Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities

Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities

Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities

Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities


The international controversy over who "owns" antiquities has pitted museums against archaeologists and source countries where ancient artifacts are found. In his book Who Owns Antiquity?, James Cuno argued that antiquities are the cultural property of humankind, not of the countries that lay exclusive claim to them. Now in Whose Culture?, Cuno assembles preeminent museum directors, curators, and scholars to explain for themselves what's at stake in this struggle--and why the museums' critics couldn't be more wrong.

Source countries and archaeologists favor tough cultural property laws restricting the export of antiquities, have fought for the return of artifacts from museums worldwide, and claim the acquisition of undocumented antiquities encourages looting of archaeological sites. In Whose Culture?, leading figures from universities and museums in the United States and Britain argue that modern nation-states have at best a dubious connection with the ancient cultures they claim to represent, and that archaeology has been misused by nationalistic identity politics. They explain why exhibition is essential to responsible acquisitions, why our shared art heritage trumps nationalist agendas, why restrictive cultural property laws put antiquities at risk from unstable governments--and more. Defending the principles of art as the legacy of all humankind and museums as instruments of inquiry and tolerance, Whose Culture? brings reasoned argument to an issue that for too long has been distorted by politics and emotionalism.

In addition to the editor, the contributors are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sir John Boardman, Michael F. Brown, Derek Gillman, Neil MacGregor, John Henry Merryman, Philippe de Montebello, David I. Owen, and James C. Y. Watt.


James Cuno


WHOSE CULTURE? The modern nations’ within whose borders antiquities— the ancient artifacts of peoples long disappeared—happen to have been found? Or the world’s peoples’, heirs to antiquity as the foundation of culture that has never known political borders but has always been fluid, mongrel, made from contact with new, strange, and wonderful things?

The Promise of Museums. As a repository of objects, dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.

The Debate over Antiquities. (Nationalism) Antiquities are the cultural property of the nation, products of the collective genius of its nationals, important to their identity and self-esteem. They are of the nation and cannot be alienated from it. (Archaeologists) Antiquities are ancient artifacts of meaning only if properly excavated. The acquisition by museums of antiquities not properly excavated, whose archaeological circumstances are unknown, aids and abets the looting of antiquities and the destruction of archaeological sites and the knowledge they contain. (Museums) Antiquities, documented or otherwise, have a variety of meanings and deserve to be preserved in the public domain for the benefit of scholars and the delight of the public.

For decades, art museum directors and curators, archaeologists, and government authorities have been locked in a debate over the value of museums . . .

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