James Cuno on Museums

The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts

In this Foreign Affairs Focus video, James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, discusses the case against repatriating museum artifacts and his recent article, "Culture War," with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose.

An edited transcript is below.

Gideon Rose:  You talked in the article about the need and the importance of cosmopolitan museums as great cultural institutions for society and the world, and the threat to that posed by the movement to repatriate artifacts to their country of origin, and to think of art as a national pride issue rather than a product for the world at large.  How do you see those kinds of issues?

James Cuno:  First, I think we have to look at the word "repatriate" and the promiscuous use of that word because it's a word as you very well know that comes -- that really is applied to the return of prisoners of war, and so these objects are being cast in the light of being held prisoner from their homeland as it were and the talk -- the use of the word repatriate means to bring them out of imprisonment, to their rightful place at home.

Gideon Rose:  So the movement to repatriate art is really a kind -- based on the idea that art has been stolen and is being kept prisoner in the new countries and should be liberated and sent back to its homeland?

James Cuno:  Yes, and on the assumption that it has a homeland, that it's got some generic and a place in this particular part of geography as human beings, so as if it was born there and has a citizenship with this place and should be returned to that country of its origin.  Then that use of that word, "repatriation," is to elicit a kind of emotional response, the sense that these things share with the individuals who live in that -- within that polity now and identity.  This ancient object that may be 2000 or 3000 years old that was made for whomever, but not certainly for the modern state, has a place in the modern state.

Gideon Rose:  Greek and the Romans arts -- so the Victory of Samothrace is like Rousseau, a citizen of the world not limited to a particular national community at this time?

James Cuno:  We’re talking about things that are in the public domain that are in museums and that are in context in which they’re seen in relationship to each other, and we see that the -- and works have always been made out of contact with new and formed stimuli, that they're not anything that was contained within a parameter -- a political parameter that have distinct identities associated with that political parameter, but rather works of art -- artists have always moved about them, they've always seen new things, strange things, provoked interest in making new things.  What we’re trying to do great by making a claim for the encyclopedic museum as a kind of cosmopolitan institution is to encourage people to be curious about the world, to look for similarities rather than differences, and to note that these differences are the differences of circumstances, not the differences of nature.

Gideon Rose:  But is there a difference between seeing a piece of art that’s been ripped from its cultural and historical context and placed in some new one as opposed to seeing it in its place of origin and time of origin?  I mean, if you look at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, is that the same thing as seeing them back where they were?  If you look at the Temple of Dendur at the Met, is that the same as seeing it back in Egypt?

James Cuno:  You’ll never return objects to their original -- state of origin.  I mean, that is because the circumstances have changed -- if the Temple of Dendur, which of course was exported from Egypt legally with the encouragement of the Egyptian authorities.  Now, those -- if that went back Egypt, it wouldn’t go back to Pharaonic Egypt.  It will go back to Contemporary Egypt.  Circumstances are not just physical circumstances, not just how something looked in landscape, but there has something looks in the developing organic cultural environment.  There are other aspects of -- in context, that is there's not just a single content that has the authority over all other context.  There is a new context within a museum which one sees a work of art in the context of other works of art, and so one sees in that context that works of art have a certain similarity that provokes questions about human contact and historical evaluation.  I think that we shouldn’t privilege one context over another, and in fact, what I think we want to do in this encyclopedic museums or cosmopolitan institutions is to encourage curiosity about the world.  This curiosity, especially at a time of research nationalism and sectarian violence, is something that I think proves -- could prove beneficial in the world, that the world is -- people are living across borders and numbers great -- ever greater than it appeared ever before. We want people to be curious about their neighbors, their neighbors that come from different places who have different cultural values that are not trying to be integrated into a common context.  The more that we can encourage this kind of curiosity about the world, the difference of the world, the better, and I think that’s what we want our museums to do.

Gideon Rose:  You talked in the article about how you first encountered some great artifacts in the Louvre and how this really exposed you to new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing, and how that was helpful on your view.  Can you go to that a little bit?

James Cuno:  Yeah.  Well, I was 19 years old and I was a travelling student, and I made my way into the Louvre, and at that -- in those days, in the late 60s, there was -- there were very few people in the Louvre, and so you wander at will without the bustle of crowd around you, and you could be therefore attracted to things, things that seems strange to you, and this one, this is great, early Assyrian piece.  There was this kind of commanding presence of his, that the strangeness about it attracted my attention, and I began to look at it and began to read the label.  I didn’t -- knew nothing from which it came and nothing about the date, nothing about the context, but there was something about it that attracted my attention.  I looked at this thing and I remember years later, reflecting upon that experience, that I looked at it, I must have looked at it as if the original makers looked at it.  I mean, there was no real distinction between that original maker looking at this object he made and my looking at this object he made, and all the people in between that person and myself, so I was in an unbroken line of observers onto this object, that we've felt drawn to this object, and all of a sudden, we were part of a family.  It was a certain kind of relationship with people, and then -- and so, there was a sense of collapse of time and a collapse of difference, and I had --there is no reason why I can’t have that same kind of grasp of this object that the original maker had or the people in the original context had that we can bridge those differences by the power of attraction that works of art have over us.

