Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Controversy? What controversy?

Kwame Opoku has just sent me a link to a dire and rambling KCRW radio conversation (thanks Kwame!) between James Cuno and Michael Conforti, President of AAMD (Association of American Museum Directors), discussing, yes, you guessed it, Cuno's new book, Who Owns Antiquity.

It's pretty clear that Cuno has won hands down with this book. I'm still trying to figure out how so much pre-publication opposition to his central thesis has suddenly translated into so much supine rolling-over. For the past two weeks, Cuno has sashayed from studio to studio on both sides of the pond, hoovering up the opposition as he goes. The only person to have given him a run for his money was Tristram Besterman, former director of Manchester Museum here in the UK, who clearly had him on the back foot during their Radio Three Nightwaves discussion last week.

I think most of us would agree that it's not a bad book. It's clearly written, passionate in its argument, and doubtless informative and instructive for lay readers. But its core aims — its call to arms against a notional nationalist retentionism, its strident appeal for a return to partage, and its endorsement of the beleaguered encyclopaedic museum as the best home for antiquities of any and every culture — are deeply flawed.

The problem, I think, is that this is such a specialist topic that very few radio hosts, however capable they may be (Andy Marr on Radio 4, for example, and clearly Ruth Seymour at KCRW) are capable of offering an incisive critique of what he proposes. In fact, when push comes to shove, nobody is, not even archaeologists. Perhaps they all agree with him.

Having read a recent New York Times piece on the new AAMD guidelines on the acquisition of antiquities, Ruth Seymour set out to unleash these two ferocious dogs onto each other in the hope that they'd rip each other limb from limb for the delectation of her bloodthirsty listeners. Unfortunately for Ms Seymour, Cuno and Conforti were having none of it.

At times like these, with every nation in the world seemingly united against the US over everything from global warming to who owns cylinder seals, you won't get two prominent American museum directors to do anything except close ranks in a big schmoozy antiquities love-in.

Fareed Zakaria's piece in this week's Sunday Times (Enfeebled superpower: how America lost its grip) offered some telling insights into why America has become so resented in the world. She was writing about geopolitics, but what she had to say resonated for me on the level of cultural diplomacy too.

“When we meet American officials they talk and we listen - we rarely disagree or speak frankly because they simply can’t take it in. They simply repeat the American position, like the tourist who thinks he needs to speak louder and slower and then we will understand,” a senior foreign policy adviser in a European government told me. To foreigners, US officials seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running.

“There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without,” says Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s UN ambassador. Because Americans live in a “cocoon”, they don’t see the “sea change in attitudes towards America throughout the world”.

This is not dissimilar to what's happening in cultural heritage disputes. Leading US museum directors like Cuno just keep talking, seemingly unwilling to listen to an alternative position.

Michael Conforti, who was gushing in his praise for his Chicago colleague, spoke of "a need to operate in a world where there's a level of mutual trust." Amen to that. It would seem that Mr Conforti recognises that the requisite level of trust is currently lacking. Why is it lacking, I wonder? Well, he promptly provided the answer by closing the discussion with a reference to Kavita Singh's piece in this month's Art Newspaper (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?) which I discussed here.

In her piece, Ms Singh spoke of how Western museums are seen outside the west: "as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums 'build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding' would only provoke anger or derision."

What did Michael Conforti have to say about these attitudes? "Very instructive... however silly they may be"

Mutual trust, eh?

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