Who Owns Antiquity?

by on May 3, 2008 at 3:17 pm in Law | Permalink

If by chance a scholar came across the Rosetta Stone in a private collection, she would be discouraged from publishing it in today’s leading English-language, archaeological journals.  Those journals have policies against serving as "the initial place of publication or pronouncement" of any unprovenanced object acquired by an individual or institution after December 30, 1970, unless it was in a collection prior to that date, or there is evidence that it was legally exported from its country of origin…Not being acquired or published, and thus neither studied nor deciphered, the Rosetta Stone would be a mere curiosity, Egyptology as we know it would not exist…

That is from James Cuno’s excellent Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.  The book criticizes nationalistic identity politics, calls for measures to broaden international access to antiquities, and argues that museums should again be allowed to acquire undocumented antiquities.  In other words he favors a cosmopolitan, property rights approach.  Here is the book’s web page.  Here is an interview, with incisive questions.

1 ZBicyclist May 3, 2008 at 3:56 pm

If a scholar came across the Rosetta Stone in a private collection — he would probably do exactly what some scholars did with the Dead Sea Scrolls (which, note, are before the policy Cuno criticizes). Namely, sit on them for decades so nobody else gets access.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls
“…the documents from Cave 4, which represent 40% of the total finds. The publication of these had been entrusted to an international team led by Father Roland de Vaux … This group published the first volume of the material entrusted to them in 1968, but spent much of their energies defending their theories regarding the materials, instead of publishing them.

“Geza Vermes, who had been involved from the start in the editing and publication of these documents, blamed the delay—and eventual failure—on de Vaux’s selection of a team unsuited to the quality of work he had planned, as well as relying on “his personal, quasi-patriarchal authority” to control the completion of the work.

“As a result, a large part of the finds from Cave 4 were not made public for many years.”

Actually, I would guess things are a lot better now since high quality digital photography can easily be put in a digital archive. That won’t work for all scholarly endeavors, but it will for a lot of them. I would guess it would work very well for something like the Rosetta Stone.

2 anon May 3, 2008 at 6:44 pm

To the rest of the world the almost exclusively North American position that “Antiquities … are the cultural property of all humankind” looks pretty similar to just dressed-up legitimising of looting. Ask any informed Iraqui about the loss of treasures as the state crumbled through the sanctions years of the 1990s (let alone developments since 2003), and then take a hard look at the unscrupulous growth of corresponding collections at the Metropolitan. It’s not a pretty story, however well dressed up, and it’s easy to proclaim that “what’s yours is ours” when you don’t have much of an antiquity of your own.

3 happyjuggler0 May 3, 2008 at 8:58 pm

WW(I)JD?

[What Would Indiana Jones Do?]

“It belongs in a museum”.

4 mouse May 3, 2008 at 11:14 pm

–To the rest of the world the almost exclusively North American position that “Antiquities … are the cultural property of all humankind” looks pretty similar to just dressed-up legitimising of looting.

Yeah, except it’s not just North America–it’s Europe, too. And when Western Civilization legitimizes such “looting”, funny how
a: the treasures get preserved and restored
b: the treasures become accessible to millions of people

Show me how Saddam Hussein gave a damn about making sure anyone other than his clan ever saw any of his country’s antiquities and maybe you’d have a point. Look at how Egypt cannot save its Pyramids or the Sphinx. Look at the great job letting the Taliban be in charge of their region’s antiquities worked out, and maybe I’d care if “we” are “looters” who put things in museums open to the world’s public.

5 Dennis Mangan May 4, 2008 at 12:12 am

“Ah yes, about time the White Man’s Burden argument was trotted out. Mouse, artifacts of a culture’s history are not a circus sideshow to be some part of a $10 show and tell. If it is so important for the West to preserve these items, surely they can assist with money and expertise without shipping them overseas?”

So you not only want to keep the antiquities, you think that the man ought to be paying you off because.. well, I’m not sure why. Oh, you guys don’t have the expertise either…

6 jb May 4, 2008 at 1:56 am

Egypt’s and Greece’s antiquities are alright for them to claim, as are the Mayan sites in Guatemala, but a lot of the Iraqi antiquities are from Sassanid or Achamenid Persia. Where do the modern Iraqis, descendents of the conquerors of the area they now live in, get off claiming cultural ownership of the people they dispossessed, or the people the people they dispossessed dispossessed?

