Bad Connections

The New York Times‘ Edward Rothstein has an odd article today entitled “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland“, in which he essentially repackages James Cuno’s arguments, and makes some questionable assertions. Rothstein is the critic-at-large for the NYT, and he may be very good at what he does, but his foray into cultural policy today is not very thoughtful, and presents an unhelpfully biased view. Perhaps some of his other writing is very good, I’ll confess I don’t read classical music or his other reviews very often, but this appears to be an article he was in a hurry to get in before a deadline.

First, he makes a major blunder by confusing cultural property with cultural heritage. He mistakenly argues that nations of origin view antiquities as cultural property. Not so, in fact most would use the term heritage, or an approximation of that in their native language. I think cultural property is a narrower subset of a larger body of what can be called cultural heritage.

Second, he roundly criticizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA):

In the United States, for example, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required every museum getting public funds to survey its collections; identify Indian remains and funerary, sacred and other objects; and consult with Indian tribes and ”repatriate” the artifacts if requested. Such objects may have been legitimately purchased a century ago from the tribes or have no issue clouding their provenance, but claims of ordinary property give way before claims of cultural property. The grievous sins of the past are now being repaid with a vengeance. And the risks of repatriation and the requirements of tribal consultation have led to promotional, uninformative and self-indulgent themes in exhibitions about American Indians.

I find it unlikely human remains were legitimately purchased, but perhaps they were. He ignores perhaps the most important aspect of NAGPRA. It facilitated a helpful dialogue between museums and tribes to create workable relationships which can help undo some of the mistreatment of the past, an important benefit Rothstein seems unaware of.

Near the end, Rothstein argues:

Seen in this light the very notion of cultural property is narrow and flawed. It is hardly, as Unesco asserted, “one of the basic elements of civilization.” It illuminates neither the particular culture involved nor its relationship to a current political entity. It may be useful as a metaphor, but it has been more commonly used to consolidate cultural bureaucracies and state control.

But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.

These Western “encyclopedic” museums are formed on the noblest of intentions. However they have been associated and party to illegal activity. Moreover, the rights these institutions often assert to these objects is based on the legal notion of property. If heritage become the exclusive paradigm, that would remove the argument justifying the current location of many of these objects in New York, Paris, London, Berlin, etc.

I suppose we have to forgive the author for an ignorance of the law, but “illicit” typically refers to illegal excavation or illegal export. Not the kind of repatriation he is describing. The key now is how these institutions can adapt and begin to work with nations of origin, not continue an acrimonious debate

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Advance Press for Cuno (UPDATE)

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.

UPDATE:

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.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Comic Books, Myth and Cultural Policy


I’ve been thinking about what may seem a curious intersection in recent days. Namely the creation of modern myth and the connection between comic books and antiquities. I’ll first argue that comic books are nothing more than today’s modern myths, and then show how this relates to the summer Met exhibition, as well as dispute the claim that we are “losing” our connection to ancient mythology.

If you’re paying attention, comic books have a lot to teach us. Sure, they’re fun, and they for kids in many cases, but they also reveal deeper truths. As David Edelstein pointed out in his review of Iron Man, every age gets the super hero which will assuage its fears. Superman was a midwest farmboy, which was a product of major migration from “heartland to city”; similarly, Batman gained popularity in the 70’s with the “surge in urban crime”.

In Iron Man, Edelstein worries we might be glossing over the unpleasantness of our Military-Industrial complex, and its actions in Afghanistan. Iron man first appeared, in 1968, when the US was in the midst of the Vietnam War. He says “But at a time when America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making Americans feel better about themselves?” That’s a pointed question, as America is in fact the weapons maker to the world. But we don’t get to that deeper question if we can’t at least see the value in these myths, which are slick, and certainly very accessible.

