Who owns antiquity? James Cuno enters the Penn snake pit

Antiquity, looters and the Penn Museum

6 minute read
Cuno: 'Culture knows no borders.'
Cuno: 'Culture knows no borders.'
James Cuno, head of the Chicago Art Institute, dove into the snake pit fearlessly, Indiana Jones-style. Typically, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, despite its priceless collection of viper-inspired ancient artifacts, doesn't get such a caustic rap, especially when it welcomes a prominent visiting scholar like Cuno, from one of the world's great encyclopedic museums.

How distinguished? Well, for starters, Cuno, the Art Institute's president and director since 2004, was on the short-list last year for the prestigious directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the world's premier encyclopedic museum. The Harvard-educated scholar also served as head of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and, before that, was director of art museums at Harvard, as well as a professor of art and architecture.

Yet as Cuno stepped onto the stage in Rainey Auditorium last week, you could almost hear an audible hiss from the crowd. OK, that's a bit hyperbolic. Still, the drama of the moment was palpable.

Looting and plundering

In one corner is the Penn Museum, a legendary teaching institution that pioneered Near Eastern "discovery" back in its romantic heyday in the early 20th Century— you know, what we now call the period of "looting and plundering" of ancient patrimonies.

In recognition of any perceived, even alleged wrongdoing, Penn almost 40 years ago offered up a mea culpa of sorts, now known as the Pennsylvania Declaration, a seminal nolo contendere fiat that pledged the museum to purchase "no more art objects or antiquities" unless their legal standing and provenance were completely verifiable.

That 1970 statement sent shock waves through the nation's museum nomenclature. The Met in New York, for example, thanks to its avaricious first director Luigi Palma di Cesnola, started shipping ancient antiquities to New York by the carload as soon as it opened in the late 19th century.

UNESCO joins the act

About the same time as Penn's commitment to transparent legitimacy, the United Nations, via UNESCO, was also propounding papal bull-like declarations that countries (read: Western nations) respect Third World heritages. All mouth, no teeth.

Still, the Penn and UNESCO conventions together packed a one-two punch, pretty much establishing the cultural ethic of today's museum world. Perhaps the best known recent case— at least in terms of creating the most noise— is that of the British Museum vs. the Government of Greece over Elgin Marbles. Greece wants them back in the Parthenon whence they came. The British Museum hasn't cried uncle, yet.

(More recently, The Getty in California and the Met, under legal threat, returned treasures to… Italy. Greece and the Third World still await their shot at museum justice.)

The world under one roof

But I was talking about James Cuno. In 1970, when he was 19, Cuno was visiting Paris as a student. Topping his itinerary, not surprisingly, was the Louvre. More surprisingly, that visit was the first time that Cuno had ever set foot in a museum.

"As I walked from room to room I became profoundly aware of the strange, new universe I had entered," Cuno recalled in Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton University Press, 2008). "Most of the world was there before me, or so it seemed, on the museum's walls and in its cases: fragile artifacts from places of which I had never heard."

This was young Cuno's epiphany— "the world under one roof," as he described it. And his awakening as museum guru, iconoclast, and one of America's most outspoken critics against what he sees as the self-aggrandizing, self-promoting bullying by new nation states to "repatriate" Western museum treasures for financial and political gain.

So, in the other corner, at Penn last week, enter the fly in the ointment, 39 years later.

Power hitters assembled

Much of Cuno's talk to students as guest of the university's Cultural Heritage Center, and later to a packed audience in Rainey— including some power hitters in Philadelphia's cultural firmament (Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Derek Gillman of the Barnes, and the like) was an impassioned restating of his overall thesis, as detailed in his book from last year. And what a book it is!

OK. Who Owns Antiquity? isn't the easiest of reads. But through its hard-slogging thicket of scholarly detail and context, the work makes a profound case for American, indeed, Western, museums to stand up to those who would want to cherry-pick encyclopedic institutions in the self-serving name of national legacy and heritage.

Cuno also introduces the P word. No, not the almost now sacred provenance. But partage— that is, mutual cooperation between local governments and international museums.

"Culture has never known physical borders," Cuno insisted to his Penn audience.

And despite Penn's later-day remorse, he added, partage enabled Penn to build its stupendous collections. As it did at university museums at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago.

The Iraqis gave their blessing

How important was partage? Well, significant enough— though this went without mention— to make possible the Penn Museum's current major exhibit, "Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery," which is based on artifacts and scholarship from Penn's joint 1922 excavation with the British Museum in what is now Iraq. This "sharing" was then deemed on the up and up— and, seemingly, OK with the Iraqis. At least, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S. was on hand last month, giving his imprimatur at the exhibit's official opening.

By and large, Cuno went on, partage served the best interests of both national entities and museums. What changed? Cuno blamed "the flood of national retentionist cultural property laws in the second half of the 20th Century."

The failing state of partage and the continuing strength of scholarship at the Penn Museum have particular importance to all Philadelphians, even non-academics. That's because the Penn Museum is, in a way, an extension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though the Art Museum is rightly known as an encyclopedic museum, in its early days it agreed that the fledging Penn Museum, then known as the Free Museum, would house the city's collection of classical and ancient antiquities. (Though there's an admission "donation," the Penn Museum actually still remains admission free: Pay what you wish.)

Moreover, controversy over legal ownership hasn't escaped Philadelphia, extending well beyond ancient times. What happens when a museum gets wind that a holding was stolen by Nazi art scavengers? Some years ago, the Art Museum learned that some armor it held actually belonged to a German museum. Back it went.

Cuno's argument is nuanced. Yes, laws must be abided and stolen goods returned. But museums must also stand up as "citizens of the world," he told the Penn audience.

And the center of that world? Chicago, Cuno told me with wink, before we departed for a wine reception in Lower Egypt hall. Oh, yes: That venue, too, owes its existence to partage.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

"Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery." Through Spring 2010 at University of Pennsylvania Museum, 3260 South St. (215) 898-4000 or

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