Whose Culture, edited by James Cuno, bears the subtitle “The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities.” Although it sounds like an argument that affects only a few people beyond archaeologists and museum curators, that’s not the case. To use the type of hyperbolic language that normally grates on me, the issue is central to our times. It’s at the heart of all the broad conflicts and modern contradictions that we face. As Michael F. Brown writes (p. 160) “local loyalties — to family, to community — are essential elements of global citizenship. In times of crisis, however, they readily slide into parochialism and xenophobia.” In my world’s simple, mundane terms, this is like the issue raised by Hillary Clinton during her husband’s presidency. Does it take a village to raise a child? If so, does that mean that I should expect financial support from the village to feed and clothe my child? Should the U.S., during this global depression, be sending money overseas to help people in countries run by horrible governments?
A few of the contributors address the issue of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Sir John Boardman (p. 109) compares the act of the Taliban with that of Moses when he destroyed Aaron’s Golden Calf. What a thought-provoking issue! Why shouldn’t the Taliban have destroyed what they considered idolatrous? We accept Moses’ act as not only justified, but right. The Buddhas are in the land of the Taliban (at least to the extent of any group claiming that their material artifacts must be returned). Shouldn’t they have their own freedom of religion? The greatest loss in the defaced Buddhas, Boardman asserts, is probably to the tourist trade (p. 108). Now, two weeks ago I would have felt differently, although not without some sense of ambiguity.
Kwame Anthony Appiah in the title chapter, “Whose Culture Is It?”, addresses many of the paradoxes. He says “it’s a painful irony that one reason we’ve lost information about cultural antiquities is the very regulation intended to preserve it.” Mali, for instance, doesn’t have enough money to take care of their artifacts. Should they be taken for safekeeping out of the country, they would be preserved, but they will likely be lost since they must remain in Malian territory because of the regulations. Appiah also addresses the idea that most art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Artists, including Picasso, who commented on the fact, copy. This means art is generally international. The Buddhas, rejected in Afghanistan as not part of their culture, are part of the Tibetan or Japanese Buddhist culture.
A point frequently mentioned in the pages of the book is that archaeologists who work on prehistoric sites may have a point that the site of the find gives paramount information, but this is not true of objets d’art from areas that had writing. A vase signed by the Euphronios painter contains a good deal of information that is more important than where it was found. Such works were sold and moved about. That adds nothing substantial to knowledge about the piece. To say that the site where found is at the heart of knowledge about all artifacts supports the elitist idea that an ordinary museum-goer doesn’t have the background to appreciate an ancient work of art. To those who can read them or translations thereof, cuneiform tablets contain historically valid information quite apart from where they were unearthed. This makes it seem a bit like an historians vs archaeologists argument. Some of the contributors to the volume are archaeologists frustrated by the refusal of certain archaeological publications to include references to unprovenanced work, though, so it’s not.