Saturday 2 May 2009

Opoku on the Unfulfilled Promise of the Next Cuno Book from Princeton

Readers of the Cultural Resource Preservation literature cannot fail to have noticed that last year James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago published a book Who Owns Antiquity? (2008) which was met with many serious criticisms (see a list of reviews in Looting Matters). Instead of answering these, Cuno subsequently over the next few months wrote a number of articles which merely reiterated the same arguments. Now his publisher has released another book of collected articles under Cuno’s editorship (several of which are outdated reprints) apparently making very much the same points, suggesting it is intended to provide a cover for the gaffe of writing the first book.

This work, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (2009) has apparently been written with the intent of challenging “the perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods and to argue instead that our public museums build their antiquities collections responsibly and for the public’s benefit”. This is all well and good, if museums really are acquiring their exhibits responsibly and curating them properly, then nobody has any doubt that museums are beneficial institutions in many regards. Institutions, indeed, with “promise”. What is in question, however, is the degree to which museums (worldwide) have been fulfilling these obligations over the past few decades. Clearly though, the answer is not simply to encourage the no-questions-asked collecting of so-called portable antiquities in scattered and ephemeral personal collections, which is what (as we all know) the pro-collecting lobby will be using Cuno’s book for, despite this not being the author’s intention.

Cuno's new book has just received a lengthy review by the indefatigable Kwame Opoku. (Whose “Universal Museum”? Comments on James Cuno’s “Whose Culture”?). Like most of his recent texts on these issues, it is a good read, (but a lengthy “fresh-pot-of-coffee, plump-up-the-cushions-first” one).

Dr Opoku is as we all know primarily interested in the restitution to their original cultural context of items taken from other countries (especially Africa) as a result of colonial attitudes – and their hoarding by the retentionist countries that hold them in their museums and will not give them back (which is an expression of the continuance of those attitudes). What is interesting though is the degree to which he finds that Cuno’s arguments for the continued expansion of “universal museums” overlap with those of private collectors of decontextualised archaeological artifacts as objects of commerce. It is therefore of interest to me because to a high degree the comments critical of Cuno apply equally to the views of the so-called “collectors rights” lobby in general.

In reading Opoku’s text, I highlighted a few fragments of text which I found significant from the latter point of view, and I'd like to add a few comments of my own to whet he wrote, so this is a sort of a review of a review. I am not sure I will be buying the latest of Cuno’s books, getting every single new work like this over here is an expensive game. Despite the advance of the discussion around them, it would seem that the pro-collecting literature also seems to be getting very repetitive and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Opoku starts off with a discussion of Cuno’s “Introduction” to the volume. He states: “The editor of Whose Culture? has an astonishing way of presenting statements that are wrong or only partially correct as if they described the obvious plain truth that everybody would accept without hesitation” and then discusses a few of them. These apparently include the tired old suggestion that modern societies really should have no claim to the archaeological heritage in the soil of the land they inhabit as they are not genetic descendants of the “vanished cultures”. This argument of the ‘Cunoites’ is of course the result of the application of nineteenth century views of identity based on genetic descent. It totally fails to take into account that in many branches of the humanities, after several decades of penetrating discussion of identity and ethnicity, we see the problem as a far more complex one including ideas about power of place and shared responsibility for care of the historic environment – developments that private collectors in general simply do not wish to consider.

Opoku writes: “Cuno is obviously a past master in misrepresenting the argument of others and in displacing the weight of the argument in directions that distort the real issue. He continues to misrepresent the main argument of the archaeologists against illegal diggings and the acquisition of unprovenanced objects. He creates the impression that archaeologists are against the acquisition of looted objects or objects without clear histories because they consider them to be of no great value or as not providing any valuable information”. Dr Opoku is no archaeologist, but can see the fallacy of this argument – as one would hope most educated people (the ones who are not portable antiquity collectors) can. Opoku realizes that the main concern of archaeologists “is that illegal diggings or looting deprive us of the possibility of studying artefacts in their context and that by removing these objects we lose valuable information which may never be recovered. Furthermore, the purchase of objects without clear history encourages plunder […]”. In a nutshell.

Opoku says that having ignored that issue totally, the art institute director “takes some pages examining famous objects which, according to present standards, were procured without any clear history, out of their context but have nevertheless provided useful information about the societies that produced them” including the Laocoön and Rosetta Stone as “examples of […] objects [that] would be, according to Cuno, regarded as meaningless by archaeologists and rejected as unprovenanced by today’s standards”. Really? Are archaeologists such an ignorant bunch of oiks that any of them actually would “reject” such items as “meaningless”? My question is however what meaning Mr Cuno would see in a rimsherd of Dragendorff form 29 terra sigillata? (One of my personal favourites and relatively chronologically and functionally distinct), or a coarseware cooking pot base with burnt food residue in it.

