Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fiat Cuno

Having already blogged (here and here) on one or two pre-publication articles and interviews by James Cuno, I've now found time to read a review copy of his book Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle for Our Ancient Heritage in which he takes aim at what he pithily describes as "nationalist retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws". Kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? No. Perhaps not.

I can't remember a book on museums that has generated quite so much publicity and critical comment as this one, surely a reflection of how controversial the antiquities issue has become but also of how unusual it is for a leading museum director to take up such a forceful position on such a sensitive subject.

Derek Fincham on his Illicit Cultural Property blog thinks Cuno "is going against the main current of cultural heritage thinking at the moment." You can say that again, Derek.

But of course Cuno relishes the role of refusenik. Yesterday the New York Times reported that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has announced new guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities (Museums Set Stricter Guidelines for Acquiring Antiquities) which on the surface looked like the Association was moving with the main current towards tighter controls. All very laudable, but then under paragraph F it still allows its members "to make informed and defensible judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring such an object." I think that's known as a loophole.

And so to Cuno's book, which US blogger Lee Rosenbaum (in a break from her other job as a talented nightclub crooner) has described as "an intemperate screed".

She's right on the money. My main problem was having the nationalism card thrust down my throat. Most of the book is a desperate attempt to paint 'source nations' as 'hoarders' of objects found on their soil. Because all nations are 'mongrel', nobody can claim a right to retain anything, except, of course, the encyclopaedic museums which, we are encouraged to believe, are the natural home of all objects and the only place they can be properly appreciated and understood.

Cuno gives over most of the text to lengthy case studies of Turkey and China as cultural palimpsests, the multi-layering of historical events — war, imperial conquest, ethnic migration, and so on effectively undermining any modern claim to authentic ancestry and thus rendering their attempts to retain their antiquities as a manifestation of a malign nationalism. But it's not just Turkey and China; Cuno us highlighting what for him is a global trend.

Among the learned advocates Cuno calls upon in support of his thesis is Stanford Law School professor John Henry Merryman.

In an oft-quoted paper in the Journal of Cultural Property (12, 2005), which Cuno quotes again in his book, Merryman criticized the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the grounds that it "condones and supports the widespread practice of over-rentention or, less politely, hoarding of cultural property." (my emphasis) (Cuno, 2008, p34)

Professor Merryman might have tempered his ill-advised comment had he seen the results of a comprehensive survey published in the same year as his paper by the Washington-based Heritage Preservation organisation (The National Institute for Conservation), which can be read here: A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections.

The results of the survey were, to say the least, alarming, for they dramatised the precarious state of U.S. museum, library and archival collections, revealing them to be fundamentally unsustainable unless rapid and radical action is taken. Essentially it all comes down to storage. The evidence shows that U.S. museums are already unable to care for the collections they hold in public trust.

Rather than quote selectively from the report, a brief glance through its main findings (summarised in a pdf breakdown here) offers an eloquent rejoinder to Professor Merryman's impolite accusation of 'over-retention' and 'hoarding' by other States, developing nations and source communities.

It's conceivable, of course, that Professor Merryman was aware of the Heritage Preservation report but chose to treat it with the same disdain he and Cuno (right) reserve for UNESCO Conventions which have "no means to prevent destruction...and can only raise our awareness of what's at risk." Ergo: ignore them.

This hardly chimes with the new AAMD guidelines referred to above, which endorse the UNESCO 1970 Convention as a benchmark to follow.

Cuno's attack on "nationalist retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws" has another bleak side effect. For me it diminishes the power of the genius loci.

I remember on my first visit to Mexico walking into the National Museum of Anthropology and being deeply moved by the great Olmec heads. Travelling on to Veracruz, that head continued to resonate as a symbol of a distant people and culture. Its lasting power derived in no small measure from the fact that I saw it in Mexico. Yes, a mongrel modern 'nation' thousands of years removed from its pre-Columbian Olmec ancestors, but for me a far more relevant place to experience the surviving material culture of Mesoamerica than Washington, New York, Berlin, Paris or London.

The first half of the book is given over to brief object profiles of Shang dynasty bronzes, Benin brasses and Sicilian caskets, all objects from the Chicago Art Institute of which Cuno is director. The cultural property laws that might seek to repatriate (or retain) these or similar objects represent, in Cuno's eyes, "a failed regime" — a revealing use of neo-con geopolitical Pentagon-speak.

Given the current furore over Benin objects, this sentence (page xix) jumped off the page:

"Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures."

As for the risible suggestion that "the promise of the encyclopedic museum is an argument for their being everywhere" — tell that to developing nations struggling to feed themselves.

Finally, much of the first half of the book came across as a covert job application. I can't see Neil MacGregor leaving the British Museum any time soon, and Cuno is hardly a contender for Philippe de Montebello's soon-to-be-vacated throne at the Met. But I got a sense of him trying to promote himself through this book as a safe pair of hands for one of the big encyclopaedic museums that see themselves as increasingly beleaguered by "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws".

Related links
NPR radio item on the Heritage Preservation survey's findings here: U.S. Museum Collections in Dire Condition

Larry Rothfield's elegant and insightful critique of Cuno's book can be read here: James Cuno's Illogic

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