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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Latest Talk about Cultural Property

Cuno_2 ... from the New York Times, discussing James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, just published by Princeton University Press.  Cuno is also editor of Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust published in 2006.

The article begins by asking this question: "To what culture does the concept of “cultural property” belong? Who owns this idea?"  I'm not sure that's the most the most direct route to the bottom of "cultural history" questions, like what to do with the Elgin Marbles.  However, it opens up some interesting ground for discussion of what "cultural property" is and why (or whether) we should care about it.

The article continues:

It has, like much material property in the last 50 years, often changed hands. And in doing so, it has also changed meanings and grown in importance. It now affects the development of museums, alters the nature of international commerce and even seems to subsume traditional notions of property. ...

What was profound in the West was not the looting but attempts to end it, along with ambitions that went beyond assertions of power and possession. The desires of the greatest collectors and museums have been to preserve and to understand (leading, for example, to the decoding of the Rosetta Stone and the preservation of artifacts that would have otherwise been lost). This gave birth to what Mr. Cuno calls “encyclopedic museums,” those that encompass the world’s cultures while seeking an Enlightenment ideal of universalist understanding.

Seen in this light the very notion of cultural property is narrow and flawed. It is hardly, as Unesco asserted, “one of the basic elements of civilization.” It illuminates neither the particular culture involved nor its relationship to a current political entity. It may be useful as a metaphor, but it has been more commonly used to consolidate cultural bureaucracies and state control.

But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.

Close readers of propertyprof will recall that we've been following these issues in a lot of different ways--from John Merryman's volume on the Elgin Marbles to Hiram Bingham's exploration of Machu Picchu (and here).  And, of course, the critical question: Who owns American folk culture?  Parker Brothers, apparently!

Alfred Brophy.

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