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Archive for October, 2008

Who is James Cuno?

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Major art museums in the USA have, over the last couple of years, had to return important items from their collections to Italy; many of them turned out to have been stolen. But at the same time a number of museums have challenged the notion that is fundamental to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illegal and Illicit transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The British Museum’s continued refusal to return the Parthenon sculptures relies on these challenges.

One of the most vocal advocates of this challenge is James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a strong advocate for the Declaration of the Universal Museum; Cuno was previously at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Harvard University Art Museums.  Cuno has written “Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage” (Princeton University Press, 228 pp).

In “Found and Lost” (The New Republic September 24, 2008) Ingrid D. Rowland reviews Cuno’s book.

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor, based in Rome, at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. She writes frequently for the New York Review of Books. Her prose is full of wonderful phrases and great insights.There is an edited version of her review in The Australian newspaper for October 4, 2008 entitled “Back to the Source”.  (Rowland’s new book,Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

The Australian summarises Rowland’s view thus, “The encyclopedic museums’ argument against repatriation of classical artefacts is self-servingly flawed.”

Rowland commences her review of Cuno’s book, in the edited version in The Australian,

“EARLY this year, the state apartments of the Palazzo del Quirinale hosted a remarkable exhibition of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, all found on Italian soil but held until recently in museums and private collections in the US, notably the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition was a diplomatic coup for Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, who until April was minister of culture for two years in the left-wing government of Romano Prodi.”

One of the reviews of Cuno’s book is by Edward Rothstein, in “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland”  (New York Times 27 May 2008),  Rothstein commences by asking, “To what culture does the concept of “cultural property” belong? Who owns this idea?

“It has, like much material property in the last 50 years, often changed hands. And in doing so, it has also changed meanings and grown in importance. It now affects the development of museums, alters the nature of international commerce and even seems to subsume traditional notions of property.

“It was brought to modern prominence in 1954 by Unesco as a way of characterizing the special status of monuments, houses of worship and works of art — objects that suffered “grave damage” in “recent armed conflicts.” In its statement Unesco asserted that such “cultural property” was part of the “cultural heritage of all mankind” and deserved special protection.

“But the framers of that doctrine with its universalist stance would hardly recognize cultural property in its current guise. The concept is now being narrowly applied to assert possession, not to affirm value. It is used to stake claims on objects in museums, to prevent them from being displayed and to control the international trade of antiquities.

Basically, Rowland’s take on Cuno’s polemic is exemplified by this par:

Nor will it do to hit at Italian laws and then dodge a forthright look at Italy’s relationship not only with antiquity, but indeed with the very discipline of archaeology. Italy, after all, is rare among nations because it is both a prime producer and a prime consumer of archaeological artifacts. Because of this peculiar status, Italy has posed the most specific and sophisticated challenge to the directors of American museums who are now facing the consequences of their erstwhile rapacious acquisition policies. Like any venerable museum in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago has its own complement of archaeological treasures removed from Italian soil over the decades with a lack of concern for context that this powerful, educated, wealthy land now has the wit and the clout to classify as no longer acceptable. But Italians are also superb negotiators, particularly skilled at finding solutions that preserve face on all sides. What purpose is served then by taking a swipe at Rutelli at the precise moment when the directors of the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty Museum, and the Princeton Museum have all signed long-term agreements of international cooperation, through Rutelli’s direct mediation, with the Italian government? Does dissent truly serve the best interests of the Art Institute of Chicago, let alone archaeology, the public, the cultural awareness of collectors, the general state of knowledge about our collective past, and diplomatic etiquette?