Object Lessons: The Law of Cultural Property

By Landman, James H. | Social Education, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Object Lessons: The Law of Cultural Property


Landman, James H., Social Education


Objects in museums tell many stories. An object may depict scenes from a legend or myth. It may commemorate a historical event or honor an important historical figure. It may be particularly representative of a major phase in an artist's life or give special insights into an ancient civilization and its values and beliefs.

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Museum objects tell another story that may not be as apparent to visitors or even fully known to the museum itself. This is the story of an object's provenance. Provenance is the story of where an object came from and who has owned it, from the time the object was created or discovered to the present day.

Major museums in Europe and the United States have histories that can stretch back hundreds of years. The provenance of objects in their collections can tell stories that reflect values, political systems, and sensitivities very different from the world today. Some objects were acquired during the era of Western colonialism; others were seized as part of a military conquest. Some were acquired during archaeological excavations in the early twentieth century under "sharing agreements" that resulted in the removal of prime artifacts from their country of origin to museums and universities in Europe and America. Within the United States, artifacts of Native American tribes were excavated and acquired with little regard to any claims that the tribes might have to the objects.

Many objects in museum collections were not, of course, acquired under such problematic circumstances. And the collections that have been assembled by institutions that have earned the title of "universal museums"--museums that allow visitors to experience under one roof the finest work of human cultures from around the globe and across time--have become cultural achievements in their own right. Within the United States, examples of universal museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Their collections and resources are held in public trust to benefit the many local, national, and international visitors they host each year. They have become an important part of the cultural heritage of the cities and nations in which they are located.

In recent years, the goals of the universal museum have increasingly come into conflict with the demands of nations, indigenous peoples, and individuals claiming rights to objects in museum collections. This article explores conflicts over cultural property through examination of three recent cases, one involving classical antiquities, the second involving Native American claims to ancient human remains found in the Pacific Northwest, and the third involving the legal claim of a Holocaust survivor to art confiscated by the Nazis. These cases illustrate the many interests at stake in cultural property disputes. They also raise a number of difficult issues that remain unanswered in the changing law of cultural property. How effectively can the law regulate trafficking in cultural artifacts? What role do, or should, museums play in preserving the heritage of different cultures and nations? When should the private interests of an individual or group outweigh the benefits of public access to great works of art? When do private interests outweigh the value of academic research in science and the humanities? To whom, ultimately, should cultural property and the stories it tells belong?

The Story of the Euphronios Krater

For centuries, the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea has been a rich source of antiquities from the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans. Classical antiquities are eagerly sought after by both private collectors and museums, and an extensive international market exists for the purchase and sale of these objects.

The international market in antiquities was a primary target of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (the UNESCO Convention).

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