Mr Cuno takes the gloves off (Tom Flynn)

Mr Cuno takes the gloves off

James Cuno (left: all links and photos:, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has never been backward in coming forward over cultural heritage issues and it’s all grist to the mill. But his article in the online Yale Global (Who Owns the Past?), deserves a response. I assume it’s a précis of some of the ideas in his latest book, Who Owns Antiquity?, which I haven’t yet read.

Having argued yesterday for a more constructive and civilised dialogue over these issues (here), I’ll try and keep the tone as parliamentary as possible, but it’s irritating how those arguing against a more equitable approach to cultural heritage impute overriding political motives to those who express alarm at its increasing desecration and dispersal. The real political agenda, in fact, comes from the other side.

In his Yale piece, Mr Cuno states, “Most nation states have cultural property laws that restrict the international movement in archaeological artifacts found within their borders.”

Why do most nation states have those laws? Might they be a response to what they have seen unfolding in Iraq, for example, where reckless American neo-imperialism has exponentially exacerbated the desecration of that country’s cultural heritage? Yes, Mesopotamian antiquities might be the birthright of humanity in general, but ought we to deny their value to the Iraqi people? And where is most of it ending up? In the hands of wealthy collectors who value private over public ownership. (On which subject, see this article from the New York Times posted on Ton Cremers’s Museum Security Network, relating to a collector on the board of Mr Cuno’s own museum.)

“Antiquity belongs to all of humanity” says Cuno. I’m afraid until we can rein in America’s tendency to exercise its ambition and power beyond its borders we need these cultural property laws, however frail they might occasionally seem.

“Government serves the interest of those in power,” writes Cuno. “Once in power, with control over territory, governments breed loyalty among their citizens, often by promoting a particular identity and history. National culture – language and religion, patterns of behavior, dress and artistic production – is at once the means and manifestation of such beliefs, identity and loyalty, and serves to reinforce governments in power.”

Yes, and there’s no better expression of this than the US government and its cognate — American national culture. Loyalty among its citizens is beyond question, even when its government is in contravention of international law, as in Iraq.

“Governments can use antiquities – artifacts of cultures no longer extant and in every way different from the culture of the modern nation – to serve the government’s purpose,” argues Cuno. The Parthenon Marbles are relics of an ancient culture from which modern democracy originates. The Greeks are understandably proud of that. The British, however, do use them as an expression of political power and nationalism. Moreover, I would argue that often the “extinct cultures” to which Cuno refers cannot properly be described as extinct while important objects survive as material testimony to a set of ancient cultural ideas and practices that are themselves worth preserving. Material culture reminds us of our social duties and moral obligations, which are often as local as they are universal.

At the core of Cuno’s argument against what he derisively stereotypes as “retentionist cultural property laws” (as if there were no diversity in the nature and purpose of cultural heritage struggles) is “their basis in nationalist-identity politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world’s culture as common legacy.”

I’m sorry, you can’t have this both ways. American foreign policy under a Republican administration (coterminous, it seems, with the recent critical rise in the temperature of many cultural heritage issues) could not be more grounded in nationalist-identity politics. The imposition of ‘democracy’ on nations beyond America’s own borders has become an instrument of American nationalist-identity politics and we’re now living with the dire consequences of that in terms of global instability.

We are witnessing Iraq and surrounding region descend into a Dantean hell of internecine tribal warfare, but for Mr Cuno it is cultural property laws that are to blame for “reinforcing the dangerous tendency to divide the world into irreconcilable sectarian or tribal entities.” Au contraire, it is American foreign policy that has done most to undermine “the nature of culture as an overlapping, dynamic force for uniting rather than dividing humankind.”

Over the decades in which they’ve been in place, as Mr Cuno rightly observes, the looting of archaeological sites has continued, indeed in the eyes of many archaeologists it has increased. “This happens just as the world is increasingly divided along nationalist, sectarian lines,” he maintains. Clearly his teleological compass has lost its needle. The increase in looting can be ascribed in no small measure to the geopolitical faultlines that have opened up since the start of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Cuno’s dismissal of UNESCO as an organisation grounded in nation-state politics and respect for nationalism is more than a little reminiscent of the scorn poured on UN resolutions against the Iraq war (UNESCO is indeed the UN’s cultural body and thank heavens for that).

He also refers to the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (right: links and photos: as evidence of what he sees as UNESCO’s emasculated function in cultural heritage protection and then has the temerity to blame UNESCO for failing to protect the Iraq Museum following the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign. At least UNESCO initiated a dialogue with the Taliban in an attempt to dissuade them before the destruction began, which is more than can be said for Rumsfeld’s finger-puppets in Baghdad, who watched as the museum burned.

The UNESCO Convention has not failed. But no amount of international conventions and agreements can overcome the obstacle represented by bellicose developed economies imposing their will on weaker nations, which has become a signal factor in the rise of cultural heritage desecration.

Mr Cuno, like many leading museum directors, is currently suffering from post-colonial tristesse — that melancholy condition which descends with the realisation that the great universal museum collections over which they preside are no longer able to maintain the upward growth curve that began during the imperial era. Get over it.

We must now look forward to a more equitable distribution of material culture. It is the American neoliberal psyche that needs to move beyond its “pervasive misunderstanding, even intolerance of other cultures.”

A proper understanding of that sense which Mr Cuno refers to, that “ancient and living cultures belong to all of us,” will only really set in when European and North American museum directors cease believing in their eternal and divinely-endowed role as custodians of global cultural heritage.

And finally, to mirror James Cuno’s closing rhetorical flourish, the real argument over the Parthenon Marbles, to take just one example, is indeed between those who value antiquity — archaeologists and others who yearn to see the Marbles reunited in their rightful home in Athens — and the nationalist ends to which they are manipulated in London.

Yes, we can indeed do better.

(James Cuno photo credit: