Thursday, October 30, 2008

"An example of US cultural imperialism at its worst"

Roger Bland of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has published a hard-hitting review article of James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? ("What's yours is mine"), in the London Review of Books (November 6, 2008). Bland shows that Cuno has missed the point by concentrating on ownership:
Archaeologists' principal complaint is not that objects belong in the countries where they were made but that their uncontrolled trade is a major cause of the destruction of archaeological sites across the world.
Bland's wording could be tightened. The Euphronios krater has been returned to the country (Italy) where it was found rather than to the country (Greece) where it was made. And this is true for the batch of Athenian, Laconian and Corinthian pots that have been returned to Italy.

There is discussion of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, noting, "the real significance of the Unesco convention is that it shows the signatory states are serious about curbing the illicit trade in antiquities". He places this in the context of the UK's legislation including the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. Bland also notes the growing problem of looting from eastern Europe.

Bland is critical of Cuno's approach:
Cuno makes no attempt to deal with the issue that most concerns archaeologists: the loss of information caused by the unscientific removal of objects from their native contexts. As an art historian, Cuno cannot see beyond the physical beauty of the artefacts that appear for sale, often with no information about their provenance.
Indeed Bland does not mince his words:
Cuno speaks as someone who feels that he should be free to acquire the artefacts of other cultures since his country has no culture of its own.
Given recent discussions of bronzes from Benin in relation to the Art Institute of Chicago, this comment rings true.

There is one correction needed for the review. The Turkish Government has not, as far as I know, been able to retrieve the upper part of the "Weary Herakles" once owned by Leon Levy and Shelby White (and now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston inv. 1981.783). The mention of the Lydian treasure is significant given the recent appearance of an apparent further piece at auction in Bonhams (and subsequently withdrawn).

Bland delivers a knockout final paragraph:
Who Owns Antiquity? is an example of US cultural imperialism at its worst. Cuno's assertion that people's desire to 'present their cultural heritage in their own territory' reflects 'self-interest on the part of "source" nations and those who support their claims' is breathtakingly arrogant in the light of the tremendous damage done in so many countries from Cambodia to Peru by a traffic in antiquities aimed at satisfying the demands of collectors and museums in the West.

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