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Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities | The Nation

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Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Waxman's extensive, empathetic reporting leads her to make some fairly minimal recommendations, the primary one being transparency. She also advocates closer cooperation between source countries and the West, suggesting that "the only realistic path forward is one of collaboration between poorer source countries so rich in patrimony and the wealthy industrialized nations that have the cash and expertise to preserve that patrimony." But she is vague about the details. How should courts proceed if the parties in question don't care to cooperate? It's true that a few source countries appear to have become more open to lending their artifacts for long periods of time, but what about curators in the West who fear that their cherished collections will be shipped out to museums as badly maintained as Usak's?

About the Author

Britt Peterson
Britt Peterson is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

A vocal member of this last group is James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose book Who Owns Antiquity? represents a shot across the bow and the greatest stumbling block to Waxman's modest proposal. Who Owns Antiquity? is a passionate apologia for the right of "encyclopedic" museums like the Met and the Louvre to house the world's cultural patrimony. The main thrust of Cuno's argument is that looting is inevitable and therefore museums, rather than private collectors, may as well be its beneficiaries. Source countries suing for restitution are motivated primarily by selfish, shortsighted nationalism, abetted by international courts and Unesco, which in 1970 passed a convention barring trade in looted artifacts. The only institutions that truly care about preserving, properly exhibiting and providing access to the world's great treasures are the encyclopedic museums of the West--not only the Met and the Louvre but also the British Museum, the troubled Getty and, of course, the Art Institute, among others. These museums, having transcended political motivations, allow art to be exhibited in the extranational context of the artistic tradition.

Cuno makes a sophisticated point about the difficulty of separating any thread of aesthetic tradition from the tangled skein of world influence. To claim that ancient Roman artifacts came from cultures that "developed autonomously in the region of present-day Italy," he reminds us, "is to willfully ignore the hybridity of culture and its multiple identities." In support of his concept of a global artistic realm that towers over nationalized identities, he marshals Edward Said and Benedict Anderson, putting a postcolonial spin on the Enlightenment ideal of the universal museum.

But the fit between postcolonialism and Enlightenment universalism is an awkward one, and it points out one of the flaws in Cuno's reasoning: his whitewashed vision of the encyclopedic museum. Here is Cuno's definition of his ideal: "This is the concept of the museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world's artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all." It's undeniable that a visit to the Louvre or the Met illuminates a vast, thrilling network of cultural resonance. Traversing a gallery that contains self-portraiture in the form of paintings by the seventeenth-century Dutch masters, late twentieth-century photographs and West African cult masks, for example, provides an education in comparative cultural self-representation that really can't be experienced any other way. (The Internet seems like a potential supplement, but neither Waxman nor Cuno addresses the potential for online exhibition and cooperation.)

But Cuno's nightmare vision that, through a few well-publicized restitution suits, the display cases of the West will be wrenched open to bleed forth valuable antiquities to the far corners of the world, leaving these grand old buildings tumbleweed-bare, is a fantasy. Such a process would be almost impossibly complex, and it is difficult to imagine that any source country would have the motivation or the means to carry it out. Second, many antiquities in the West were obtained legally, not even through the corrupted system of partage, in which source countries gave up their rights to discoveries made by Western-funded excavations. And most restitution suits center around single high-profile pieces rather than the meat-and-potatoes of these mammoth institutions. So the encyclopedic museum is not really under threat from what Cuno disgustedly calls the "nationalist retentionist" agenda. We will always have the British Museum, even if the Elgin Marbles go back to Greece.

Cuno's assumption that encyclopedic museums inhabit a universal realm that transcends culture and ideology is obviously wrong. This is true on an artistic level--surely displaying ritual objects on pristine white walls indicates something about the way Western culture believes art should be enjoyed--and it's true on a political level as well. The Louvre, for example, was founded by the French Revolutionary government in 1793 with the purpose of turning what had been a lavish royal palace into a temple of the people. But as France entered the colonial age, the Louvre became less the symbolic home of égalité than the repository of whatever trophies the empire's emissaries could lay their hands on. Napoleon's "savants"--a sort of scientific league of extraordinary gentlemen who traveled with his troops--were the first Europeans to alight upon the treasures of ancient Egypt, and the years of rabid excavation and art exportation that followed helped fill the Louvre's cavernous halls. These prizes, such as mummies displayed by the Empress Josephine in Malmaison, her country estate west of Paris, were meant to redound to the greater glory of France, not merely to celebrate the masses.

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