Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cuno in Praise of "Encyclopaedic Museums" (Again)

Zombie argument rises
from the grave in time
for halloween
It is wrong to Repatriate Museum Artefacts says Getty's James Cuno, back to singing from his old and discredited songsheet from yesteryear ('Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
' Foreign policy Nov/Dec 2014). Disappointingly, we see the same old arguments trotted out:
governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image -- Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire.
Yes, and England, Scotland and Wales, the USA, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland and a about 180 countries like them have of course never done anything like that have they Mr Cuno? They are all immune to the allure of seeing their identity in some form of a shared past in your eyes? Come on, pull the other one and open your eyes. Another indication that the bloke has his blinkers on is the remark that, according to Cuno: "in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities"
Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still.
Not true. The picture of cultural flux represented by the array of objects in any national collection is really nothing of the kind. We have museum complexes which show cultural development of the culture of a country from prehistory to modern times in many big cities all over the world. Take Berlin, London, Washington, Warsaw, Paris, Madrid, Cairo as just a few examples that this attempt to pass nonsense off as a general truth is simply at odds with the facts. Cuno then trots out the tired old whine on "encyclopedic (sic) museums" which serve to "encourage curiosity about the world and its many peoples". Just a minute ago Cuno was arguing that objects do not represent peoples. Now he says they do. And so on. He proposed exactly the same ideas back in 2008, and seems not to have profited an iota from the subsequent discussion. So what's the point in discussing what he says? It is the same old old story as with other areas of the pro-collecting lobby - a complete waste of time trying to engage with their specious self-interested arguments.

Cuno in this text fails adequately to differentiate the two quite separate reasons why objects are "repatriated". the first is because they were acquired illicitly, immorally after the 1970 UNESCO guidelines. For this there is no excuse and the objects should in every case be forfeit. The other issue is stuff taken before 1970 which the 'source (exploited) entity would like back, please'. (I treat cases like this in my separate 'Cultural Property Repatriation' blog. I really cannot see why there is any confusion). I personally think such claims should be considered on their merits, and I assume that many of my readers will agree on this. Cuno obviously does not. He dismissively refers to calls for repatriation of some of them as  "frivolous" and "stubborn", and to "combative and sometimes dubious claims for restitution", even if the removed objects are now recognized as cultural property that a state deems to have “fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of [its] people”  taken out of a country through “colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation”. Cuno complains that
individual countries alone determine when something is part of their cultural heritage: there is no international institution with the authority to make that determination. A national government or state-backed entity can even declare a preceding state’s or regime’s self-proclaimed national cultural property idolatrous and destroy it, and there is nothing any other country or any international agency can do to stop it.
Lenin statues in Ukraine and post-independence Poland come to mind here. I wonder byt what right Cuno imagines he or anyone else has the right to decide what stands in our streets and public places and why. The whole point of the 1970 UNESCO Convention was as a recognition of states' right to self-determine its own heritage, not have Cuno or anyone else dictating from outside what it can and cannot be. Yet that is precisely how the US reads their accession as a state party to the Convention. They alone among states parties imagine it somehow gives them the 'right' to dictate to other states parties what they are allowed to treat as their heritage and how they are to go about protecting it at the dictates of Uncle Sam. Obviously that is an utter perversion of the aims of that Convention.

Cuno favours a client-patron relationship between the Oriental Gentlemen who have no 'encyclopedic museums' of their own and loans bestowed by the gracious patrons of the countries that have. No strings attached of course.  
For encyclopaedic museums to fulfil their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist.  
A laudable aim in itself, as long as they are stocked with objects of wholly (and demonstrably) licit provenance. Cuno suggests that a loan programme
would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopaedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism. These ideas can flourish everywhere, not only in the United States and Europe but wherever there is a spirit of inquiry about the world’s rich and diverse history. 
I would question whether museum displays of trophy objects exist somehow outside chauvinism of any kind, it seems to me that the accumulation of objects in the British Museum (note the name), the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty even seem to be carriers of message about the relationship of those who put them together and the heritage of the past which is represented by the objects in the collection. These collectors have appropriated the past to serve their own purposes. It may not at all times be labelled 'nationalism', but these accumulations are far from neutral in significance. Neither is the taunting suggestion that third world countries are failing to meet the standards (set from outside) of US-compliant 'enlightenment' if they do not strive for an encyclopaedic museum of their own.

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