The same can be said for Roman ruins in Hungary/Turkey/Syria/North Africa, if people in those places are also complaining. Your ancestors didn’t build it, you have no claim on it.

7 karl May 4, 2008 at 12:52 pm

at leat are only stone.In the countries of the andean community biological research is forbideen without natives permissionns. They own nature. Supposedly trasnational will steale their ancient recipes. Wich onesa their life expectancy is 20 years for a man 15 for a woman

8 taj May 4, 2008 at 3:28 pm

(Sorry about the lack of parabreaks – I don’t know why my browser is doing it).

I guess I am getting a bit indignant because it seems folks are missing what is clear to me – historical artifacts are, at a simplistic level, no different a national resource from oil, minerals or biomass. Nobody would consider giving up their land for free to someone else to dig for oil because they are incapable of doing it themselves, so why treat antiquities differently?

Or to put it another way, world over countries say, “pay us or the oil never leaves the ground.” I see no difference.

9 Tracy W May 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Mouse, artifacts of a culture’s history are not a circus sideshow to be some part of a $10 show and tell.

Why not? As someone who has spent $10, €10, £10 etc for show and tell shows, and has gotten a great deal of value out of them, this seems quite a sensible approach to me.

10 DR. KWAME OPOKU June 7, 2008 at 2:35 pm

WILL CUNO AND CO EVER LEARN?

Cuno is a defender of the so-called “universal museums†, now called “encyclopedic museums” and perhaps more correctly, imperialistic or totalitarian museums. The museum that never has enough of anything and seeks a total control of all cultural objects by all means, including the use of force by the army of the country where the museum is situated-Louvre, British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. These museums now lament the end of the imperialistic and colonial period in which they amassed most of their stock. This was the period when the Europeans could take virtually from any country what ever cultural object they desired. That period is, mercifully, at an end and Cuno and co are agitating for the return to that system, so-called partage system which enabled the Europeans to take away massive archaeological objects from countries like Egypt. Cuno labels those who seek the return of the stolen cultural objects as nationalists but what about those who fight to keep the objects in the museums of the West, are they internationalists or what?
This new book does not advance in anyway the debate about the restitution of cultural objects. On the contrary it will only help to solidify the known positions. That leading museum directors do not understand the desire of Africans and Asians to recover their stolen cultural objects, is a sad commentary on the cultural landscape of the world. The perspective would have appeared better without the addition of this book which will only serve as additional object for heated controversies and it comes from a museum director of one of the leading museums of the Western world.
Kwame Opoku. 22 May,2008.

11 DR. KWAME OPOKU June 7, 2008 at 2:36 pm

WILL CUNO AND CO EVER LEARN?

Cuno is a defender of the so-called “universal museums†, now called “encyclopedic museums” and perhaps more correctly, imperialistic or totalitarian museums. The museum that never has enough of anything and seeks a total control of all cultural objects by all means, including the use of force by the army of the country where the museum is situated-Louvre, British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. These museums now lament the end of the imperialistic and colonial period in which they amassed most of their stock. This was the period when the Europeans could take virtually from any country what ever cultural object they desired. That period is, mercifully, at an end and Cuno and co are agitating for the return to that system, so-called partage system which enabled the Europeans to take away massive archaeological objects from countries like Egypt. Cuno labels those who seek the return of the stolen cultural objects as nationalists but what about those who fight to keep the objects in the museums of the West, are they internationalists or what?
This new book does not advance in anyway the debate about the restitution of cultural objects. On the contrary it will only help to solidify the known positions. That leading museum directors do not understand the desire of Africans and Asians to recover their stolen cultural objects, is a sad commentary on the cultural landscape of the world. The perspective would have appeared better without the addition of this book which will only serve as additional object for heated controversies and it comes from a museum director of one of the leading museums of the Western world.
Kwame Opoku. 22 May,2008.

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