Friday, 27 March 2009

"The perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods"

James Cuno provides details of the purpose of his new edited book, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities (Princeton University Press, 2009) [website].
It is the purpose of this book to challenge 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.
Later in his introduction he acknowledges:
... some high-profile museums—the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; among others—have negotiated for the return of dozens of antiquities to Italy ...
This issue may be addressed in detail by the contributors to this volume:
  • To Shape the Citizens of "That Great City, the World" by Neil MacGregor
  • "And What Do You Propose Should Be Done with Those Objects?" by Philippe de Montebello
  • Whose Culture Is It? by Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • Antiquities and the Importance--and Limitations--of Archaeological Contexts by James C. Y. Watt
  • Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums by Sir John Boardman
  • Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets by David I. Owen
  • Exhibiting Indigenous Heritage in the Age of Cultural Property by Michael F. Brown
  • Heritage and National Treasures by Derek Gillman
  • The Nation and the Object by John Henry Merryman
But it is worth remembering that well over 100 items - not "dozens" - of antiquities have been returned to Italy from North American collections. [See my earlier overview of these returns.]

How could so many high-profile museums have placed themselves in this position? I look forward to reading the full justification in this volume ... but I suspect it will not be there.

1 comment:


I fully share the sentiment expressed in your last paragraph. As a non-Westerner, I cannot help feeling that many museum directors in the West have lost the sense of shame that would have prevented such embarrassments. Their motto seems to be:Acquisition by all means and at all costs.
Kwame Opoku

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