Museum Security Network

By removing antiquities from Third World countries, Western nations decided “who owns antiquity” long ago, and they did so with little regard for the integrity of sites or concern for what was best for all of humanity.

‘Antiquity’ argues past belongs to all
By Claire McHale Milner

“Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands…”

With those words, Lord Byron, an ardent supporter of Greek independence, cried out against the British Museum’s acquisition of marble carvings removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin 200 years ago.

Demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their “rightful owners,” the Greeks, continue to this day. Although it is unlikely the British Museum will relinquish this prize, many would see nothing wrong with the return of antiquities stolen from archaeological sites.

Yet that is exactly what James Cuno, the president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, argues should not happen.

People in many parts of the world identify strongly with ancient civilizations that ruled huge regions, created great works of art and built spectacular monuments.

Modern leaders often legitimize their claims to power by referring to a glorious but distant past.

The Baathist party of Iraq, for example, used the slogan “Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein.”

In such a manner, antiquities acquire meaning well beyond their significance to scholars and the museum- going public.

Despite what one might think, the issue of ownership is by no means straightforward. The boundaries of nations like Iraq with rich archaeological remains were often drawn in the 19th or 20th centuries by colonial powers.

There is often little or no historical, cultural or ethnic continuity between those who presently hold power and the civilizations of antiquity.

As the author also points out, civilizations are the products of interactions among many cultures, so choosing one modern society as the “heir to the throne” is artificial.

What Cuno finds most troubling is the spread of retentionist cultural property laws. National laws and international agreements assert that countries own antiquities found within their territories, so the international community should facilitate the return of these objects.

The author contends that these laws have not reduced looting. Furthermore, archaeologists support these laws, because they are mostly concerned with advancing their careers by cooperating with governments that control access to archaeological sites. While there is an element of truth in such a claim, he certainly overstates his case.

Instead of carving up the past to suit nationalistic agendas, Cuno argues that antiquities belong to all humanity, and they should be displayed in museums for everyone to see. Doing so promotes intercultural understanding and tolerance, so desperately needed in these times of rising sectarianism and ethnic genocide. We should return to “partage,” the practice whereby antiquities were once split between institutions funding excavations and the country of origin.

Cuno’s discussions of antiquities laws and the use of antiquities to bolster nationalism are comprehensive, and his contention that the past belongs to everyone has merit. However, the restoration of partage would wreak havoc on the integrity of archaeological collections.

For practical reasons, archaeologists do adhere to local laws. But they also take an active role in supporting archaeological site museums that generate local pride and tourist dollars and, thereby, in reducing the poverty that drives the looting of sites.

We should not empty out museums containing ancient treasures simply for the sake of nationalistic demands. As Cuno argues, museums play a positive role in promoting intercultural communication in a dangerous world.

But we also cannot forget that by removing antiquities from Third World countries, Western nations decided “who owns antiquity” long ago, and they did so with little regard for the integrity of sites or concern for what was best for all of humanity. James Cuno’s book forces the reader to reflect on the significant role that antiquities play in shaping our world, past, present and future.

Claire McHale Milner is the curator and director of exhibits at Penn State’s Matson Museum of Anthropology.

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