Who Owns The Past?

Who Owns The Past?

James Cuno
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bamiyan Buddha statue destroyed in Afghanistan

CHICAGO: Unprecedented global travel and cultural exchange help make the world a smaller place but, ironically, they also stir national pride. Nationalism, combined with business calculation, now threaten to segregate antiquity that belongs to all of the humanity.

Most nation states have cultural property laws that restrict the international movement in archaeological artifacts found within their borders. But some antiquities are undocumented, lacking evidence of archaeological circumstances or removal. In the current debate over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities, the world’s archaeological community has allied with nationalistic programs of nation states.

Nations can and do bring charges of possession of, or conspiring to possess, stolen property against people and institutions holding objects covered by the relevant ownership laws, as seen with the Republic of Italy’s charges against the former J. Paul Getty Museum curator, Marion True, or Peru’s charges against Yale University with regard to contested Machu Picchu artifacts. More often than not, such laws are perceived as free of politics--the stuff of objective, reasoned best practice and indifferent government regulations

Nothing could be farther than the truth. Government serves the interest of those in power. 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.

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. They attach identity with an extinct culture that only happened to have shared more or less the same stretch of the earth’s geography. The reason behind such claims is power.

At the core of my argument against nationalist retentionist cultural property laws--those calling for the retention of cultural property within the jurisdiction of the nation state--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. They conspire against our appreciation of the nature of culture as an overlapping, dynamic force for uniting rather than dividing humankind. They reinforce the dangerous tendency to divide the world into irreconcilable sectarian or tribal entities.

Sadly, the public discussion about nationalist retentionist cultural property laws focuses on their role, which foreign governments and the archaeological community promote, as a means of protecting the integrity of archaeological sites. It’s argued that the laws inhibit looting and consequent illicit trade.

But this is only partly true. Over the decades in which they’ve been in place, strengthened by international conventions and bilateral treaties, the looting of archaeological sites has continued. In fact, many archaeologists claim it’s increased. The real purpose of such laws--and this is what we should be arguing about--is to preserve nation states’ claims of ownership over antiquities found or presumed to have been found within their jurisdiction. This happens just as the world is increasingly divided along nationalist, sectarian lines.

The alternative to consigning the protection of our ancient heritage to national jurisdiction is the United Nations, specifically its cultural body, UNESCO. Sadly, UNESCO’s Achilles’ heel is its grounding in nation-state politics and its respect for nationalism. For example, relying on its charter, the organization maintained that it could not prevent the destruction of much of the Kabul Museum’s extraordinary collection in 2001. This occurred in the aftermath of the destruction of the monumental Buddhas at Bamiyan, led by Taliban forces who ran the Afghan government at that time and thus had sovereignty over Afghanistan’s cultural property. The UNESCO special envoy to Afghanistan had discussed the edict with the Afghan foreign minister before the destruction, but in the end UNESCO only condemned the actions, watching as the collection was attacked.

Earlier, UNESCO had discouraged the foreign acquisition of antiquities likely to have been pirated from Afghanistan during the calamitous 1980s war with the Soviet Union. As a result, many stayed in Kabul as Afghan cultural property became subject to the Taliban’s destruction.

Similarly, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, UNESCO failed to protect the Baghdad Museum and the archaeological record of that vital part of the ancient world. Instead, the organization called for the return of any undocumented antiquities thought to have been improperly removed from that divided, failed state. UNESCO unambiguously respects the nation state and vests authority in it, as revealed by the preamble of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which claims that "cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture," that true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin, history and traditional setting.

Ironically any state can denounce a UNESCO Convention "on its own behalf or on behalf of any territory for which territorial relations it is responsible" and simply ignore it altogether.

To date, 30 years later, the convention has failed because it cannot contradict the authority of member states. Meanwhile, the world is losing our common ancient heritage through theft and destruction, poverty, development, warfare and sectarian violence. No amount of international conventions and agreements that proclaim to respect the "collective genius of nationals of the State" can overcome the obstacle of nationalism, the age-old route out of international agreements.

Archaeologists go along because they depend on nation states to do their work. Nation states hold antiquities and archaeological sites as national cultural property, and control access.

Nations that have hosted excavations depend in great part on the work of foreign archaeologists for the raw material of their nationalist ideologies, not to mention the tangible property that fuels their tourism economies. Archaeologists, especially those who benefit from working in host university museums, should examine their support of nationalist retentionist cultural property law. Many collections could not have been formed since the implementation of these laws.

Archaeologists should work with museums to counter the nationalist basis of laws, conventions and agreements, and promote a principle of shared stewardship of our common heritage. Together we should call attention to the failure of these laws to protect our common ancient heritage and perversion of that heritage by claiming the archaeological record as a modern nation’s cultural property

The recent rise in nationalist and sectarian violence and the pervasive misunderstanding, even intolerance of other cultures, adds urgency to the need of resolving these differences. Ignorance of the interrelatedness of cultures overlooks that we all have a stake in their preservation. One need only consider the loss of the Gandhara sculptures in the Kabul Museum--which bore reference to the region’s historic place at the crossroads of Asia, where Greek, Chinese, Indian, Pagan, Buddhist and Hindu cultures influenced one another over centuries--to recognize what we lost in their destruction: sublime evidence of the basic truth of culture: It’s always mongrel, made of numerous and diverse influences from contact with new and strange experiences. This was as true in antiquity as it is as today.

An understanding that ancient and living cultures belong to all of us could contribute to greater respect for the differences among us and serve as a counterargument to the call for cultural purity that flames sectarian violence.

We can do better. Arguments between museums and archaeologists over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities are a diversion from real arguments, which ought to be between those who value antiquity and the nationalist governments who manipulate it for political gain.

James Cuno is president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of  Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, published by Princeton University Press in 2008. Click here to read an excerpt from his book.

This article was originally posted at YaleGlobal Online in April of 2008.

Rights: © 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.