The New York Times‘ Jori Finkel devoted a column to James Cuno in Sunday’s Art Section, complete with an excerpt of Who Owns Antiquity, forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Cuno has been in print a great deal lately, which owes perhaps to some excellent PR work on his behalf securing these pieces with reporters, and perhaps also the fact that he is going against the main current of cultural heritage thinking at the moment. Most of the article details the new expansion of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the decision to loan 92 works to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Near the end, there is a brief overview of the forthcoming book:
This sense of a museum’s civic duties also shapes his new book. The title, “Who Owns Antiquity?” is disingenuous, as the book’s answer is clearly nobody, or everybody. In a polarized debate that has pitted archaeologists against collectors, he takes the increasingly unpopular pro-trade side but seeks to give it an ethical framework.
Mr. Cuno contends that “the accident of geography” should not give nations exclusive claims on archaeological material that happens to be found within their borders. He asserts that a country’s cultural patrimony policies reflect its political or diplomatic agenda more than a commitment to preserving culture. And he argues for the revival of partage, a practice in which museums or universities aid the excavation of an archaeological site in another country in exchange for some of the artifacts.
“People will assume my argument in favor of partage is a thinly disguised argument for imperialism,” he said. “But partage helped to create not just the university museums and encyclopedic museums in this country, but also museums locally on site — like the national museums of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
One thing I notice with these and similar articles is how easy it is to get sidetracked from the important issues. Cuno certainly represents a viewpoint which is at odds from what a number of archaeologists believe, but that does not necessarily mean they cannot cooperate to create a better legal and regulatory framework, and ensure museums do not acquire illicit objects.
Lee Rosenbaum has gotten her hands on a copy, and she’s not impressed. She has sharp criticism for Cuno, calling it an “intemperate screed” and arguing
By taking an extremist stance that belittles the deeply felt and legitimate concerns of archaeologists and source countries to preserve archaeological sites and national heritage, he undermines efforts by reasonable people on both sides of the cultural-property divide to arrive at mutually beneficial compromises.
I haven’t read the book myself, so I don’t know about the merit of these criticism, but she’s certainly not a fan. I don’t always agree with Cuno, but he’s an important voice and his pieces are always well-written, even if he does stray towards hyperbole from time to time.