Cuno has now responded on the Princeton University Press blog: "Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong?", January 27, 2009.
He poses the question:
“Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”Cuno considers the place of the bronze horses of San Marco in Venice, removed from Constantinople - and who knows where before then. But this is not an example of recent looting from an archaeological site.
A second historic example is provided by the Parthenon sculptures. Yet to turn from this monument to mount an attack on the motives of Greek claims on archaeological material shows a lack of rigour in Cuno's thinking. Is it "Greek nationalism" (as Cuno terms it) to ask for the return of a bronze sculpture, a funerary stele, a gold wreath, and a bronze krater that appear to have been looted in recent years? Are the requests driven by a desire to protect our universal cultural heritage? Yet he is silent on such returns.
Cuno returns to one of his favoured themes, the encyclopedic or universal museum:
Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, serve as a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world. They remind us of the connections that course through history and manifest themselves in the objects we prize for their beauty, eloquence, and fresh strangeness. They remind us that culture is always living culture, always changing the way we see the world, and always transforming us, ourselves, into the bargain.Cuno forgets that such museums remind us of the collecting process (or "provenance" as some choose to describe it). The display of Benin bronzes in such museums reminds me, and I am sure others, of the African defenders of Benin city mown down by Maxim guns as British troops took part in the Benin Punitive Expedition. This does not fall into my definition of tolerance.
A second question introduced Cuno's piece - but is left unanswered.
The more vexing and urgent one — how can we prevent the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities -– is not the topic of this article.Yet this is exactly the question behind his second section which notes:
The government of Italy claims that all antiquities found within the borders of the modern state of Italy were made by cultures autonomous to the region.Perhaps Cuno could have said that Italy has been asking for the return of antiquities (well over 100 at the last count) because they appear to have been looted from archaeological sites in the modern state of Italy since 1970. How could such pieces end up in prestigious public collections in North America?
How can we prevent looting, Cuno asks (even if he does not want to answer it here)? How can we prevent the illicit trade in antiquities?
One solution to get senior museum curators in North America (and elsewhere) to acknowledge that they need to adopt a rigorous acquisition policy. And the AAMD has indeed taken a step in the right direction. (But there is unwillingness on the part of some AAMD organisations to engage with the new spirit of transparency.)
This latest posting from Cuno shows that he has not been listening to criticisms from the archaeological and heritage communities. We want to understand the great archaeological finds - Cuno's "great treasures of ancient art" - as part of an archaeological assemblage and not as single items devoid of their contexts.