Opoku rightly observed that the function of Cuno’s paper tiger argument is to shift the weight of the argument of the archaeologists “from the damage and loss that unlawful digging causes to archaeological sites and placed on the value of the single object or objects looted”. As Dr Opoku points out, this seems like the sort of twisted logic we hear all to often from the pro-collecting bunch, who simply fail to address the core issues (and one cannot but conclude that this is deliberate).

Opoku points out that the common ploy of the pro-collectors’ “rights” lobby of placing all the blame for their woes on (“elitist, ivory tower”) “archaeologists” who – it is argued - have some other “agenda” than merely preserving archaeological sites from plundering, is also a false one. “What is not said in all these comments is that it is not only the archaeologists who wish to preserve such sites but also lawyers, administrators and a whole lot of others”. I would guess many educated members of the public too would prefer the archaeological heritage from the countryside around their homes being used to enrich knowledge about the history of the area (for them, their children and children’s children), rather than merely helping contribute to the back-payments on some antiquity seller’s new Porsche.

Opoku notes that “the retentionists of looted artefacts, have a very remarkable facility of attributing to all those who seek the recovery of their cultural artefacts a political motivation or design. This is assigned without any reference or relevant information from the persons concerned but solely on the basis of the statement of the retentionists”. An example of this is the alleged way in which laws protecting the archaeological heritage serve “to support a state’s nationalist political agenda: its claim on cultural continuity since antiquity […] archaeology and antiquities at the service of modern nationalist identity politics”. As Opoku notes, “it is doubtful whether many intelligent people would accept this misleading picture by Cuno and his supporters”. I wonder how many of Cuno’s supporters in the collecting world would care to apply his arguments to the USA’s own 1979 Archaeological Resource Protection Act and the fates of the cultures of various groups of Native Americans. That certainly would place a different slant on a model which so far is (disgracefully) being applied by US collectors only to the culture and identity of an “other”. Opoku summarises his comments by saying that Cuno’s introduction “clearly does not provide anything new except more attacks on the archaeologists and those he regards as nationalists”. Nothing new in that then, that is all the pro-collecting lobby can manage also.

In order to bolster his own atavistic views, Cuno enlists the help of a few similar-thinking museum directors and scholars, the first part called (collectors should note) “The Value of Museums”, consists of articles by Neil Macgregor, Phillipe de Montebello (both originally delivered at a 2006 Association of Art Museum Directors conference), and Kwame Anthony Appiah (the latter as David Gill has noted is a reprint of an article available online here).

The second part of the book (entitled “The Value of Antiquities”) contains three texts pointing out what in the views of their authors we can learn from unprovenanced artefacts, even if we do not know their archaeological context. James C.Y.Watt (Chairman of the Metropolitan's Department of Asian Art ) apparently reckons (“Antiquities and the Importance - and Limitations - of Archaeological Contexts”) that archaeological context is more important in the case of early historical periods but this importance diminishes with time and “after arriving at a critical point in the accumulation of archaeological data of a certain type of site of a certain period, further excavation data becomes (sic) superfluous” (!). As an archaeologist, both of these reported statements seem utter nonsense to me - does he really say this? The contribution by Sir John Boardman, entitled “Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums” is another of those reprints so adds nothing we’ve not heard before to the debate, it is a repeat of his criticism of fellow archaeologists (not all of it undeserved) we are already familiar with from this classicist. I’ll probably discuss the notions behind the third (Owen) in another post here.

Part Three is called “Museums, Antiquities, and Cultural Property” which has three texts purporting to examine the nature of cultural heritage and the underlying philosophical and political currents. Two of its three articles ( Gillman and Merryman) are also reprints.

Dr Opoku criticizes Cuno for his statement “Some readers will be disappointed that not “all sides” of the debate are presented here. It is our view that other books already do this and well enough that we needn’t repeat the “both sides of the argument” formula here”. He comments that this statement of Cuno “sounds like an open abandonment of all pretence to objectivity and impartiality”. I see nothing wrong in this. Many onlookers may of course be undecided and confused by opposing arguments they cannot place comfortably in context maybe. Nobody seriously involved in the discussion can seriously claim to be impartial in this debate where totally opposing interests are confronted in the no-questions-asked market and collecting of portable antiquities. What however is disappointing is that there already other books (including Kate Fitz Gibbon (ed.) Who owns the past: Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law - Rutgers University Press 2005) which presents the ACCP/ collectors’ “rights” arguments in an equally partisan manner (just as there are many more which present the views of the resource conservation lobby), but Cuno and Princeton University Press have in effect produced nothing new. It’s the same old arguments, the same dialogue of the deaf, the same pars pro toto and straw man constructions being churned out – and totally ignoring the fact that a number of perfectly pertinent questions were raised in response to Who Owns Antiquity? One may only charitably suspect that for some reason Princeton had signed a contract with Cuno for this second book well before the extent of the critical comment on the first book became obvious. Does this mean we can expect a third one in the series? A Cuno Trilogy where in the final (?) one Cuno does his best in the spirit of academic enquiry (as would befit a book published by Princeton University Press) to seriously address at last the questions raised by the first two?

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