Whose Culture?, edited by James Cuno, contains an introduction and 9 essays on the role of major museums in the preservation of world culture. Far from being an esoteric, jargon-filled look at a debate between archaeologists and collectors of antiquities, these essays, some from conference presentations, some philosophical, and some impassioned, show that the whose-cultural-property debate runs parallel to and intersects other problem areas in the modern world. Aside from an occasional, defined term, like partage, there is limited use of jargon and most mentions of art are either illustrated or of well-known pieces.
Introduction to Whose Culture? by James Cuno
If the debate is new to you, save this intro until you've read a few chapters. It is an overview that also explains why the book is biased in favor of encyclopedic museums. Underlying the discussion is the idea that archaeologists believe looting, which causes loss or destruction of the archaeological information, would be less of a problem if museums didn't buy from private collectors. Although museums value the archaeological context, they want to preserve the artifacts, as well. In addition, they seek to present the artifacts to the largest possible audience. Examples, like the Rosetta Stone, which was excavated before there was a field of archaeology, show the intrinsic value of antiquities.
Part One - The Value of Museums
Encyclopedic Museums, like the British Museum, are Enlightenment products designed to make visitors more familiar with and sympathetic to others' cultures. From the founding of the UN (1947), and especially since 1970, there has been a proliferation of retentionist cultural property laws and hoarding. Partage, allowing host nations and archaeologists to share finds, has stopped. These two trends have hampered encyclopedic museums. This comes at a time when the world is increasingly divided along ideological, political, and cultural lines... so the loss to museums is especially to be regretted.
MacGregor and Montebello originally delivered their contributions to this book at a 2006 Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conference.
To Shape the Citizens of 'That Great City, the World', by Neil MacGregor
MacGregor begins with the story of why the British Museum collection is located in London. The donor, Sir Hans Sloane, citizen of the world, wanted the collection to be kept together and viewed by as many people as possible, so the largest international center of its time was his first pick for the universal museum. The collection was to show visitors, both natives of the UK and the world, the current world as much as world history. The enlightenment encyclopedic museum was supposed to show viewers truths that are only apparent in the context of other items.
The British Museum sends out objects to other museums and schools and takes in objects from other cultures as part of its mission to be a universal museum.
And What Do You Propose Should Be Done With Those Objects? by P. de Montebello
Philippe de Montebello says the job of encyclopedic museums is to acquire, conserve, display, and publish with a goal of presenting the collection to the largest possible audience. Studying objects in museums has great benefits denied objects within an archaeological context or local museum because there is much more for comparison and contrast. He gives reasons with historic examples of why objects shouldn't be kept at archaeological sites, including broad access and protection in times of crisis. Although trade Rosetta Stone Chinese (Mandarin) in illegal loot is reprehensible, unprovenanced artifacts have value and don't lead to a multi-billion dollar illegal industry. By public display, improperly acquired objects can be claimed.
Whose Culture Is It? by Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton University
Pillaging of cultural patrimony is one of the ambiguities and paradoxes Appiah, a native of Ghana, describes. Culture means both artifacts and the group that creates the artifacts. Cultural patrimony can be pillaged, but the country that claims it may have acquired it at an earlier period by pillaging someone else. Patrimony can mean imperialism plus time. Some countries are too poor to care for their artifacts. Allowing their export ensures preservation where hoarding would probably lead to oblivion. Most great art isn't bound to a single culture. A move to remove objects offensive to hard-line Taliban was thwarted by UNESCO. Appiah says we need to think beyond borders to human art.
Part Two - The Value of Antiquities
Antiquities have aesthetic, technological, iconographics, and epigraphic value in addition to archaeological, and the objective value of an excavated artifact. James C.Y. Wyatt, who presented at the same conference as MacGregor and de Montebello, looks at what can be learned Rosetta Stone Arabic about Chinese artifacts from their archaeological context. Sir John Boardman takes fellow archaeologist Colin Renfrew to task, and David I. Owen looks at the benefits conferred by unprovenanced antiquities.
Antiquities and the Importance -- and Limitations -- of Archaeological Contexts
James C. Y. Wyatt starts off making the claim that professional archaeologists who make archaeological context paramount are like early Church fathers denying redemption to the unbaptized. He then says that in prehistoric archaeology, context is paramount, but it reduces in importance with literacy. Archaeology can't tell why people created puzzling artifacts. Even if we can't understand what it's for, we can appreciate its aesthetics., and that has value, denied by the mentioned archaeologists. Certain traits have staying power -- for the Chinese, a passion for jade; for mankind, collecting. There are times when the geographic location of a find is significant, but only sometimes.
Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums, by Sir John Boardman
Boardman responds to Colin Renfrew and other outspoken, but atypical archaeologists. Looting is criminal and endemic in human history, like genocide. Religiously motivated actions of the Taliban in destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas didn't kill people. It was just as right an action for a religious individual as Moses' destruction of Aaron's Golden Calf. What would be worse for human knowledge is the destruction of an unpublished site. Few excavations are published despite the fact that the excavations are publicly funded. Museums do more for mankind's understanding than excavations, except in the area of prehistory. Legislation makes it preferable for someone coming upon a hoard of coins to melt it Rosetta Stone English down than to bring it to a collector.
Censoring Knowlege, by David I. Owen
In Censoring Knowlege: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets, David I. Owens argues that the bans of archaeological societies on the publication of or even reference to unprovenanced cuneiform tablets are unforgiveable errors. Motivation for the censorship is the appearance of looted documents on eBay etc. Lack of provenance does not negate the historical value of the artifacts for the history of Mesopotamia, although an archaeologist equated those who publish them with supporters of terrorists. Owens agrees with Lawrence Stager's assessment of such archaeologists who refuse to work with unprovenanced finds as jihadists.
Part Three - Museums, Antiquities, and Cultural Property
The final section looks at the political pressures restricting international access to products of culture. Michael F. Brown looks at the problems of cultural property. Derek looks three major artifacts to see what if anything can be learned about nationalist culturalist claims. The final essay, by John Henry Merryman, proposes judging artifacts using a hierarchy of competing claims: Rosetta Stone preservation, truth, and access.