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Renfrew on Cuno: Museums as Custodians

Earlier this week Lord Renfrew was in debate with James Cuno on the BBC. Renfrew's view of James Cuno's position is now made crystal clear in his review of Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? for the Burlington Magazine. Renfrew noted the "readable and lucidly argued book James Cuno sets out what might, ten years ago, have been described as the art museum director’s case on the proprieties of ownership and acquisition". Cuno's position is considered to be "traditional" (and by implication rather dated).

Renfrew notes a weakness in Cuno's approach:
But the issues in the two cases – modern, clandestine looting, versus colonial or imperial appropriation, mainly during the nineteenth century and by the leading world powers of the day – are not the same.
Such a mix does however come together in the present Nostoi exhibition in Athens where recent returns from Italy and Greece are placed alongside returns of parts of the Parthenon frieze (Palermo and the Vatican).

Renfrew concludes his review with a critical assessment of Cuno's position and the way that he has ignored the evidence of looting from Italy (a point that I will be making in my review which is now in press):
There are many interesting arguments here. And it should indeed be possible to ensure that the great universal museums of the world can fulfil their mission without at the same time conniving in the illicit traffic in antiquities which funds the continuing destruction of archaeological sites today. But Cuno’s implication that the rich institutions of the modern world can be left to regulate their own affairs, without clear acquisition codes and without international regulation, is belied by recent evidence. Peter Watson’s book, The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York 2006) makes all too clear how museum curators and widely respected dealers have sometimes been complicit in the traffic in looted antiquities. Acquisitive museums have too often been in league with wealthy collectors, encouraging them to amass substantial assemblages of antiquities without any exercise of due diligence, and then accepting these by gift or bequest, some years later, on the grounds that they have now become ‘recognised collections’. This is the unpleasant reality that has recently led the Association of Art Museum Directors to move towards the acceptance of the 1970 rule, a position which the Museums Association of the United Kingdom, like the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, adopted some years ago. Most of us would share the aspiration underlying Cuno’s question ‘Who owns art?’ that the past is the inheritance of us all. More dubious, however, is the fitness of institutions such as the one he directs, to be the custodians of this inheritance. Until they accept and publish an ethical acquisitions policy, their position – like that of the author – will be open to question.


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