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Who Owns Antiquity?

The ALCTS President’s Program featured James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, asking the question of “who owns antiquity: museums and the battle over our ancient heritage.” Culture has never known national borders. These are artificial constructions made by people. He feels uncomfortable when he hears “the Greeks do this” or “the Chinese do this” or “the Americans do this.” Individuals do things, not nationalities, and individuals don’t always agree with their governments. All Greeks, Chinese, American people don’t always do the same thing. The borders of today, imposed upon culture, don’t make sense. Do artifacts belong in the place where they were made? The question implies that geography rather than people created them.  

 Should they be returned? Some hold very simplistic views of this. Cuno thinks that you can’t correct history nor is it clear that it should be corrected. It doesn’t discourage looting. Looting is not a pastime, it’s an act of desperate people in desperate times, trying to make a living. The international legal system to prevent archaeological looting actually creates a black market, consolidates and concentrates risk, and presenting a false view of culture as national rather than historical.

 Museums help us be curious about the world. It’s hard today to excavate and share. Overwhelmingly now, things must stay where they are found. Nationalism makes it difficult to create museums that encourage curiosity. It’s too easy to co-opt antiquity for the political present. Encyclopedic museums exist only where the Enlightenment flourished. It’s not just First World.

 Should the Elgin Marbles be returned? Where would they go? Is there any evidence that it was acquired illegally? No, to the latter. Permission was granted for their removal from the Parthenon. Encyclopedic museums, such as the British Museum, provide context for their collections.

 Who owns antiquity? We all do, but governments have jurisdiction over it. Antiquity is part of a political argument, which is unfortunate. We, as librarians and museum professionals are dedicated to preserving cultural heritage. Thus, it’s important to recognize the political aspects of antiquity.


Librarian challenges Cuno’s view of culture as simplistic, disagrees that nationalism and racism are germane to ownership of antiquity. Cuno agrees that his definition of culture is oversimplified, that collections are built on partage, and that some collections don’t provide enough context. Perhaps fragments of things should be consolidated somewhere, but where? Things that are broken ought to be fixed.

 Another librarian applauds Cuno for being politically incorrect. Will there be more flexibility in intellectual property laws? Cuno thinks there is more recognition of the pressure of politics. But he doesn’t see much change in legal system.

 Question about digitization. This can help scholars put together geographically scattered fragments.

 Marydee Ojala, Editor, ONLINE: Exploring Technology & Resources for Information Professionals

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