Friday, June 6, 2008

BM Rules… not OK

A museum friend has just sent me the transcript of an overheard conversation between a senior apparatchik at the British Museum (BM) and the representative of a source community (SC) discussing a claim by the source community to have some human remains returned which the BM holds and has never displayed or even examined for decades.

The remains have deep cultural significance to the source community. They were taken against the wishes and in violation of the beliefs of the source community during the days of Empire. This was a time when western collectors prized such trophy specimens for their own collections and to sell to the great public museums in London, Paris and Berlin.

The setting is a reception room near the Director’s office. Tea has been served in rather ornate cups.

BM: So, let me get this straight. You say that I’ve got stuff that belongs to you and you want it back?

SC: Yes, that is a pretty good summary. Except that we don’t call it stuff: what you have are our ancestors. These are people, who should come home.

BM: Really? How interesting. Bit of a ticklish one, that, for the BM, y’know. Returning things just isn’t our bag. Particularly if they’ve been stolen.

SC: Why not?

BM: Because this place is full to bursting with loot. It’s what makes us special. And important. Yes, globally special and important. If we started giving nicked stuff back, where would it all end, eh?

SC: But that doesn’t sound very fair or particularly moral.

BM: And your point is? Look, I don’t wish to appear unhelpful. Let us concede, just for the sake of argument, mind, that we do have something that is yours which we shouldn’t really have. And that the Law allows us to give it back. We can’t hand it over to you just like that, you know. No, no, no. That wouldn’t do at all.

SC: Oh. Why?

BM: Because we have Rules, dear fellow, Rules. And our Rules say that if we and my friends enjoy having your stuff here it’s not in the public interest to return it to its rightful owner. And what’s more, even if we’ve never used it but we think it might come in handy one day, same thing applies.

SC: That doesn’t sound very fair. Who wrote these Rules?

BM: We did.

SC: Ah. But are there no conditions under which you might give back what doesn’t belong to you?

BM: Funny you should mention that. Well, actually there are certain conditions under which we might, just might, give sympathetic and careful consideration to giving stuff back. No promises, mind.

SC: That sounds a bit more hopeful.

BM: Oh, I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you. Our Rules say that we only give things back if it fits our criteria for giving things back.

SC: Well, I’m sure there should be no problem there. We can prove it was ours and that it was stolen from us.

BM: Ha, ha, ha. That’s a good one. Very good. No that’s not the point at all, my dear fellow.

SC: Oh. So what is the point?

BM: Good question. The point is to make it as difficult as we can for you to get your stuff back, so we can keep it.

SC: I’m getting confused.

BM: Are you? Good. That’s also the point. But don’t lose heart, old thing. If you can meet our criteria, then we can give sympathetic and…

SC: “…careful consideration to giving it back” – yes, I heard that the first time.

BM: Excellent. You’re catching on. Anything else?

SC: The criteria for returning what doesn’t belong to you. I’d like to know what they are.

BM: Oh they’re really very straightforward. There are only two: 1. does your stuff glow in the dark? And 2. was the burglar wearing brown suede shoes when it was stolen from you?

SC: But that is absurd. Those criteria are completely irrelevant to our case.

BM: They may be irrelevant to you, old boy, and I’m sure you have a lovely country, wherever it is. But d’ye see, they are absolutely crucial to us in Bloomsbury.

SC: I find that hard to understand. They seem absurd wherever they are applied.

BM: My dear fellow, please understand that nothing is absurd in Bloomsbury. Absolutely nothing. Long tradition, you see. Let me explain. If they glow in the dark, it helps us to find them, because they’re in store with so much other stuff, and we haven’t got all day, you know. And any burglar who wears brown suede shoes is clearly beyond the pale, not one of us, and we wouldn’t wish to be associated with anything from such an obvious bounder.

SC: But I don’t know if they glow in the dark, and it’s most unlikely that we can find out what kind of shoes the person who stole them was wearing at the time.

BM: Then you seem to have a bit of a problem, old boy. More tea?

Such is the topsy turvy world of BM Rules.

"Terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art": the encyclopaedic museum comes of age

The Art Newspaper has just published an interesting piece by Kavita Singh (left), an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?).

In her article, Dr Singh describes extraordinary rumours circulating in 2007 prior to a planned exhibition of ancient Indian art from Bangladesh at the Musée Guimet, Paris. The museum was allegedly planning to under-insure the travelling objects, 'lose' them, pay the small insured sum and then clean up on a black market re-sale. In the event, a case of objects did go missing at Dhaka airport and the cargo-handlers confessed under torture and were prosecuted.

I can see a Hollywood script-writer reaching for his pen...

This is all very sensational, but what really interested me about Dr Singh's article was this paragraph:

The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us 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.

Perhaps this partly explains the frosty reception given to James Cuno's new book on nationalist trends in cultural property retention (published today, reviewed below), in which he maintains: "Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures."

I wish that were the case, but the ignoble means by which many western encyclopaedic collections were formed during the age of Empire flies in the face of such lofty precepts. It is a history not easily forgotten by former subaltern nations and is now too great a burden for the encyclopaedic museums to bear.

One interesting thing about the current stand-off over museums and cultural property is the growing tendency by museum representatives to exaggerate the demands and aspirations of the opposing side in order to discredit them. This artificially increases the distance between the two positions and diminishes the likelihood of reaching a compromise solution.

Thus Kavita Singh is impelled to insist that, despite her reservations, "the universal museum is worth preserving, not because this kind of museum is essential for us to get to know one another, but because it is a significant cultural phenomenon in itself. If we dismantle these museums we will never again be able to make museums of this sort."

Who said anything about dismantling them? Nobody. But James Cuno, Neil MacGregor, Philippe De Montebello, et al, would have everyone believe that this is the primary objective of the museum's critics, thereby forcing Dr Singh to distance herself from such an irrational notion.

Finally, Dr Singh's suggestion that the encyclopaedic museum could never be made again is surely correct. This contrasts with James Cuno's sunny insistence that new encyclopaedic museums should be established everywhere.

In other words, the only way to defend your own unsustainable conspicuous consumption is to recommend that everyone else start consuming in a similarly unsustainable way.

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