There are other examples of course. Godzilla is a product of Japanese unease in the 1950’s following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Spider Man is the first superhero whose skin we can’t see in his costume, because in the 1960s Stan Lee wanted to create a superhero for all races. It’s hard not to see the struggle of World War II in Tolkien’s work. Now, perhaps I’m just an aging fanboy whose read too much Joseph Campbell, but is the story of the Odyssey really that different from a comic book? The point, I think, is not to choose ancient myths over modern pop culture, but to see how the two inform each other. David Simon has openly acknowledged that the Wire is nothing more than Greek tragedy, save instead of gods and goddesses he substitutes in their place modern institutions like police departments, the media, and the school system. If you’re paying attention, I think this nexus between Simon’s depiction of the Baltimore drug trade with ancient tragedy can inform both our understanding of urban cities, and realize that many similar struggles existed thousands of years ago.

Through September, the Met will be showing Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

C-MONSTER has photos, and Lee Rosenbaum is not a fan. Though she admits some of her complaints may be sour grapes, she expresses frustration at the fact that Philippe de Montebello, the “dean of American art museum directors” has tarnished his reputation by writing a Forward for the Met’s catalogue. Now, I’m out of my league if I attempt to unpack Rosenbaum’s argument from a scholarly curatorial perspective. However, she seems to strongly insinuate that comic books are for the uneducated, and beneath the lofty de Montebello. I couldn’t disagree more. I haven’t seen the the exhibition, and can’t speak to it’s merit, but the idea on its face strikes me as a good one. Why can’t we take comic books and superheroes seriously? The pop artists played with comic book forms and style to great effect didn’t they? Granted, the Met is trying to please its audience, perhaps blatantly so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take this stuff seriously right?

This brings us to the comments of Charles K. Williams II in the recent The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities, edited by Robin F. Rhodes. Williams argues “Note that modern mythology is being manufactured at such a rate and in such quantity in the United States and norther Europe that it appears, at least to me, to be wiping out the need or desire to know, even less to understand, ancient epics, myths, and fables.” I don’t think the creation of modern myth is necessarily a bad thing. Williams, an esteemed field archaeologist argues we should ensure people can continue to view these objects around the world to maintain our connection with ancient myth. He argues we need more responsible international loans and a responsible international movement of objects. I agree.

To the unreasonable skeptic, both the labors of Hercules and the efforts of Tony Stark may seem childish, but if we are paying attention, putting the two side by side can teach us a lot about the darker side of powerful civilizations, the US and ancient Greece (and later the Roman empire).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Who Owns What

Amid the continued discussion of who should own antiquities (or even if ownership is the wrong paradigm) James Cuno, President of the Art Institute in Chicago continues to be a strong voice which cuts against the current of popular opinion.

On Sunday, Andrew Herrmann, a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun Times had an interesting article on Cuno’s views which are elaborated in his new book, Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. The article essentially summarizes Cuno’s views for a broader audience, with some excerpts from the book, which will be out in the US on May 28. I hope to get my hands on a copy soon, but until then here is a bit of Sunday’s article:

Today, Cuno worries that “encyclopedic” museums such as the Art Institute and the Louvre, which contain antiquities from around the planet, are endangered by nations that, simply put, want their stuff back — and don’t want any more stuff to leave their borders….

The question isn’t just the musings of a museum man. Egypt, Greece, Peru, Turkey and China are among countries pushing for the return of objects removed from their lands years ago. Italy has forced the return of dozens of pieces from American museums. Laws in host countries can now seriously restrict export of artifacts.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Scotland’s Cultural Policy


I have recently come across some very interesting excerpts from Scottish Parliamentary Questions and Answers. Now, these are seldom mistaken for serious policy debate, but these reveal some shortcomings in current policy. There exists a serious gap from what Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party are saying about repatriation, and what they are actually doing.

First, with respect to “tainted cultural objects”, the Scottish Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Culture asks what Scotland is doing to ensure stolen or looted objects aren’t bought and sold in Scotland. The answer, it seems, is not much.

