Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Who Owns Anything?

With conflict raging in the Middle East, the concerns about the destruction or looting of antiquities make the newspapers and other news outlets on a nearly daily basis; a lot of what is being considered is archival in nature, encompassing ancient texts and documents. James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) offers one perspective on the issues concerning the preservation of our ancient heritage. Cuno, the President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, makes an argument that while we certainly should not condone the destruction of archaeological sites and the marketing of objects without provenance documentation, the situation is more complicated than what it seems. Cuno believes that it is difficult to connect ancient heritage to modern nation states and that restricting the acquisition of ancient objects and documents undermines society’s ability to understand its common heritage. He stresses that the focus on ethical and legal issues is more complicated than what seems at first to be pretty obvious concerns.

Cuno, early in his interesting book, states, “The real argument over the acquisition of undocumented (unprovenanced) antiquities is not what it appears to be. It is not really between art museums and archaeologists, about the protection of the archaeological record from looting and illicit trafficking in antiquities. It is between museums and modern nation-states and their nationalist claims ion that heritage” (p. xviii). The point that Cuno makes is that it is difficult to connect the ancient cultures creating objects with the modern nations of today and that trying to make such a connection gets us wrapped up in difficult and complex “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws” (p. xxxv). Cuno also argues that most of these laws are not only overly restrictive but often difficult (perhaps impossible) to interpret or enforce (drawing on a variety of cases in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America, and North America.

The author, not surprisingly, given his position, is an advocate for the notion of “encyclopedic art museums.” These museums are “based on in the polymathic ideal of the Enlightenment museum; it is good for us, for our species, to experience the full diversity of human cultural industry in order to better understand our place in the world, as of but one culture and our time among many” (p. 123). These museums enable the display of artifacts from across cultures and eras, allowing greater understanding of the world’s past and our common origins. Cuno believes these kinds of museums are critical because, “Antiquity cannot be owned. It is our common heritage as represented by and in antiquities and ancient texts and architecture” (p. 20). Cuno presents what seems to be a compelling argument. He is highly critical of archaeologists for arguing about looting and the problems with the international market, suggesting that they go along with this “because they are dependent on nation-states to do their work. Nation-states hold the goods – antiquities and archaeological sites as national cultural property and cultural patrimony – and they control access to them” (p. 154).

Cuno’s book and its argument is compelling, but it is also unsettling. Why it is unsettling can be found in the collection of essays in Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christian Luke, and Kahryn Walker Tubb, eds., Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006). As Brodie notes in the introduction to this volume, the “antiquities trade transforms monetary, aesthetic, legal, personal, and social values” (p. 19). The essays provide case studies about the damage done to archaeological sites, the loss of evidence about archaeological artifacts recovered because of the focus on these objects as “arts,” and the problems caused by museum curators and private collectors willing to look away from the problems in how the artifacts might have been acquired. Neil Brodie, in another essay in the volume, notes, “It is impossible for an outsider to penetrate the inner workings of the antiquities trade, and antiquities dealers are not inclined to help” (p. 222). It is difficult to try to follow Cuno’s assessment in light of the kinds of case studies presented in the Brodie, et al, edited book.

One comment made by Cuno does mystify me. In his book, Cuno writes, “We live in an age of globalization characterized by the potential of almost all of us to participate in and contribute to it” (p. 160). What mystifies me is why Cuno does not expand on the possibilities of using the World Wide Web to allow museums, libraries, and archives to exchange detailed scholarly information about their collections without having to deal with the actual objects.

Of course, somehow archivists have managed to avoid the kinds of ethical, legal, and other problems plaguing museums. There are indications that this is changing, as the proposed protocols for dealing with Native American collections may set off a firestorm within the American archival community. Archivists need to get ready to contend with such challenges, and reading books such as this will help them.