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Book Review: “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage”

Last week, New York’s Metropolitan Museum announced that it will return 19 objects from King Tut’s tomb to Egypt – 19 small bits and fragments.  The Met has been quick to toot its own horn, saying the return of these objects was voluntary and that they were under no legal obligation to do anything.  But we’re not talking the Rosetta Stone here.  Nor the famous Nefertiti bust held in Berlin. Nor the incredible Haremhad statue detained at the Met. Nineteen trinkets is nothing to crow about. Ahhh but the magnanimous purveyos of culture will crow.

Stolen objects that reside in the great museums of the world are nothing more than a monument to imperialism and the days of overt exploitation.

And so I can finally announce that I succesfully scraped my way through James Cuno’s “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage”.  I swear to God it took me nearly two years. It’s a frustrating read.

Basically, Cuno, Director and President of the Art Institute of Chicago, proposes a return to “partage”. Partage is the idea that most archaeological resources excavated in Third World countries should end up in the land of the “experts”. That would be Europe or America.

Over the past thirty years, the idea of “partage” has given way to national laws and international conventions designed to keep antiquities in their nation of origin. Cuno wants to do away with all that.

From the Princeton Press website:

Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world’s leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. “Antiquities,” James Cuno argues, “are the cultural property of all humankind,” “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities–and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.

Controversy indeed. And Cuno doesn’t seem to be bothered by the controversy…nor does he seem bothered by showing himself to be an imperialistic ass.

In an AP interview from about 18 months ago Cuno stated:

“Historically, partage has not simply built the collections of the host nations of excavating teams. . . . It also built the local museums and their collections. The Baghdad Museum, Kabul, Cairo, were built through the process of sharing the finds that foreign excavators found.

“Partage encourages a broader understanding of the achievements of different ancient peoples, encouraging the sense that we all collectively have a stake in the preservation of this material.”

Sounds nice. But he also said:

“I think any of these modern nations can exercise a greater claim than any other nation on antiquities found within their jurisdiction. But not in terms of an identity with those ancient people. It is not on the basis that they are the modern heirs to the achievements of these ancient peoples, that they descend from them in any kind of continuous or natural way and that the modern culture is akin to the ancient culture.”

Wow. I nearly fell off my chair when I read that. Rarely do we see today such blatent cultural superiority (except from my friend Frank, a Canadian who seriously thinks the remaining Amazonian tribes would be served best if they were moved wholesale into apartment buildings in Sao Paolo or Lima).

My position as a professional archaeologist (no longer practicing) has long been that human remains and artifacts should be returned to the nations wherin they reside. I see, for example, no reason for the Elgin marbles to remain in London. They belong in Greece. In that process, however, there must be some careful consideration because we have to find a way to avoid some of the problems brought on by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) wherein remains have been returned to tribes who have no relation to those remains or where valuable scientific study has been stopped by a tribe that has no relation to the remains found on or near their current land. We also need to recognize that, as Cuno correctly points out, culture is a process not a thing and that culture developed and continues to develop through interaction between cultures and over trade routes.

It is a very fine line to walk. I do agree with Cuno that many of the national laws protecting cultural resources are based on an idea of static, nationally distinct cultures. However, preaching some sort of cultural superiority and entitlement adds nothing healthy to the debate.

(I should add that it bothers the hell out of me, for example, that China, with its very tight controls on antiquities leaving China has no problems with ancient Chinese items being bought and sold within China with no thought to where these items came from nor what they could tell researchers. And China certainly doesnt have a problem destroying someone else’s cultural heritage.)

Cuno revists the imperialist claim that modern nation-state ethnic groups have no claim on the actions and achievements of their ancestors:

“I think any of these modern nations can exercise a greater claim than any other nation on antiquities found within their jurisdiction. But not in terms of an identity with those ancient people. It is not on the basis that they are the modern heirs to the achievements of these ancient peoples, that they descend from them in any kind of continuous or natural way and that the modern culture is akin to the ancient culture.


This is a tired century-old canard that claims an ethnic group has only a tenuous tie to their ancestors. The notion of a “continuous and natural” descent is, IMHO, offensive and bigoted – reminiscent of some particularly odious racial theories from the 19th century which read a mixture of bloodlines as reason enough to dispute strong connections with ancestral pasts. What, after all, does Cuno mean by “a natural way”? Is language not enough for him? Sure, some nations use artifacts for political reinforcement of nationalist goals but is that reason enough to dismiss a people’s ethnic and cultural affinities with these same artifacts?

Return to the Elgin marbles, for instance. Cuno worries that cultural artifacts may be destroyed if located in a singular place. Yet Lord Elgin destroyed the marbles themselves in removing them, lost many in the Mediterranean, and the British Museum allowed patrons to dump wine on them during wild fundraisers. PAR-TAY! To insist on ‘spreading the wealth’ of the Parthenon marbles is as smart as perhaps cutting Jefferson’s face from the statue at the memorial and giving it to the Chinese. Or amputating the torch arm on the Statue of Liberty, and passing it to Sierra Leon (ooof…bad joke there, I know). And all the names on Vietnam War Memorial? Should we share them out with Vietnam?


The Parthenon still exists. The marbles are the frieze of the Parthenon. They certainly don’t belong in London. Period.

And have you taken a look at the new Acropolis Musuem? Stunning. The idea that countries can’t care for their own history is silly. If the West really cared, we’d help them build the proper facilities.

It is also rather bothersome that Cuno claims that the modern nations who want to retain their archaeological resources are nothing more than “nationalists”. Well, what does that make Cuno and his ilk? Worse than nationalists, me thinks. Attempting to parse cultural descendency is violently political.  It seems safest to eliminate that nationalisim infused scholarly hassle of who gets the goodies and let the countries where the artifacts lie take jurisdiction.  Wouldn’t the other way give Britain claim to Boston’s historical sites? Plymouth Rock? The French get Montreal. Spain gets the Southwest missions?

Throughout the book, Cuno doesn’t seem able to grasp why people in Greece, Italy, Africa and so on might want the stolen antiquities back. Nor does he seem to understand why they may want to prevent current and future theft. While the statements that these items may be better preserved in rich, stable countries with abundant resources seems noble, I found no offer to help build satisfactory preservation systems in the nations of origin.

One has to wonder if Cuno  (and Princeton!!) are more worried about what would be left in places like the Met or the Field Museum in Chicago if all antiquities (…more often than not acquired by rather dubious means…) were to be returned to their country of origin?

As with the Teabaggers, I think what we may be seeing here is a major whine from declining cultural imperialists who can’t bear the thought that their days of entitlement have come to an end.

Now its your turn to tell me why I’m wrong.

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