James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust writes in “Cultural War,” that when Turkey’s Minister of Culture, Ertugrul Gunay, suggests “each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland,” the gentleman is in error. (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2014 Pgs. 119.) Cunao argues statements like Gunay’s represent old nation-state thinking which no longer applies, given the amount of migration going on across the world. Cuno quotes UNESCO’s declaration in his defense: “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity.” (Ibid 119.) In today’s world, he points out, “more people have moved across or within national borders than at any point in human history, straining the very…definition of nation-states.” (Ibid pg. 122)
The standards for the return of national artifacts were passed after 1970, but in earlier times cultural heritage pieces were bought and sold easily and many of these transactions were between the county of origin and outside parties. (Ibid 124) The bust of Nefertiti came to Berlin in this manner in 1912. By similar means marble panels from the Parthenon in Athens also found their way to Germany.(Ibid pg 124)
In 2001, UNESCO declared the sixth century Banniyan Buddhas of Afghanistan part of that country’s cultural heritage. Theirs was a failed attempt to protect these artifacts from the Taliban. Unfortunately, as there is no international institution with the authority to make the cultural heritage designation for a nation, the Taliban destroyed the Buddahas with no fear of reprisals.
That cultural heritage can be destroyed at will by a rogue faction is one reason Cuno discounts nation-state claims and supports what he call “encyclopedic” museums – museums like the Louvre in France, The British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that are large enough and have sufficient staff to protect great treasures. Culture, he reminds us, doesn’t stop at borders but is the legacy of humankind. As such, it should be protected from “Political agendas of its current ruling elite” (Ibid pg 120)
Encyclopedic museums, Cuno argues, not only have the capacity to house cross cultural and generational pieces, but they can display those pieces in a way that gives them historical as well a cultural significance (Ibid 122) Sharing artifacts among encyclopedic museums would also make it more likely that great works of art would be seen by a widening audience.
So far countries like Italy, Turkey and Egypt aren’t buying Cuno’s concept of intertwined cultures. Egypt’s antiquities minister has flatly said, “We will make life miserable for museums that refuse to repatriate.” (Ibid pg. 126. ) Frankly, I tend to sympathize with the passion of the antiquities minister. Cuno makes a lofty argument against repatriation but for some time, larger countries have enriched themselves at the expense of smaller ones. In the name of fairness, It’s time for serious negotiations between the interested parties to begin.