Why it’s right to repatriate certain museum artefacts: a response to James Cuno

Tom Flynn Blogspot 23 October 2014


The position of James Cuno on the status of art and artefacts in the world’s ‘encyclopaedic’ museums will be familiar to anyone who has followed the culture wars raging between museums and so-called ‘source nations’ in recent years. 

Mr Cuno has just issued another typically muscular broadside from the comfort of his presidential office at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Most of it is wearily familiar — it’s what you might call Fiat Cuno Mark II. His most recent article was published by ‘Foreign Affairs’, the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, which might suggest that western museums and their collections have moved from being little more than a conversational amuse-bouche to be rolled around the tongue at posh Washington dinner parties, to a more meaty issue at the heart of American foreign policy.

This is particularly telling when one considers the deep structural damage done to ancient cultural heritage as a consequence of American and coalition interventions into the Middle East in recent decades. The widespread looting and illicit trade in archaeological objects that became a bi-product of those catastrophic military adventures are now reaching an even more critical level. Research has shown that the looting of archaeological sites and the movement of cultural objects onto world markets is now helping to fund ISIL’s advances in northern Iraq and Syria.  
Against this backdrop, it is more than a little alarming to hear the president and CEO of one of the most important cultural institutions in North America arguing against the repatriation of material culture from encyclopaedic museums. One would think the President of the Getty Trust would know better than to pronounce on this topic when the Getty Museum has itself been implicated in one of the most controversial cases of illicit trade. 

In a nutshell, Cuno’s position comes down to this: those nations and communities around the world who are calling for the repatriation of the cultural objects taken from them in past eras and which now adorn western universal museums are motivated by a pernicious strain of nationalism that threatens to denude the Louvre, in Paris; the British Museum, in London; the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, and other institutions that are the great legacy of the European Enlightenment. One could nuance his argument further, but there is no need: like all blunt instruments it is hoped that if struck home repeatedly and with sufficient force it will do the job.

Cuno is the author and editor of a number of books of polemical essays designed to shore up what he sees as the increasingly beleaguered edifice of the universal museum. The frequency of his publications and their tone of barely disguised irritation says much about the fear of loss that has become a leitmotif of modern museological discourse. (For a discussion of the genealogy of this particular strain of fear see my recently published essay, ‘Fear of Cultural Objects’, in Sandis, C. (Ed.) Cultural Heritage Ethics (Open Book Publishers, 2014). 

How real is the threat of loss so frequently invoked by leading museum directors like James Cuno? Are western encyclopaedic museums really in danger of being denuded? To suggest that the return of controversial objects such as the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum would open the floodgates to a systematic emptying out of national collections across the developed world is tantamount to admitting that the majority of objects in those collections were illicitly or forcibly removed from their countries of origin. Everyone knows that is not the case. So what’s going on? Why have James Cuno, Ian McGregor of the British Museum and their colleagues at other encyclopaedic museums embarked on a rearguard action to shore up their strongholds? What are they afraid of?

Even were the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens, the British Museum and the other great encyclopaedic museums would remain great centres of education, pleasure and yes, of enlightenment. The benefits they bestow are appreciated even by those who hold to a counter-Enlightenment world view that seeks to preserve the qualities of mystery, irrationality and magic at the core of human existence that the European Enlightenment sought to dispel. The argument in favour of the selective repatriation or reunification of specific objects is motivated not by a desire to dismantle the encyclopaedic museums but rather to arrive at a fairer distribution of the world’s cultural heritage and to right just a few historical wrongs. Returning certain objects whose original removal involved brutality against a people, or against an ancient site or monument, is surely a noble aim. It is not an expression of nationalism but rather a desire to make whole what has been rent asunder and in doing so to strengthen the ties between nations. The accusation that nationalism is at the heart of these requests divides rather than unites and perpetuates the sense of distance and misunderstanding engendered by the colonial past. Furthermore, the nationalism card could just as easily be levelled at the encyclopaedic museums themselves. 

Here is what Cuno says about those governments requesting return of their heritage: “Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image.”

