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Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage [Hardcover]

by James Cuno
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)


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Book Description

April 21, 2008 0691137129 978-0691137124 First Edition

Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.



Editorial Reviews

Review

A condemnation of cultural property laws that restrict the international trade in antiquities, the book doubles as a celebration of the world's great border-crossing encyclopedic museums. -- Jori Finkel, New York Times

Who Owns Antiquity? is an impassioned argument for what Cuno calls the 'cosmopolitan aspirations' of encyclopedic museums. By this he means not only collecting and showing art from every place and era, but also, and more crucially, the promotion of an essential kind of cultural pluralism. . . . Whatever one makes of Cuno's thesis, it brings into focus some urgent questions--for museums and for archaeology--that have yet to be given much attention. -- Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books

Who Owns Antiquity? by Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno deals with one of the most sensitive questions in today's art world: Should antiquities be returned to their country of origin? [T]his book provides a lot of worthwhile background. -- Wall Street Journal

It would be a mistake to see this deeply felt and carefully reasoned argument as self-serving. The crux of his argument is that modern nation-states have at best a tenuous connection with the ancient cultures in question, and their interests are political rather than scientific...Cuno advocates instead a universal, humanistic approach to the world's shared cultural treasures...Cuno's pleas for a more expansive approach to cultural artifacts must be taken seriously. -- Publishers Weekly

[A]n illuminating...book. -- Edward Rothstein, New York Times

The author's message is that stewardship, not ownership, is what matters. Trade in antiquities should be dictated not by politics, but by the demands of conservation, knowledge, and access. The argument presented here is thought-provoking. Cuno may be over-optimistic. But you can't help feeling that he is right. -- Financial Times

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. In Who Owns Antiquity? Cuno answers his own question this way: All of us do. -- Andrew Herrmann, Chicago Sun Times

Chronicles [Cuno's] views about the antiquity trade--a global community enmeshed in a war of ideas. Collectors, museum directors, archeologists, dealers and even nations are in dispute. The battle line is drawn between those who believe that national policies should prevent the looting of archeology sites and those--including a very outspoken Cuno--who think that such policies don't prevent plundering and should be changed to ensure artifacts are globally shared. -- Madeline Nusser, Time Out Chicago

I can't remember a book on museums that has generated quite so much publicity and critical comment as this one. -- Artknows

Cuno implicitly poses the question: 'Whose nation is it anyway?' .... His is a cogent and powerful argument that he expresses with personal conviction. -- Robin Simon, New Statesman

James Cuno, director of the Art institute in Chicago, has written a clear, well-argued...book about the vexed question of how great museums like his should collect ancient objects. -- Art Newspaper

Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno's book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras. -- American Scholar

Cuno defends the museum side of the issue, and he is well suited to make the case. -- Matthew J. Milliner, First Things

[F]ascinating, and extremely helpful in providing a lucid account of changing attitudes to cultural property since the Second World War. . . . Many of his arguments are persuasive. -- Literary Review

Who Owns Antiquity? by James Cuno explores the impact of new restrictions being placed on the acquisition of antiquities and how these will affect future museums. -- Art and Antiques

[Cuno] argues convincingly that current cultural property laws are too retentionist. . . . It's difficult to disagree with the idea that people benefit when antiquities of other countries can be seen in museums around the world. And the virtues of partage also seem clear. As Cuno points out, the collections at the great museums of the world could not have been put together under our current system of cultural property laws, and the millions of people who have marveled at these collections would be poorer for not having seen them. -- Mary Katherine Ascik, The Weekly Standard

Cuno sets his stage for a discussion of an ongoing legalistic international battle dealing with archaeological objects by introducing the case of the Elgin marbles. What superficially may seem a simple matter of 'ethnic nationalism' is described as considerably more complex, dealing with such matters as 'cultural property,' the notion of nation-states, and 'partage'--the sharing of archaeological finds (the author's suggested solution to disputes). . . All readers interested in current interaction among museums, academics, collectors, politicians, and so forth will be well informed here. -- K. Marantz, Choice

James Cuno's passionate, finely reasoned new book, Who Owns Antiquity? . . . is a fresh salvo in the ongoing battle between museums that collect antiquities and modern states that claim to be the legal heirs of ancient societies and cultures. . . . Cuno mobilizes a wealth of anecdotes and examples to support [his] position. -- Benjamin Genocchio, Art in America

