Friday, November 9, 2012

Your weekend watching: James Cuno on Cultural Property

Thanks to Kwame Opoku for alerting me to this video (below) of a recent discussion between James Cuno and Maxwell Anderson on Museums and Cultural Property.

It begins with an extraordinarily politicized preamble from Getty CEO James Cuno who accuses countries seeking the return of their cultural objects of politicized nationalist agendas. His own agenda — to refuse to return objects acquired by Western imperial nations during the imperial era that are now in American museums — professes to be apolitical but is revealed here as rabidly political in its suspicion of those countries seeking an equitable share of cultural heritage (particularly of those objects taken from their lands).

Cuno is right, the Euphronius krater, recently returned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York to Italy (from where it was illicitly removed during the 1970s) is indeed Greek rather than Italian in origin. But that does not mean that an American museum has a greater right to own it and display it (and benefit from the cultural tourism it helps generate as a consequence) than an Italian Museum.

This is the basic problem with Cuno's argument. He is right that culture is essentially "mongrel" and hybrid, but he is yet to offer credible reasons why America has a more legitimate right to keep and curate the world's cultural heritage than any other nation. In the absence of those reasons, his championship of encyclopaedic museums as the legitimate Enlightenment-born stewards of the world's cultural heritage will continue to look like nothing less than nationalism of a different sort.

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