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"Outdated and largely rejected practices"

Jenifer Neils, who has written on the Parthenon, is well placed to review James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? (American Scientist April 29, 2009) [review with Swharon Waxman's Loot]. Cuno does not seem to get the message being sent to him from the reviews -- and Neils puts it well:
Although [Cuno] strives to be ecumenical, pulling his examples from China, Nigeria, Turkey and Italy, his arguments are one-sided and hence surprisingly narrow. He supports the now outdated and largely rejected practices of museums that acquire antiquities without documented provenance. And he utterly fails to provide any other perspectives, especially those of archaeologists.

She concludes:
Cuno is a museum director whose writ is clearly to defend the acquisition practices of the major western museums in light of increasing pressure to refrain from purchasing objects of dubious or no provenance. The public might be better served by less atavistic museum professionals, ones who could address our changing times and evolving ethical standards and offer creative solutions for the enjoyment of our collective past.
I hope that Cuno's voice in Whose Culture? has been toned down ...


Cuno’s tone in Whose Culture? is similar to that in Who Owns Antiquity. In the latest book, there are direct attacks on Lord Renfrew and others as I have tried to show in my review Whose "Universal Museum"? Comments on James Cuno's “Whose Culture? I doubt whether that tone can be changed given the underlying assumptions of the author regarding the requests for restitution from other countries to museums in Britain and the United States. He sees the so called universal museums as under serious threats of dismantlement by hordes of rabid nationalists whom, he believes, must be energetically resisted. He would like to return to the colonial and imperialist days and hence the similarity between his vocabulary, tone and approach to that of arch imperialists.

In many ways, this is a very sad situation given the fact that nobody, as far as I can tell, wants to dismantle the collections of the British Museum or those of the Art Institute of Chicago. It must be possible for these museums to return some of the artefacts, however precious they may have become, to their countries of origin without the feeling that this will be the end of the famous museums. The example of the Getty Museum which returned artefacts to Italy and now has fruitful cooperation with Italy must surely be enough to calm the over anxious museum directors about the continued existence of museums even after restitution.

In the end, the supposed defenders of the West, these knights of the West, together with their false saints and prophets, would be seen to have done a great disservice to the interests of the West. They are fighting on the bases of the worst qualities of the West in its encounter with others: violence, selfishness, disrespect of the rights of others, and a determination to subject others to its will. They are fighting to hold on to cultural objects of others stolen or looted with violence.

There is a need in the cultural area for a more accommodating approach and tone which some Western museum directors have not yet grasped. They should abandon the arrogant and dominating tone of earlier centuries and reconcile themselves to a world which is not willing to acquiesce in the domination of a few States. They should dissociate their museums from the evil deeds of the colonial past and cultivate relations with the rest of the world on the basis of respect and equality. It does not seem that Cuno and his friends realize this.

Kwame Opoku.

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