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New Response to James Cuno

There is a new review of James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? by Peter Stone, professor of heritage studies at Newcastle University ("Clinging on to their marbles", THE July 3, 2008). Stone disagrees with Cuno over cultural objects relating to indigenous groups in the US, and addresses the issue over historic items such as the Rosetta stone ("What many, if not most, archaeologists would lament is the loss of additional information that may well have been provided had the stone been excavated carefully from its archaeological context.").

Stone agrees with Cuno over the distribution of objects around the world "to better ensure their preservation, broaden our knowledge of them, and increase the world's access to them" (Cuno). But Stone asks how this distribution is to be made.

He then alludes to what I presume is the example of the Harvard acquisition of pottery fragments. (I presume Stone means 1995 when he gives the date of 1998.) Stone continues:
That a museum director could have been oblivious to the issue [sc. the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property] in 1998 [sic.?] is staggering, almost unbelievable.
Stone presents a solution to the lack of progress:
Yes, let's have museums around the world with examples of material from around the world, but let's achieve it through dialogue and agreement and not through the continuation of a system that is so obviously flawed.

The returns to Italy and the need for the AAMD to produce new guidelines on acquisitions and short-term loans have confirmed the faults in the present system.

Stone ends with some strong words about Cuno's approach. Directors of encyclopaedic art museums "are badly served by this book that entrenches their position". But the punch is in the closing paragraph:
I assume that many will hope and some I know will pray that this book represents the last death throes of a failed traditional world-view: the dominance of the many by the (very) few; the dominance of a Western scientific tradition over all others; the dominance of a closed view clinging, perhaps subconsciously, to what can only be described as colonial oppression. Perhaps if a dinosaur could have written a book arguing against its extinction, it would have read like this.

Cuno appears to be failing in his bid to win over his critics.

Comments

DR.KWAME OPOKU said…
Comment on Review of Cuno’s Who owns Antiquity, by Peter Stone.

I can only say "Amen" to what Peter Stone has written on Cuno's book, Who owns Antiquity? I am sure the vast majority of scholars in Britain and the USA do not share the views of Cuno and co on the question of restitution. However,
the few supporters of Cuno's insensitive and aggressive approach to countries seeking to protect their cultural artefacts from plunder and the illicit trade in antiquities are in powerful positions and use their influence to ensure conformity by others. They accuse others of being political and nationalistic. Their position is worse that nationalistic: it is that kind of imperialism which is overweening, widespread and so sure of itself that it passes in some circles as being non-political and natural.
Once you criticise Cuno and his friends, they accuse you of wanting to empty the British Museum, Louvre, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Berlin Museums. They brand you as an extremist because they cannot imagine that any normal and reasonable person will have a view different from theirs. As Peter Stone rightly states, "To put false arguments into your opponents' mouths is to undermine your own." I have been arguing in several articles that the British Museum which allegedly has some thousand Benin bronzes and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, which has admittedly some 800 pieces, need not keep them all and could afford to lend a few to Nigeria. From similar arguments, Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, alleges that I do not want any Nigerian artefacts sent outside the country. "Dr. Opoku believes all Nok, Ife, and Benin pieces outside of Nigeria should be returned to Nigeria; that all works produced on its territory should remain there" http://www.afrikanet.info. This is obviously a cheap method which is unworthy of a Director of a great Western museum. It indicates an unwillingness to come to grips with the various serious statements that I have made regarding Western museums and their unwillingness to discuss honestly and fairly the question of repatriation of cultural objects to their countries of origin. It makes one wonder whether these museums directors are living in a world of their own. Surely, the Western world cannot remain forever indifferent to the arguments and cries of the Asians and Africans for the return of their cultural objects.
Peter Stone is surely speaking for all of us in the rest of the world, outside the "universal or encyclopaedic museums when he states "I assume that many will hope and some I know will pray that this book represents the last death throes of a failed traditional world-view: the dominance of the many by the (very) few; the dominance of a Western scientific tradition over all others; the dominance of a closed view clinging, perhaps subconsciously, to what can only be described as colonial oppression. Perhaps if a dinosaur could have written a book arguing against its extinction, it would have read like this."
Kwame Opoku.

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