Now here is that same sentence again, but adapted and ventriloquised by me on behalf of those nations: “Many of these encyclopaedic museums use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image.” It works, doesn’t it?
What is striking fear into the hearts of western museum directors is not a fear of losing their Marbles, their kraters, their altars, busts and statues; rather it is a displaced anxiety about how repatriation might symbolise the declining status of the once all-powerful western nations they represent. The museum, and what it contains, is the most visible and eloquent expression of the western nations’ imperial past. As geopolitical developments shift the axis of wealth generation and economic power from West to East, so to speak, so the need to cleave to the material evidence of the colonial era grows ever more urgent. Hence the willingness of the Council of Foreign Relations to host Cuno’s latest polemic.

At the heart of the debate over material culture and the future of the encyclopaedic museum are the multiple economic benefits of cultural tourism. Frequently overlooked are the significant positive externalities accruing to the retention of the Parthenon Marbles by the British Museum in London; the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin; or the Benin bronzes in the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The increasingly clamorous calls by ‘source nations’ for repatriation of a few important objects is not a desire to affirm an atavistic connection to an archaic national identity, as Cuno claims (although even if it were, what is wrong with that?). It is motivated as much by a yearning to write, through their surviving material culture, the rich narrative of their historical development — and ours — from their ancient past to the present. The retention by Western museums of most of the key examples of world culture is also to retain the power and authority to write those narratives from a Western perspective. It is hardly surprising that for many source nations the whiff of colonialism lingers in the corridors of our encyclopaedic museums. 

Amal Alamuddin Clooney and Geoffrey Robertson in Athens  
Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
James Cuno has been relatively quiet on this topic since assuming the presidency of the J. Paul Getty Trust in 2011, so why has he chosen the present moment to issue a fresh volley against the persistent calls for repatriation? Hollywood may be the short answer. The intervention of human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin into the Parthenon Marbles dispute has taken the issue of reunification of the Marbles to a new level. Ms Alamuddin’s entry into the most controversial cultural heritage stand-off appears to stem from her recent marriage to actor George Clooney, who uttered an off-the-cuff opinion on the Marbles during a press conference to promote his film, The Monuments Men. His throwaway comment has reignited the Parthenon controversy but whether it will serve finally to help liberate those extraordinary objects from the sepulchre of the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum is debatable.

Ms Alamuddin’s recent visit to Athens sparked a wave of fevered speculation that the Greeks may now be considering resorting to some form of litigation to resolve the issue of the Marbles. Accompanying her in Athens were her London boss Geoffrey Robertson QC, and Professor Norman Palmer, the UK’s most illustrious art and cultural heritage lawyer, who recently re-launched his discreet art and cultural heritage dispute resolution service, ArtResolve. The high-profile media reception granted to this formidable triumvirate on their arrival in Athens may have set alarm bells ringing in Bloomsbury, New York, Berlin, Paris and, it would seem, Los Angeles, California.

Most people familiar with the Parthenon Marbles, with their art historical significance, the circumstances of their acquisition and their subsequent history will already have concluded that to litigate over the issue would be a serious misjudgment. Such an action might enrich a few barristers but it would be most unlikely to result in the outcome that Athens desires. Judges are too often found wanting over the intricacies of art law disputes, but the real reason this particular debate would founder in a court of law is because it goes to the heart of the British Establishment. The implications are simply too profound for it to be resolved in any way other than in favour of the British Museum. That is not to say that the argument for retention is superior to that for return. When considered on ethical, artistic and cultural grounds, as opposed to those of legal title, the case for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles is compelling. One requires no more evidence for this than the fact that every time a poll is taken and the public is provided with the unvarnished facts of the case, the overwhelming majority votes for return. This alone demonstrates the extent to which the British Museum is failing to act in accordance with the wishes and sensibilities of the people it purports to serve. Were the case of the Marbles to go to law and the Greek case to fail, as it surely would if scrutinised purely on legal grounds, it would put the case for reunification back generations, not to say kill it off once and for all. 

If Ms Alamuddin has the razor-sharp legal instinct for which she has become so respected, she will not be advising the Greeks to venture up the treacherous slopes to law. Instead she will be urging them to keep pursuing the difficult, circuitous path of cultural diplomacy. That is the direction in which global public opinion has been heading for decades, arguing for reunification with ever more passion and unanimity. 

I am writing this on my Apple laptop which has the usual character recognition software built into its keyboard. Every time I type Ms Alamuddin’s name, the computer defaults to Aladdin. She will need to give the Greeks more than a lamp to rub if they are to stand any chance of countering the  paranoiac power of the encyclopaedic museum.
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