In the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books Hugh Eakin discusses the recent work of Jame Cuno. As Eakin makes clear, a number of Cuno’s arguments are controversial, perhaps even wrong-headed. But we should still grapple with many of the arguments, including:
Cuno’s Manichaean view of cultural property—with national laws facing off against cosmopolitan museums—draws on several sources. From the Stanford legal scholar John Henry Merryman he appropriates the idea that archaeological countries tend to be “retentionist”—they aim to retain antiquities within their borders—whereas art-market countries like the United States are “internationalist”—supporting maximum dispersal. He also cites the work of the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, whose recent book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006) makes a forceful ethical argument for gathering together the art of different cultures in world museums, so that it can be more widely studied and enjoyed. A third influence comes from various studies of nationalism, including The Myth of Nations (2002), Patrick J. Geary’s eviscerating account of the pseudohistorical claims on which national identities in many European countries are based.
At the heart of Cuno’s analysis, however, are some broad assumptions about Western museums and their relation to the nations from whose territory their collections are formed. Taken together, they form an underlying story that goes something like this:
In the modern era, the discovery and circulation of antiquities have been guided by the rise of large collecting museums, on the one hand, and the emergence of nation-states, on the other. The idea of the museum as repository of world heritage can be traced to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; the idea of modern nation-states as defined by self-identifying populations in particular territories derives largely from the spread of nationalism in the nineteenth century.
Through the early twentieth century, these two developments were able to coexist to mutual benefit: Western museums were given permits to engage in archaeology in the new nation-states of the Mediterranean and the Middle East; in return, governments in those countries often stipulated a division of finds, known as partage. As a result, the museums made pioneering discoveries and amassed stupendous holdings from around the world; while archaeological countries established important collections of antiquities found in their own territory.