The book is cogently argued and extremely well documented. The 'select bibliography' is ten pages. It explores in great depth all of the recent turmoil regarding the legal ownership of antiquities. . . . No one involved in the acquisition of antiquities can ill afford to pass this book by as it sets the stage and defines the complexities involved in this heated battle that is sure to rage on for years to come. -- Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D., Minerva

Whether or not you agree with Cuno's arguments, I believe this book is an important addition to the discussion on museum collections. -- Richard Gerrard, Muse

Cuno raises key issues that need to be addressed. -- David W. J. Gill, American Journal of Archaelogy

Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno's book Who Owns Antiquity?, published May 2008, offers a spirited, cogent defense of encyclopedic museums' right to collect such treasures. The book has provoked equally spirited controversy. -- Tom Mullaney, Chicago Artists' News

Overall, Cuno's analysis presents a range of themes, particularly the role of the encyclopedic museum in contemporary society, that will resonate with the museum community and students of museum studies. Nationalistic agendas are set within a compelling theoretical argument that should be read by those engaged in writing as well as following museum and archaeological policies, provided that the reader understands that Cuno's emphasis is on objects and access to them rather than on the more pressing issue of the preservation of archaeological sites and cultural landscapes for a cosmopolitan world community. -- Christina Luke, American Anthropologist

From the Inside Flap

"James Cuno has written thoughtfully and responsibly on cultural property matters, and in this book he goes beyond the usual legal and ethical ground to address deeper philosophical issues. This is a must-read for all concerned with the fate of our ancient heritage, whether source countries, archaeologists, collectors, or museum curators. The topic is of the greatest importance to all of us."--Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (April 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691137129
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691137124
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #777,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.8 out of 5 stars
(16)
2.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One Side of the Story October 16, 2008
Format:Hardcover
(A version of this review first appeared in the August/September 2008 issue of First Things.)

"Hey hey, ho ho. Western culture's got to go!" So went the chants on the campus of Stanford University in 1988, criticizing the classical canon. Well, it's going -- literally. Antiquities of questionable provenance held by many museums are being "repatriated" to their source nations, sometimes as the result of a mere threat. When a claim is made, should museums comply? "The world is divided on this question," explains James Cuno, with "museums, private collectors and art dealers" on one side, and "archaeologists, academics, and source nation cultural ministers" on the other. Cuno defends the museum side of the issue, and he is well suited to make the case. Cuno, once director of the Harvard University Art Museum, is currently director of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The hero of Cuno's book is the Enlightenment-inspired "encyclopedic museum," such as the Louvre or the British Museum. The villain is nationalism, which is fortified by recent laws that keep archaeological discoveries within national borders or demand their return. These laws, says Cuno, are an unenforceable "bouillabaisse of good intentions and bureaucratic ambitions," and their "trajectory of retention is tightening, from protection to prevention to return." Cuno's alternative is the legal scholar John Merryman's triad of knowledge, preservation, and access. Museums that best meet such benchmarks should get the goods.

The book is packed with informative tangents but will do little to mollify those who suspect Western museums of purchasing or retaining illegally exported antiquities. Because UNESCO resolutions have not prevented looting, Cuno calls them a "failed regime.
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27 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Museums are not bad May 21, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Anyone who has ever been enthralled visiting one of the world's great archeological museums would benefit from James Cuno's book. So would archaeologists, museum directors, curators, antiquities dealers...and journalists who have signed on to the out-of-control drumbeat demonizing museums and collectors. Source country bureaucrats and power-wielders should read it as well, but they probably will not. Cuno's is a refreshing, insightful and intelligent counterpoint to mainstream misinformed denigration of the world's great archaeological museums. It convincingly argues that nationalistic retention laws for antiquities neither preserve sites nor objects, nor do they benefit the larger interests of civilization and mankind. There is probably more here than the non-specialist is interested in, but the beginning and end of the book are more than enlightening, and the reader can go back to middle chapters for background and revealing histories of the modern nations of Turkey, China and Italy. This book is an eloquent plea to save the inspiring fragments of mankind's long history which belong to us all. Cuno believes using them for nationalistic agendas is not the way.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Against Cultural Reappropriation August 4, 2013
Format:Paperback
While still conspicuously ignorant of the subjects, museum acquisitions, museology in general, and the debates concerning (re)appropriation of "culturally significant objects" all fascinate me. James Cuno manages to cover all these bases in this book whose major question is: Do modern states have the right to demand the return of objects that may be deemed to have cultural, aesthetic, or national value? And if they do, what reasons validate this demand?

