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Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage First Edition (US) First Printing Edition

3.0 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691137124
ISBN-10: 0691137129
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Editorial Reviews


"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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (May 11, 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: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,522,823 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Matthew Milliner on 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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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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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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A passionate argument for allowing museums to keep ancient artifacts brought out of the lands in which they were found. Cuno points out that national boundaries change with the vicissitudes of world politics, and what a present-day country may claim as its "national heritage" may in fact be so far remote from the culture of the current occupants of that land that this claim may be questionable. Some ancient artifacts, Cuno, argues belong to all humanity, not exclusively to the current occupants of the land in which they were found.
While Cuno's arguments are coherent and powerful, especially in his case for the legitimacy of the "encylopedic museum," they ultimately fail to convince. For example, Cuno fails justify the continued retention by Britain of the Parthenon sculptures. That these works of art are truly part of western culture and not merely of the culture of Greece is undeniable. That, because of their significance to the development of western culture, these sculptures should reside in Britain and not in Greece where they were found is, even in Cuno's rather eloquent presentation, a most specious argument, with more than a hint of arrogance in it, and not much common sense.
To use Cuno's logic, American's would have to be comfortable with seeing the Alamo dismantled and reconstructed by the Louvre somewhere in France. As ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what a Greek has to do today in order to see the Parthenon frieze!
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