Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage

Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage


Whether antiquities should be returned to the countries where they were found is one of the most urgent and controversial issues in the art world today, and it has pitted museums, private collectors, and dealers against source countries, archaeologists, and academics. Maintaining that the acquisition of undocumented antiquities by museums encourages the looting of archaeological sites, countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China have claimed ancient artifacts as state property, called for their return from museums around the world, and passed laws against their future export. But in Who Owns Antiquity?, one of the world's leading museum directors vigorously challenges this nationalistic position, arguing that it is damaging and often disingenuous. "Antiquities," James Cuno argues, "are the cultural property of all humankind," "evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities--and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics. To do this, Cuno calls for measures to broaden rather than restrict international access to antiquities. He advocates restoration of the system under which source countries would share newly discovered artifacts in exchange for archaeological help, and he argues that museums should again be allowed reasonable ways to acquire undocumented antiquities. Cuno explains how partage broadened access to our ancient heritage and helped create national museums in Cairo, Baghdad, and Kabul. The first extended defense of the side of museums in the struggle over antiquities, Who Owns Antiquity? is sure to be as important as it is controversial.


It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.

— Benedict Anderson

I. Through the first decade of the nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople from 1799 to 1803, had numerous sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped to London. He did so, we are told, with permission from the governing Ottoman authorities. The original legal instrument has disappeared and is said to exist only in an Italian translation made for Elgin by the Ottoman court. Some then and now question the legality of Elgin’s actions. The Italian language document gives Elgin the right to draw, measure, and make plaster casts of the sculptures, and dig for others that might have been buried. It also allows for “some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures” to be taken away. Did this refer to the sculptures on the building or only the fragments found on the ground? The document is not clear. And without greater clarity (and, at this point, probably even with it), no legal case can be made against Britain’s ownership of the marbles. Still, the modern government of Greece has consistently called for their return.

Whatever the legal circumstances of Elgin’s actions, they could hardly have been surreptitious. The sculptures, both freestanding and in relief, were numerous and heavy and had to be taken off the building and down from the temple’s considerable height. They then had to be transported to ships, where, for fear of sinking the ships themselves, Elgin’s agents sawed off the backs of the thickest relief slabs . . .

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