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Cuno Conundrum: Whose Law Is It, Anyway?

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I’ve been shirking my obligation to give you my opinion of James Cuno‘s new book (above), Who Owns Antiquity?, because I wasn’t relishing the prospect of slamming it.

But on Monday, an e-mail hit my inbox from the book’s Princeton University Press publicist, sending me links to other articles mentioning the book (including a Wall Street Journal review that found it “excellent” but marred by “surprising factual errors”). The imprudently eager publicist wrote me:

A while back you expressed some interest in Jim and his book and I’d be happy to set up an interview or provide any additional material you may need for the blog.

Okay, Jessica, you asked for it. Let me shred this book by focusing on a few key passages.
Cuno keeps hammering at these same points over and over and over again:

All of the [source countries’] cultural property laws in force over the past four decades have not stopped—cannot stop—this [looting and destruction of archaeological sites]. They are a failed regime.

Tell that to the Italians, who recently issued a report (which I can no longer find online) detailing the degree to which looting has been reduced. This is undoubtedly due to stepped up enforcement efforts within their own borders, but the overriding legal framework regarding cultural property also plays an important part in the overall climate of better protection. In the strictest sense, Cuno is correct: Looting (like any other crime) can never be “stopped.” But a move in the right direction is a good start.

The best way to preserve the archaeological record…is to encourage scientific excavation…[and] broaden access to their finds through the restoration of partage.

Cuno argues repeatedly for partage—the old system whereby American museums were allowed to remove and take ownership of some important objects from foreign excavations in which they participated. Those days are gone. In the view of source countries today, “partage” is a polite word for “pillage.” Some archaeologists say that certain objects formerly taken under the cover of “partage” had never been authorized to leave the country. The best sharing that American museums can hope for today is a system allowing objects to leave their countries on long-term loan. Given the heightened cultural consciousness of source countries, outright ownership of co-excavated objects is no longer an option.

Here’s Cuno’s most outrageously inflammatory statement, which he saves for the epilogue:

I question the premise of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws: that it is the right of sovereign nations to legislate the protection of and access to whatever they consider to be their cultural property, that which they claim to be important to their national identities and self-esteem….Antiquities are ancient artifacts of times and cultures long preceding the history of the modern nation-state. And in all but a very few cases, they have no obvious relation to that state other than the accident of geography: they happen to have been found within its modern borders.

What gives Cuno the right to dictate to foreign governments what laws they have a “right” to enact about objects within their own borders? Like Cuno, I’d prefer that those laws be modified. And further, I oppose our own country’s criminalization of people who import objects that are only considered “stolen” because they violate another country’s retentionist laws, which are inconsistent with our definition of stolen property in this country. I think that civil proceedings, not jailings, are more appropriate in such cases.

Other countries’ cultural-property protection laws certainly have a political (maybe even an anti-American) agenda. But to dismiss the very real concern and serious commitment of citizens of other nations regarding their cultural heritage, and to insist that their treasures belong to the world despite their countries’ laws to the contrary, expresses a degree of insulting condescension and insensitivity that has no place in the director’s office of an encyclopedic American museum.

Cuno, who is now director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is getting some publicity mileage from his intemperate screed. But I feel it can do neither his own museum career nor the cause of “encyclopedic museums” any good. (Mercifully, he refrains from calling them
“universal museums,” a vainglorious coinage that lately seems to have gone out of circulation.)

By taking an extremist stance that belittles the deeply felt and legitimate concerns of archaeologists and source countries to preserve archaeological sites and national heritage, he undermines efforts by reasonable people on both sides of the cultural-property divide to arrive at mutually beneficial compromises. And he self-destructively undermines any role he might personally have played in working cooperatively with foreign governments to forge mutually beneficial sharing arrangements.

Except for calling attention to himself, it’s a lose-lose book.

Particularly telling is this passage at the end of the indispensable Jori Finkel‘s NY Times Sunday profile of this self-appointed Cultural Defender of the Western World:

As for Mr. [Philippe] de Montebello’s job [as director of the Metropolitan Museum], Mr. Cuno said nobody had contacted him about it. And if the Met were to call?

“It would be impossible not to have a conversation because of the
importance of the museum and its role in the profession,” he said. (In
an e-mail message later that day, he put it somewhat differently: “I
have not spoken with anyone at the Met nor do I intend to.”)

Philippe’s collegial book-jacket blurb notwithstanding, “Who Owns Antiquity?,” to my mind, disqualifies Cuno for the premier American museum directorship, where deft diplomacy is a must-have skill.

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