Cuno's short answer is that states don't have this right at all. Instead, he sees the rise of these cultural reappropriation laws as a way of shoring up nationalist pretentions. His argument seems strong. Two of his chapters, "The Turkish Question" and "The Chinese Question," examine this assertion in detail. For example, when the Ba'athists took control in Iraq in 1968, they adopted strict laws of cultural appropriation in concert with their virulently nationalist rhetoric. "Their intention was to create a `national-territorial consciousness resting upon the particular history of Iraq and, equally significantly, of what the regime, or a powerful circle within it, presented as the history of the Iraqi people.' Central to this effort was an official drive to foster archaeology as a way of making people aware and proud of `their ancient past,' including that of the pre-Islamic era. At the same time, the Party encouraged local folklore for the purpose of inspiring communities with a sense of internal Iraqi unity, and emphasizing Iraq's uniqueness among the nations of the world at large" (p. 58-59).
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nationalism and Ancient Art March 27, 2012
Format:Hardcover
Should an imperial Roman artifact made and recovered in Libya belong to the government of Italy? Should a Muslim Uighur antiquity originating in Urumqi before Chinese rule belong to the government of China? The director of Chicago's Art Institute argues antiquities should belong not to states, as current laws and statutes have it, but rather to the people of the world.

The growth of nationalism since World War II has been accompanied by a proliferation of "nationalist, retentionist cultural property laws," ostensibly to curb looting and theft of archaeological artworks but actually to support state ideologies. Gone are the days of partage, when governments shared archeological discoveries with foreign museums and universities that found them.

Many countries demand the return of antiquities that originated within their borders. Many simultaneously restrict exports of ancient artworks. These policies do not in fact reduce looting or the sale of undocumented artifacts, Cuno maintains; instead they make it very difficult for museums around the world to acquire the kinds of artworks they traditionally sought.

He makes an impassioned defense of "encyclopedic museums" - like the British Museum, the Louvre and the Met. The best museums, he says, should compare and contrast many different cultures, to give visitors a sense of what our world is really like and how peoples have developed, interacted and benefited each other. To support retentionist policies encourages isolation of nations and peoples, and may even foster conflict. Cuno studies Turkey, once heart of the Ottoman Empire and the earlier Byzantine Greek Empire, among its many incarnations.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Grotesque return to colonialism
Cuno is well known as the apologist for acquisitive museums that want to add their collections, whether the demand they create leads to increased looting or not. Read more
Published 22 days ago by Chris B.
1.0 out of 5 stars Pure Poppycock
What Cuno strongly supports and suggests is neither relative nor pragmatic.

The subject of "sacredness" is certainly a matter of conscience often averted... Read more
Published 9 months ago by fastidious one
2.0 out of 5 stars Poor quality
Whether you like Cuno's views are not is going to be an individual matter, but honestly, they could have at least bothered to properly edit this. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Chelsea Heidt
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insight.
I decided to read this followed the controversy of the intimidation of individual curators by the italian cultural minister. Wonderful read and very insightful. Read more
Published on February 29, 2012 by D. Tran
1.0 out of 5 stars Arrogant, self-serving and dreary
This book is a pompous yet feeble argument for allowing art and antiquities pilfered from age-old civilizations to remain in the hands of thieving, bowtie-wearing blowhards like... Read more
Published on November 30, 2011 by babs
1.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to the Cultural Neoliberalism!
¡Bienvenidos al neoliberalismo cultural!

James Cuno elabora todo un panfleto de más de 200 páginas para justificar y tratar de perpetuar las antiguas... Read more
Published on August 20, 2011 by Pasamonte
2.0 out of 5 stars Don't judge a book by its cover
The cover of Who Owns Antiquity shows two military police officers armed with automatic rifles guarding what appears to a museum entrance. Read more
Published on March 18, 2010 by Lance B. Hillsinger
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking Challenge To Art's Political Correctness
I've been lucky enough to stand on the steps of the Parthenon on one day, and then stand in front of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum the next day. Read more
Published on December 5, 2009 by Michael Lima
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
This is the definitive counterargument to the museum directors who put overly stringent conditions on collecting antiquities and exposes the claims of Italy and others for what... Read more
Published on December 24, 2008 by R. P. Marshall
5.0 out of 5 stars Art of Antiquity Belongs to the World
Some ancient art belongs to the world, not necessarily to the present nations who now claim it. Several times over the years, I have seen, studied, photographed, and talked about... Read more
Published on August 2, 2008 by John L. Sommer
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