Saturday 14 March 2009

Cuno makes myths

“Science news” (“the magazine of the society for science and the public”) has a highly misleading interview by Janet Raloff with James Cuno. This of addresses none of the wider issues but is largely devoted to a criticism of the implications of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which Cuno says “hinders access for museums” in the US and Europe to desirable collectable items of unclear provenance. Oh dear.

This article seems a clear case where uninformed “science journalist” met uninformed art institute director. Firstly the interview makes reference to something called “ the UNESCO 1970 treaty on looting of archaeological sites”… which not surprisingly has “not stopped looting of sites” (because there is of course no such UNESCO "treaty"). Hmm. It is a shame that the Oxford Archaeology team writing the report on the illegal use of metal detectors in the United Kingdom or those currently trying to combat the illegal artefact hunting in Germany did not speak to Mr Cuno, who "knows" and would have told them not only is looting on the increase, but illegal artefact hunters “are desperate people doing desperate things. In situations of a failed economy, a failed government, the absence of civil society, internecine warfare, sectarian violence, drought — whatever — conditions emerge that can create pressures for looting.” Yep, that’s the UK and Germany in a nutshell, spot on Mr Cuno.

Cuno says that if ethical museums have stopped buying items of dubious provenance, “like water on a leaky roof, looted artifacts are finding the path of least resistance to a buyer somewhere”. So according to Cuno, it is no-questions-asked private collectors, unethical museums and those that sell to them that are now financing the looting. That is what some of us have been saying all along. This has been strenuously denied by dealers and collectors of no-questions-asked ancient “collectables” (aka decontextualised archaeological evidence from irreparably damaged archaeological contexts). We have recently seen a rash of Cuno-wannabes in the portable collecting world repeating his various generalizations and platitudes as mantras since the publication of his “who owns antiquity” with its throwback arguments. Let’s see if they take this one on board too.

In the “Science news” interview, Cuno discusses why he claims that the treaty (sic) gives a false view of history.”….:

The preface of UNESCO 1970 implies there is no difference between the nationals of a modern state and the ancient peoples that made things that have been excavated from the soils of modern states. The argument seems to be that these people share a “collective genius”—one that might be racial or ethnic or cultural. And that the shared genius is particular to the people, both ancient and modern. But that argument was made by politicians, not by scientists.
In discussing issues with the pro-collecting lobby that we are constantly faced with special pleading, unreflexive platitudes, self-delusion and half truths. We seem here too to be dealing with a hopeless case of just that. On reading that anybody who knows what the 1970 Convention actually says might even be forgiven for asking whether the director of Chicago’s art institute can actually read. This is what the preface of the 1970 UNESCO convention on Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property actually SAYS:

The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, meeting in Paris from 12 October to 14 November 1970, at its sixteenth session,

Recalling the importance of the provisions contained in the Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Co-operation, adopted by the General Conference at its fourteenth session,

Considering that the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural and educational purposes increases the knowledge of the civilization of Man, enriches the cultural life of all peoples and inspires mutual respect and appreciation among nations,

Considering that cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding is origin, history and traditional setting,

Considering that it is incumbent upon every State to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export,

Considering that, to avert these dangers, it is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations,

Considering that, as cultural institutions, museums, libraries and archives should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognized moral principles,

Considering that the illicit import, export and transfer of
ownership of cultural property is an obstacle to that understanding between nations which it is part of UNESCO’s mission to promote by recommending to interested States, international conventions to this end,

Considering that the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organized both nationally and internationally among States working in close co-operation,

Considering that the UNESCO General Conference adopted a Recommendation to this effect in 1964,

Having before It further proposals on the means of prohibiting
and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, a question which is on the agenda for the session as item 19,

Having decided, at its fifteenth session, that this question should be made the subject of an international convention,

Adopts this Convention on the fourteenth day of November 1970.

Now where actually does it say that “there is no difference between the nationals of a modern state and the ancient peoples that made things that have been excavated from the soils of modern states” where is there a reference here to any “collective genius” (sic) racial or ethnic or cultural or that this is particular to the people, both ancient and modern? It seems to me that this convention is talking about spatial rather than ethnic aspects, in terms of public property rather than Ahnenerbe.

What Cuno is reported as saying in the "Science news" article is pure fantasy. It is disturbing to see this glib myth making still breaking out months after his earlier efforts to articulate his atavistic views, despite the numerous reviews and discussions of Cuno’s book where this has been pointed out. In fact, if one actually READS the preface of the 1970 Convention, it is clear it has precisely the same aims as Cuno says his universal antiquity collections have. What is preventing it from being as effective as it might is the current unaccountable no-questions-asked trade in portable antiquities.
vignette from ""

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

I see David Gill also commented on this interview yesterday

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