Tom Flynn on 'Why it’s right to repatriate certain museum artefacts: a response to James Cuno':
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.[...] 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.Flynn argues that 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 in a way that strengthens the ties between nations.
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.[...]There are a lot of other good and fresh points in Flynn's response to Cuno's stale old stuff. "Worth a read" as a Washington dealer gushed enthusiastically about the original text.
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.