal museums our salvation and his calling to build universal museums where there are none appears to be an attempt to obscure the true history and development of such museums.

When Dr. Cuno writes about the movements of people across territorial boundaries and writes on migration, I wonder whether he is writing about our world as it now exists or about some other world. Is he familiar with the policies of those States where there are universal museums and their stand regarding immigration? What he writes on these issues apply more appropriately to Western States and their determination to keep all others out of the parts of the world they now occupy.

What Cuno writes about the Parthenon Marbles and about Nefertiti can be easily ignored. He tells only part of the histories and the reader may go away with too many misleading impressions. These objects were acquired under very dubious circumstances and yet we are given the impression they were legally acquired. Why then have we had disputes for decades on their acquisition?

What surprises me most about the essay by Dr.Cuno is that after appearing for some years to have retreated from his untenable position of intransigent retentionism, the President of the J.Paul Getty Trust now suddenly launches one of his usual attacks. The essay does not appear to have been motivated by any particular demand for restitution and Dr. Cuno does not explain to us why he has returned to his old aggressive and abrasive position. We are left with speculation.

Given his high position as President of the most powerful cultural institution in the Western world and writing in a very prestigious journal, we may assume that all this is not a personal whim. The essay comes also at a time when as a result of fighting in the Middle East, a lot of cultural artefacts have been destroyed, stolen, looted and displaced.. Could it be that as usual, some clever people have started to think about the post-war situation? Could this essay be part of a strategy to warn or disarm States in the conflict area about any attempts to claim in future the return of looted or stolen artefacts? This strategy would be following the path of the notorious Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums. (2000).

Or has the British Museum, in view of recent publicity concerning a possible legal action by Greece to recover the Parthenon Marbles, again resorted to the same strategy used in connection with the discredited Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museum in getting other museums to work on its behalf and allow it to stay in the background? If this were the intention then they could not have made a better choice to lead this revival of imperialist museology.

Readers will recall that the intention of that Declaration was to discourage claims for return of cultural property and especially to discourage Greece from claiming the return of the Parthenon Marbles. None of the intended effects were achieved and the Declaration was followed by massive claims and returns from American institutions to Italy and other States.

Whatever may be the objective behind the unexpected revival of the aggressive posture, it is not very likely to be successful unless and until supporters of that strategy seriously examine the objections made to the position of the notorious Declaration. They would also have to show some respect to claimants for restitution and not reject their demands as”frivolous” and “nationalist.”

Insults are not very likely to contribute to a peaceful settlement of disputes about artefacts. Cuno and his supporters would also have to make some effort to understand the causes leading to mistrust of the West in this area.

There need not be any great disputes about cultural artefacts if those holding them would be a little respectful of the feelings and the needs of the owners when they demand their return. When western museum directors and others describe demands for repatriation as “frivolous,”it is a sure sign that they are not seriously interested in any amicable solution. Cuno does not give examples of “frivolous” demands. Would anybody characterize the demand by the Oba of Benin for the return of some of the looted Benin Bronzes as “frivolous”?

In the final analysis, refusal to return cultural property to the peoples from whom it was wrongfully taken is a denial of the human right of those peoples to a free and independent cultural development. States and museums that preach human rights should surely not be seen as denying the human rights of others. But do the so-called universal museums care about human rights? How come that the British Museum and the British Government do not follow the wishes of the British people who have in numerous opinion polls expressed the view that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece? Is that how democracy works?

The views expressed in Cuno's essay are not likely to encourage the respect of the rights of other peoples and States. It will prolong the unethical spectacle of the rich stealing from the poor and refusing to return their loot.

Kwame Opoku, 30 October, 2014.
1. “Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts” -- -

Cuno's essay reminds one of a similar article in the New York Times by Hugh Eakin entitled 'The Great Giveback” which lamented that the American museums were making restitutions without much fight.

2. K. Opoku, ”Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”` -and -value-of-univers.html