Book review: Whose Culture? The promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities

Tristram Besterman rejects the arguments of a cultural ideology that is well past its sell-by date
Tristram Besterman
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Whose Culture? comes in the wake of Whose Muse?, Who Owns the Past? and Who Owns Antiquity? James Cuno, who has been involved in all these books, is obsessed by questions of ownership.

Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is the cheerleader for a group of institutions that present themselves as universal or encyclopaedic museums - Neil MacGregor's "world under one roof". These exist exclusively in Europe and the US.

Cuno's latest offering is a compilation of essays by academics and museum practitioners from both sides of the Atlantic, who argue that laws restricting museums' freedom to acquire and retain what they want are illiberal. Such restrictions result, we learn, in large part from a global conspiracy by archaeologists who thereby do a great disservice to humanity.

One can't help wondering over Cuno's compulsion to produce
yet another tome to prop up a philosophy of museums that is increasingly viewed as an embarrassment in western museums and is offensive to source nations whose cultural material resides in encyclopaedic museums.

The strident views expressed in this volume are out of tune with the times. Cuno is to culture what former US vice-president Dick Cheney was to diplomacy. They show the same ideological swagger in their unaccountable use of financial muscle, propagandised as serving a greater good to the world.

Much of the book mounts a sustained attack on the importance of context where archaeological objects are concerned. Archaeologists, Cuno and his authors claim, hold that antiquities devoid of information about where they come from have no value, and should not be acquired.

The point being that looted antiquities come onto the market without contextual information and, consequently, culture without context equals loot. Cuno's book argues that some objects, despite their lack of provenance, may justify acquisition because they are rare, beautiful or informative.

In an attempt to discredit archaeological "fundamentalism", the authors use fascinating examples to explain just how wonderful many ancient artefacts are.

We are treated to a detailed analysis on the visible iconography of ancient Chinese objects, evidence that can increase human knowledge without contextual information. Except, of course, that we are told exactly where each piece was found, which rather spoils the argument.

The proposition that Cuno sets up to demolish is actually a false one. Most archaeologists are perfectly capable of appreciating the intrinsic qualities of a pot, sculpture or painting, and do not claim that an object without context has no value.

What they do oppose is the acquisition of objects known to have been looted since 1970 (the date of the Unesco Convention that prohibits such trafficking) on the grounds that museums which buy a looted object become complicit in a international trade that destroys the history of humanity, robs source nations of their patrimony and feeds a market that ruins lives through terrorism, drugs and death.

Cuno's book entirely fails to demonstrate that the art connoisseur's urge to fill a gap in a museum's collections justifies such a human toll. Cuno does a disservice to the standing and understanding of the encyclopaedic museum, which can be such a source of wonder.

There are many examples of museums whose collections are encyclopaedic in scope, yet repudiate Cuno's ideas of universalism. These are engaged in a more equitable dialogue with source nations and communities, in which nationhood and cultural identity are respected and found not to be threats to the museum's integrity but a source of enrichment.

Such museums are serious about their place in a world inflected by tolerance and cultural sensitivity, and are in turn taken seriously beyond the limited frontiers of their own knowledge and accessibility.

Tristram Besterman is a freelance adviser, mediator and writer on museums and culture
Edited by James Cuno
£16.95, Princeton University Press,
ISBN 978-0-691-13333-19

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