A Talk With: James Cuno

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James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, was in New York last week. He arrived with the architect Renzo Piano for a press luncheon about the new wing for modern art that Piano has designed for the Institute. Before lunch I sat down with him to talk about a different topic, antiquities.

The Art Institute is not a big collector in that area and it hasn’t been among the collections targeted by Francesco Rutelli, the Italian culture minister who’s been demanding, and getting, so many things back from American museums. But Jim is a well respected spokesman for the concerns of the museum world generally. (And yeah, yeah, he’s on everybody’s short list of possible candidates to succeed Philippe de Montebello as director of the Met in New York.) In May he’ll also be publishing a new book, Who Owns Antiquity?, which I’ve been reading lately with interest.

As I usually do I’ll post this in parts over several days.

LACAYO: Museums that collect antiquities from anywhere in the world — the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, Africa — are finding it harder to do that now because of the cultural property laws adopted by so many source nations. You’d like to see some changes in that area.

CUNO: The goal that we all have is twofold: preservation and access. It’s clear to me that the current regime of retentionist cultural property laws — those that seek to retain antiquities within the jurisdiction of a modern state in which they are found, or are alleged to have been found — isn’t working. Over the last 60 years there has been an ever increasing number of nations legislating and executing these laws. And over the course of time there has been exponential increase in the looting of archeological sites.

So if the intention is to protect archeological sites and the knowledge they contain, the laws have failed. What they are doing is driving this material underground into black markets, to foreign countries that don’t respect the laws of the source nation. So clearly we have to re-examine those laws.

But the intention of those laws isn’t to protect archeological sites. Their intention is to claim those properties as critical to the identify of the modern nation, on the one hand, and also to preserve those materials for the cultural tourism they attract. They are also a way to establish stature, a credibility in the world when one can’t do it in other ways, by means of economic power or military authority or whatever.

LACAYO: So in your view what needs to be done?

CUNO: In the first half of the 20th century, before most of these laws were put into place, we had a different regime, the system of partage. Foreign archeologists excavated — scientifically — and shared the finds with the local authorities and the host institutions. The archeological museums of the great universities of the world — in the U.S. that would be the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania, Yale and Harvard — all were built through this system of partage. As were the local museums in Baghdad, Kabul and Cairo. Objects were excavated, preserved and shared.

Now we have a system by which it’s virtually impossible to share archeological finds. Things have to be retained locally. Clearly that doesn’t make any sense. If you were an insurer you wouldn’t concentrate risk, you’d distribute risk. We know what happened in Baghdad, in Kabul. We know what happened in Berlin in the Second World War. We don’t want all of these cultural assets that are clearly humanity’s common legacy, not the legacy of a modern nation state, all in one place.

Anthony Appiah said something wonderful in his book Cosmopolitanism. He says, Look we don’t know who made these Nok sculptures, these ancient sculptures that are found today in Nigeria. We don’t know if they were made for royalty or for one’s ancestors or on speculation. But what we know for sure is that they weren’t made for Nigeria. Because at the time there was no Nigeria.

LACAYO: But what would be the incentive for source nations to go back to partage? After the success that Rutelli has enjoyed, there’s no political advantage for the officials of some country to say: “Hey, let’s give half of our stuff to foreign museums.”

CUNO: If these things are important to the cultural identity of Italians, well, Italians don’t only live in Italy. Italians live in New York City They live all around the world. If they’re important to Italians in Italy they’re important to Italians everywhere.

Secondly, if [these objects] are indeed crucial to the identity of Italy, then as cultural diplomacy you would want that material everywhere. You would want Italy to be represented everywhere as an important modern nation by virtue of its claimed legacy from ancient Rome. You would want that appreciated in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Mexico City.

The third thing is, there needs to be some high road recognition that these things are not only the property of Italians. They’re really the shared legacy of humanity. These things that were made within the Roman Empire were made in a region far greater than modern day Italy but in a region a polity that was in contact with the rest of the known world at the time. Culture is this dynamic activity of making things out of contact with strange things and new things. There’s no culture of consequence that was made in isolation.

LACAYO: Those might all be good arguments in favor of partage, but not incentives for source nations to adopt the practice. Are there concrete penalties or inducements to bring leverage on source nations to return to partage?

CUNO: One way has to do with archeological digs. Especially in Iraq and Egypt and parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia — those digs are done mostly by European and North American archeologists. Those nations depend on the scientific expertise and the financial resources of North American and European archeologists and sponsoring institutions, the universities and museums. If those archeologists were to say we’re going to withdraw our expertise until you say you will reestablish partage — it seems to me they would respond to that. We could use our expertise and resources to force the issue.