Q S3W-8645 Malcolm Chisholm: To ask the Scottish Executive what
legislative changes it believes are required to ensure that dealing in
tainted cultural objects does not occur in Scotland. (SP 21/01/08)

A Answered by Linda Fabiani (08/02/08): While we are not aware that
Scotland has a problem with this type of illicit activity at present, the
government remains sympathetic to such legislation and we are looking at
the options available to us, including examining legislation that already
exists such as the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. This
will assist ministers in determining how best to proceed.

It seems Scotland are still waiting to act, but it would be regrettable indeed if they made the same mistakes that were made by their neighbors down south. The Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, in force in England and Wales, is not a criminal offence which will likely have any kind of measurable impact on the illicit trade, as I’ve argued here. The evidentiary hurdles are simply too great given the current state of the art and antiquities trade. One hopes that MSP’s don’t wait until another high-profile theft or sale takes place before they act. One would have thought the arrests following the recovery of da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder would have at least eliminated the argument that this is not a problem, and nothing needs to be done.

More interesting perhaps, is the question regarding the repatriation of cultural objects held by Scottish museums. One would think that given the repeated claims Alex Salmond has made for the “return” of objects such as the Lewis Chessmen, his Government would have formulated a cohesive cultural policy. Not so it seems:

Q S3W-8842 Malcolm Chisholm: To ask the Scottish Executive what its
policy is on returning cultural artefacts held in Scottish museums to their
nation of origin. (SP 25/01/08)

A Answered by Linda Fabiani (07/02/08): Decisions on the repatriation of
cultural objects held by Scottish museums are for the Board of Trustees of
each museum to take. The Trustees of National Museums Scotland recently
agreed to requests to return a Tasmanian skull to Australia and other human
remains to New Zealand. Under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985,
Scottish ministers approved the Australian Government and The National
Museum of New Zealand as bodies to which National Museums Scotland could
transfer objects from their collection.

Alex Salmond has been arguing for a return of the Lewis Chessmen for over a decade now. Is that the best cultural policy his government can come up with? They will simple leave it to individual Boards of Trustees.

I’ll ask again, what is the cultural or historical imperative which dictates the chessmen should be taken from the British Museum, and returned? And if so, does this mean other treasures such as the St. Ninian’s Isle treasure should be returned to Shetland? On the one hand Salmond argues against this perceived injustice which led to the current location of the Lewis Chessmen (even though they are Norwegian), but he makes no corresponding changes in Scotland for objects in its collections, which may have been taken under far more questionable circumstances.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Careers in Cultural Policy

I often get asked about career opportunities in this field, mainly from postgraduate law students who have finished their LLM’s, or from art history or museum studies folks who are very keen on the subject, but unsure of where to go with a career.

I always have a tough time answering that question, as I’ve not yet figured out an answer to that question for my own purposes. My oral exam has been tentatively scheduled for the very near future, and I’m planning on entering a career in law teaching or practicing in an art law or restitution specialty. However those kinds of jobs are rare.

I’m just wondering, do folks know of resources for those interested in restitution or other relevant research or work? I know UNESCO has a small group of people, and there are some very good, committed people writing on this subject at Universities all over the world; but asking challenging questions about provenance, or the ethics of collecting, or museum curatorship would not seem to be the kind of thing that people are exactly eager to hire for. Perhaps I’m wrong in that assumption, but it certainly seems a buyer’s market for the few positions that are out there. So, I’d be very interested to hear from people about any resources that might be available, or if folks are interested in hiring cultural heritage lawyers, archaeologists, art historians, or others who are keen on cultural heritage.

