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Thanks to the Seventh Earl of Elgin, everyone is familiar with the question. Ever since the earl's agents, in the first decade of the 19th century, prised from the façades of the Parthenon his now eponymous collection of marble sculptures, the debate has rumbled on.

To whom do the great works of antiquity - or of any other past culture for that matter - actually belong? Does title reside in the modern-day peoples on whose terrain the objects were found? Or can there be a wider, indeed loftier, form of proprietorship, whereby artefacts of great beauty, rarity or interest can become the common property of humankind, held in a form of universal trusteeship by the great museums that have come to possess them?

Confronted with these tricky questions, museum directors have not always been particularly confident in providing answers. Their general befuddlement was perhaps understandable. During the 1980s and 1990s, the advent of a new and highly proprietorial cultural nationalism, asserting that states had an automatic right of ownership over the ancient art objects which had been produced on "their" soil, called into question the very legal title by which museums held their collections. Some of the archaeological profession, woozy on a mixture of post-colonial guilt and self-proclaimed moral rectitude, further compounded these doubts.

They spoke of an "ethical crisis" confronting archaeology, insinuating that almost all great collections of antiquities had been formed by some form of looting or cultural vandalism.

The last decade, however, has seen the emergence of a new and notably more articulate generation of museum directors, confident of the historic mission of their institutions, and, in consequence, able to offer a coherent and intelligent response to their critics. In the US, the most articulate of this new group of museum directors has been James Cuno, currently the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the editor and inspirer of this series of essays: Whose Culture?

In many respects, the essays-and not least the editor's fine introduction-develop and amplify themes first advanced in Cuno's book, Who Owns Antiquity? published last year. In this, Cuno excoriated nationalist claims to proprietorship over ancient works of art advanced by, for example, the modern-day Greeks and Turks, pointing out that the intervening centuries of conquest and migration meant that there was usually the most tenuous of connections between the people who had actually produced the objects in question and the modern-day population in whose name governments were asserting rights of ownership over them. Indeed, he went further, arguing that these products of antiquity were part of mankind's common patrimony, and therefore beyond any modern nation-state's claim for their repatriation.

In this new collection of essays, Cuno has also assembled a group of broadly like-minded colleagues, both museum curators and academics, all of whom affirm, from a variety of perspectives, why great encyclopaedic collections can, and ought, to exist.

Perhaps the most effective and broad-ranging contribution is from Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, whose essay offers a powerful reaffirmation of the Enlightenment values which inspired his institution's foundation, and an effective case for their renewed - indeed heightened - relevance in a globalised world. From the outset, MacGregor argues, the British Museum's collections were assembled as "a path to the better understanding of the world", and as a way of creating "a new kind of citizen for the world" (a phrase he adapts from Diderot). In the sheer diversity of its collections - be they Roman, Chinese, or Maori - the encyclopaedic, all-inclusive museum exists to foster an appreciative understanding of a common humanity that unites the peoples across continents and across time. Trusteeship of such a collection, MacGregor believes, therefore imposes a corresponding obligation: to "send exhibitions...around the world, to allow the whole world to have access to a world's collections".

Complementing this affirmation of the museum's universalist role is a revealing essay by Philippe de Montebello, the outgoing director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, highlighting the folly of acceding to nationalist claims for the repatriation of artefacts whose ownership is in dispute. In 1993, for example, the Metropolitan Museum returned to Turkey a spectacular series of silver and gold objects from West Anatolia, the so-called "Lydian Treasure" dating from the sixth century BC, on the grounds that the objects might have been removed illegally from a site in or near the Turkish city of U?ak. The result? Having been accessible to hundreds of thousands of visitors while at the Met, in the half-decade between 2001 and 2006, the Lydian Treasure, now on display in the U?ak town museum, attracted a total of just 769 people.

Similarly, Michael F. Brown, examining the problems involved in exhibiting "indigenous heritage" (in particular, the artefacts created by the aboriginal peoples of Africa, Australia, and Oceania), rejects the common assertion that "cultural heritage" should be regarded as a form of property that should remain "under the exclusive control of its presumed creators and their descendants". These objects, too, have their place in humankind's collective quest to understand its own exotic (and sometimes troubling) diversity.

Of course, as with any volume originating (as this does) in an academic conference, not all the contributions attain the standard set by the best. But the volume nevertheless marks an important advance. After an uncertain, not to say timorous, few decades, the leadership of at least some of our major institutions has found its voice. More than that, it has rediscovered something approaching a set of shared values-and, as Whose Culture? makes clear, it is ready to take on all comers in their defence.

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