James Cuno Still Critical of Repatriation

The Getty Villa in Malibu
The Getty Villa in Malibu

James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust, has authored a short essay revisiting his arguments against repatriation. Those familiar with his arguments will see many of the same kinds of arguments he has made in the past. Mainly he criticizes repatriation as an exercise in nationalism:

Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.

Though he acknowledges the looting and destruction that has taken place and this was the impetus for a number of returns from his current institution, he’s attempting it seems to hold a firm line against calls for repatriation which pre-date 1970. While he does obliquely criticize looting, he offers no other solution to the problem. How can we prevent site destruction and looting without national legislation and domestic initiatives (which he has called nationalistic)? That question is left largely unanswered. He does make calls for more Universal museums in nations of origin.

He ends with a call for exchange and cooperation:

For encyclopedic museums to fulfill their promise of cultural exchange, they should be established everywhere in the world where they do not now exist. And existing encyclopedic museums should aid in their development. Already, there are laudable examples of how great museums in wealthy countries can foster a more comprehensive kind of cosmopolitanism. The British Museum established a program in 2008 to promote partnerships with institutions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In addition to loaning collections and exhibitions from British museums, it focused on training: in conservation, curating, and archiving. In all, some 29 countries were involved. The program was supported by the British government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. But after three years, the British government cut the program’s funding. The partnerships continue on a smaller scale supported by grant funding, including from the Getty Foundation.

This process of exchange and cooperation should build trust among museums and national authorities. It will be a long, slow process, but if successful, it would lay the foundation for a greater understanding of the values represented by the encyclopedic museum: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism.

Cuno, James. “Culture WarForeign Affairs, December 2014.

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