In his interview of January 27, 2008 with Richard Lacayo, “A Talk With: James Cuno” http://www.elginism.com/20080201/976/, Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, makes many controversial statements but I will like to comment only on a few. “Anthony Appiah said something wonderful in his book Cosmopolitanism. He says, Look we don’t know who made these Nok sculptures, these ancient sculptures that are found today in Nigeria. We don’t know if they were made for royalty or for one’s ancestors or on speculation. But what we know for sure is that they weren’t made for Nigeria. Because at the time there was no Nigeria.”
Does Cuno realize the implications of such a statement if it were to be taken seriously? Is he suggesting that the modern State of Nigeria has no right to the archaeological findings on its own territory? Who then has rights over the Nok findings in Nigeria? Is he aware that there were Nigerians before the present State of Nigeria was born at Independence in 1960? Or does he have another date of birth in mind? If the date of birth of present modern States were to be related to acquisition of rights to archaeological findings, how many States would have any rights since most of these findings relate to objects created thousands of years ago? What will happen to control over activities in the areas where excavations take place? Who will keep order in such areas or will it be a free for all, leaving it to the strong to grab whatever they can? One can imagine easily what chaos will ensue if modern governments did not assert their authority and control over archaeological excavations. Is Cuno pleading for anarchical excavations?
Is Cuno aware that under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, a State such as Nigeria has the duty
“ to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft,clandestine excavation,and illicit export?”
Moreover, Article 4 of this Covention provides that : “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:
a. Cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory;
b. cultural property found within the national territory;
c. cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;
d. cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;
e. cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.”
In view of the provisions of Article 4 how can anybody dare to suggest that archaeological findings made in Nigeria do not belong to the modern State of Nigeria? Cuno states that if certain objects are crucial to the identity of Italy, then those objects should be everywhere: “… if [these objects] are indeed crucial to the identity of Italy, then as cultural diplomacy you would want that material everywhere. You would want Italy to be represented everywhere as an important modern nation by virtue of its claimed legacy from ancient Rome. You would want that appreciated in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Mexico City.”
How does this argument square with the usual argument presented by the supporters of the so-called universal museums that we must have these cultural objects in one place, preferably in London, Paris or New York? Cuno goes so far as to say that Italians live not only in Italy but also in New York and around the world and therefore Italian cultural objects should be made available to them too. Is there no limit to these absurd arguments presented by respected museum directors? Nobody ever suggested that Britain, France or the USA should make their cultural objects available everywhere in the world where their citizens live.
Cuno exceeds himself in his last statement in the interview with Richard Lacy: “Looting is a not a casual past time. It’s desperate people in desperate circumstances who loot. They risk their lives. Museums recognize that there is a relationship between the marketplace and looting, and we want to distance ourselves from it as much as we can and still preserve these things that will otherwise be lost. How do you behave responsibly in this realm? There has to be a package of responses. One part of the package is partage. And another part has to do with allowing museums to reasonably acquire.”
Is this a song of praise for looters? It sounds almost like a unionist urging higher wages for workers who risk their lives in the mines. When are the western museum directors going to stop issuing such statements which do not contribute to solving the issue of restitution but only increase anger and disputes?
23 February 2008.