Two questions dominate our consideration of the fate of the world’s ancient heritage. The more vexing and urgent one — how can we prevent the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trade in antiquities -– is not the topic of this article. The second one is.
“Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”
This question turns on two presumptions:
In the first instance, it has been argued that British, French, and German nationals removed antiquities found in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East only because their nations were the dominant military, political, or economic powers in the region. Had Greece, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran been equally powerful — indeed if they had been independent, sovereign nations (they weren’t; they were part of a weakening Ottoman Empire) — they would never have allowed foreign nationals to remove their ancient cultural property. And now that they are independent, the antiquities in question, even if they had been removed legally under previous regimes, ought to be returned to the jurisdiction of the appropriate modern nation states.
These calls to return artifacts are an effort to redress historical imbalances of power, and have been justified on these terms. It is also an effort to rewrite history.
The Bronze Horses—who can lay claim?
The bronze horses atop St. Mark’s in Venice were looted from Constantinople in 1204 on the order of the Venetian Doge during the Fourth Crusade. They had been in Constantinople under the Byzantines since the fall of the Roman Empire during which the horses may have been made (although they have also been attributed to the 4th-centuty BC Greek sculptor, Lysippos). Venice itself was once part of the Roman Empire and then Byzantium until it became an independent Byzantine state in the 8th century and an independent city state by the 12th century, not long before the Doge ordered the removal of the bronze horses from the capital of Byzantium of which once Venice had been a part.
History is untidy. The imbalance of power in the region changed hands many times. At which point should one redress it by returning the horses, and to which modern nation state? Each country–Greece, Rome, and Turkey–has a case for their return on these terms: Greece, perhaps the first political authority to host the horses, lost the region to a more powerful Rome; Rome to a more powerful Byzantium; and Byzantium to the more powerful Ottomans who were then succeeded by Turkey. Which imbalance of power should be redressed by returning the horses?
“Do civilizations ever make things?“
And what of the second argument for the return of antiquities, that even if legally removed, the great treasures of ancient art belong in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished? Do civilizations ever make things? And what defines the extent of civilizations: time, space, artistic forms?
The government of Italy claims that all antiquities found within the borders of the modern state of Italy were made by cultures autonomous to the region. And yet for hundreds of years before the rise of Rome what is now southern Italy and Sicily was a Greek colony known locally in Greek as Megale Hellas, or Greater Greece. Roman culture is defined by its emulation of earlier Greek culture.
Cultures of any consequence have never been autonomous, have always overlapped with others, and their cultural products have always been hybrid. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has put it: cultural purity is an oxymoron. To claim one’s culture to be autonomous is to make a political claim, not a scientific one.
On what basis can modern nation states claim to be heirs to ancient civilizations, except perhaps because they occupy land once occupied by inhabitants of those earlier civilizations? What if the borders of the ancient political entity and those of the modern nation state are not coextensive? Former empires — whether Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, Mongol, or Ottoman – distributed their cultural forms and influence across vast stretches of the earth’s surface.
So again, the question is did civilizations make things? And if they did, can a modern nation state claim such ancient things theirs by inheritance? Appiah thinks not. When writing about ancient Nok sculpture found in what is today Nigeria, he reminds us: “We don’t know whether Nok sculptures were commissioned by kings or commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is that they didn’t make them for Nigeria.”
The UNESCO Convention of 1970 claims that ancient cultural artifacts were created by the “collective genius of nationals of the State.” The Convention, written by representatives of modern nation states to support the primacy of national claims on antiquities as national cultural property, holds that ancient remains were produced by a collective national genius that is one and the same with that of the modern state. All such claims are political in nature and nationalistic in character.
The evolution of the Parthenon politic
Consider the origins of the Parthenon as the symbol and political manifestation of what UNESCO would call Greek genius.