This goes beyond just idle interest, because if there aren’t options for people to pursue careers asking challenging questions, then I think cultural policy will continue to suffer as a result. In any event, I’d like to have an answer, as I usually get an email at least once a week asking what opportunities are available.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

St. Ninian’s Isle Treasure

Shetlandtoday is reporting that the MSP for the Highlands and Islands and member of the Scottish National Party Dave Thompson has welcomed Alex Salmond’s calls for the return of the Lewis Chessmen as a positive indication that the St. Ninian’s Isle treasure will be returned to St. Ninian’s Isle. Thompson wrote in a letter to the Scottish culture minister and the director of the National Museums of Scotland:

I am pleased the First Minister has decided to raise the matter of the Lewis Chessmen. I think it opens up an interesting debate on how we support our local museums. For the past two months I have been acting on behalf of the people of Shetland to try and secure the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure back to its rightful home. I firmly believe that artefacts of local significance should be kept locally. It undoubtedly boosts local tourism and is beneficial to the community as a whole, both historically and culturally.

As I argued last week, I’m not sure what ethical basis Salmond can make for the Lewis Chessmen. They were acquired legally and rightfully, and they were in fact almost certainly created in Norway. Norway would seem to have a better ethical and cultural claim to the objects than would Scotland. If Salmond does want the Chessmen returned, that precedent could be used to repatriate a great deal of objects currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland and elsewhere. It might also commit him to abandon the notion of a “Museum of Scotland”.

First, a bit of background of the St. Ninian’s Isle treasure. The objects were discovered by a University of Aberdeen archaeologist in 1958. The treasure is comprised of 28 silver objects and a porpoise bone. The resulting dispute Lord Advocate v. University of Aberdeen and another, 1963 S.C. 533, saw the University unsuccessfully challenge the notion that the found objects should fall to the Crown. St. Ninian’s Isle is a small body of land a short distance from Shetland. In 1955 a University of Aberdeen team of researchers began excavation work aimed at finding the ruins of a medieval church. In July of 1958 the 8th century Celtic hoard was discovered. The Lord Advocate then brought an action seeking a declaration that the find belonged to the Crown, while the University and the landowner contested the claim.

In the ensuing legal dispute two arguments were advanced by the University. First, it was argued the feudal common law rule had no application in Shetland and Orkney where land was “udal”, and not subject to the feudal rules, as a result of their acquisition in the 15th century from Denmark and Norway. However the trial judge Lord Hunter held

[A]lthough treasures found in the ground are inter regalia, in the sense of things which the law appropriates to princes and states, and exempts from private use, the right to treasure is a right belonging to the sovereign by virtue of his royal prerogative and as head of the national community rather than by virtue of his position as universal landlord.

This argument was supported on appeal. The second argument urged the court to recognize rights in udal lands as superior to those of the crown. In advancing the argument the University compared treasure trove to undiscovered minerals. However this reasoning proved unsuccessful as well, as “plenary ownership of land carries with it everything a caelo usque ad centrum, including even all moveable articles in or on the land.” As such the ordinary laws of Scotland would apply and objects qualifying as treasure under Scots law “must be precious; they must be hidden in the ground; and there must be no proof of their property or reasonable presumption of their former ownership.”

The case presented interesting legal questions for Scots property law, but from a cultural property policy perspective, the excavation, study and display was a complete success. The site was professionally excavated, the archaeological context was recorded, and the treasure is now on public display in Scotland. The question is, does Shetland have a claim for the objects? In my view that’s a question of allocation domestically. Scotland, which is roughly the size of South Carolina, has a surprising degree of local and regional pride which can sometimes turn heated.

I think it may be worth asking whether the St. Ninian’s treasure should be returned to Shetland, however that would require Salmond and the SNP to formulate a cohesive cultural policy. At present it would appear if he is merely making statements, which are often misleading, to depict Scotland as a continuing victim of English imperial aggression. If that happens though, there will be trade-offs. Researchers may have more difficulty studying objects as they may not have access to objects from other cultures which have been returned, and creating a safe and secure display facility for all of these various objects will certainly be an expensive undertaking. These are important questions to be sure, but I haven’t seen a serious analysis of these issues despite these calls for return.

(Hat tip: Archaeology in Europe).


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com