Gideon Rose:  The cultural theorists might argue that kind of gaze is a kind of a proprietary, imperial, penetrating gaze that the artifact was ripped by colonial masters from its original context and taken to the Metropol and that therefore, what the -- really, what you were doing in is engaging in and perpetuating a kind of a narrative of domination, and an act of domination against the sort of subaltern people whose art it was. And that therefore the Elgin Marbles should be in Greece rather than England, and the Etruscan Art should be back home rather than here.  You just don't buy that at all?

James Cuno:   I don’t buy that at all.  If the things have been removed legally and the circumstances -- a circumstance of the time which they were removed, and we know from the Parthenon Marbles, they were in fact removed legally because the Ottoman authorities gave Elgin permission to remove them.  If you're looking for evidence of empire in museums, you’ll see it everywhere because it’s a historical fact.  We can embrace that history, look beyond that history, be critical of that history, but -- and include it as part of our own history, but I don’t think its matter of just trying to read, retrace, and correct the imbalances of power of the past.

Gideon Rose:  In effect, the great museums that may have been in part the heirs of imperial projects can nevertheless in the present era help transcend that kind of history by bringing cultures and multiculturalism to people, whoever comes to visit them.

James Cuno:  Yeah, I think it can, and there is sort of imperial ambitions that modern nations states have, and in those imperial ambitions, they're not -- it's too ignoble their own power and presence in the world by reflecting on their own greater glories of the past that they claim to be their inheritance, rather than overpowering other cultures in the world.  I think it’s an impulse that people have.  It’s an impulse to be critical of, but nevertheless, it isn’t an impulse that one can eliminate, especially from the past.  One can identify it and be critical of it, but it is what it is.

Gideon Rose:  Are there real issues in the art world and art trade today of looting of artifacts being sold on a black market, even if legal transactions are legit?  Would encouraging that simply open the floodgates for a whole variety of illegal transactions as well?

James Cuno:  I don’t think the legal transactions would open the floodgates of illegal transactions, but there are illegal transactions around the world so we are told, and I’m willing to believe.  I mean, I have no contact with it so I can’t tell you in fact that that’s the case and what’s an area of the world to which that’s now being emphasized as Syria., certainly destruction of the ancient legacy of the ancient world in Syria, and there’s even looting of -- I assume, and it’s said that the looting feeds ISIS, and it’s with oil, a means of their sort of financial support.  It's said that the looting occurs by these objects being taken from Syria across the border into Turkey, and then sold into the black market.  The big question is where are they going if that’s the case?  If this is a big financial contribution to the coffers of ISIS and the numbers you hear are millions, tens of million, hundreds of millions, billions, that’s a lot of money, and I don’t think we yet know how that translates from these objects that are being looted to these numbers of dollars, and where they're going and where they resurface.  Nevertheless, it’s a horrible tragic situation, the result of war, destruction, and sectarian violence, and it’s got to be stopped, and the only place it can be stopped is at the borders.

Gideon Rose:  As the head of the Getty, you're one of the great cultural gatekeepers and enforcers, in the American cultural world certainly, but even in the world more generally.  How do you establish a sort of scale of authoritative value in such a subjective area as art and culture? 

James Cuno:  Yeah, well we don’t do it alone.  We have advisers in every part of what we do, whether it’s the conservation around the world, whether we're working in the Valley of the Queens in Egypt or Tut’s tomb in Egypt or whether we're working in the caves of Western China, whether we're working with conservators and panel paintings in Central Europe, or wherever it might be.  It’s always with advisers who bring to us their collective wisdom to help us understand, so that we are not working just from our own interest, but what we understand to be an interest of the discipline, of the domain of which we are part. 

Gideon Rose:  What’s your single favorite artifact or work of art in the Getty?

James Cuno:  You know, everyone asks that. It’s always impossible to say, but I would say a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the great late 1530s, 16th century Northern Italian Venetian area painter which is a painting of the Adoration of the Magi, and it’s extremely beautiful that evokes that kind of compression, the release of the Roman world which was influential on him, but it’s got the extraordinary lightness and depthness of touch, both in terms of emotion of the figures as they're expressed in the faces -- and just the pure quality of the paint on linen.

Gideon Rose:  James Cuno, thank you very much. Good talking with you.

James Cuno:  My pleasure, thank you.

 

[END]

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