The Parthenon was completed in 432 BC. Eight centuries later, under the Byzantines, it was converted into a Christian church and remained so for a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered Athens and converted the Acropolis into a military garrison and the Parthenon into a mosque. In 1687, a Venetian army besieged Athens and in the process bombarded the Parthenon causing the supplies of gunpowder stored there to explode. Two years later, the Ottomans returned and built a small mosque within the ruined Parthenon. That mosque would survive until the defeat of the Ottomans in the Greek War of Independence in 1833. Then the new, Greek nationalist forces declared the Acropolis and the Parthenon sacred Greek monuments and cleansed the area of what they thought to be all non-Athenian materials.
To mark the new status of the Acropolis and Parthenon, the new Greek King (the 17-year old German son of King Ludwig of Bavaria) commissioned the German architect Leo von Klenze to rebuild Athens as the new state’s national capital. In a ceremony of dedication on the Acropolis, the young German prince (now Greek king) sat upon his throne within the Parthenon and, in front of soldiers and courtiers and young girls waving myrtle branches, listened to a speech delivered by Klenze in German.
“Your majesty stepped today, after so many centuries of barbarism, for the first time on this celebrated Acropolis, proceeding on the road of civilization and glory, on the road passed by the likes of Themistocles, Aristeides, Cimon, and Pericles, and this is and should be in the eyes of your people the symbol of your glorious reign…All the remains of barbarity will be removed, here as in all of Greece, and the remains of the glorious past will be brought in new light, as the solid foundation of a glorious present and future.”
The physical reminders of the years when the Parthenon was a Byzantine church and Muslim mosque were to be removed. And the once pagan temple and all of the Acropolis were to be preserved as the nationalist political symbol of the new Greece.
As one archaeologist put it, speaking at a meeting of the newly formed Archaeological Society of Athens in 1838, “it is to these stones [the sculpture and architecture of classical Greece] that we owe our political renaissance.” Or, as another archaeologist wrote more than a century later, in 1983, the Parthenon is “the most sacred monument of this country…which expresses the essence of the Greek spirit.”
The “imagined community” rears its head
The question of nationalism (and nationalist political symbols) is complicated, especially in the case of Greek nationalism which depends on and derives from a notion of ancient nationhood. And yet most characteristic of ancient Greek collective identity was the preeminence of the city-state, whether Athens, Sparta, or Corinth.
As the historian of nationalism, Anthony Smith, has written, “Despite their many shared cultural and religious beliefs and practices – in language, literature, art and architecture, festivals and Games, as well as the Olympian pantheon — attempts to unify the Hellenes politically foundered on the rocks of an exclusive city-state loyalty and patriotism.” But then nationalism doesn’t depend on the accuracy of historical references. It supposes a past, especially a glorious past, which once lost has now been found in the form of the new nation, born of sacrifice and great suffering. In Ernst Renan’s influential formulation, the nation is a “rich legacy of remembrances,” “a grand solidarity constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices,” for which “common suffering is greater than happiness” and “national sorrows more significant than triumphs because they impose obligations and demand a common effort.” In Benedict Anderson’s words, a nation is an “imagined community.”
There are many reasons to be critical of nationalism. But it is enough now to point out simply that national identity based on the presumption of inheritance from ancient cultures is a fiction. It can also be dangerous when combined with a presumed racial or ethnic identity, an unbroken and indelible link to the peoples of the ancient past from which the nation is claiming cultural continuity. Such ethnonationalism holds that the nation is a result of ethnogenesis, or the evolution of self-identity through myths of common origins, shared historical memories, elements of common culture, and a measure of ethnic solidarity.
The essence of the Greek spirit
To back up such claims, archaeology has often been called into service to provide evidence that ethnicity can indeed be recognized and identified in material, cultural remains. As the above cited archaeologist wrote of the Parthenon in 1983, it is “the most sacred monument of this country…which expresses the essence of the Greek spirit.” Its stones are thus not simply the material of art- and architecture-making, they are indices of Greekness, imprinted with the very markings of ethnic identity. And as such they are inalienable from the nation.
For this reason, it is argued that the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum and elsewhere in the world should be returned to Greece because they belong to Greece in a most fundamental way; and then only to Greece, or rather to Greeks, with whom they share an ethnic solidarity not possessed by the rest of us. Such an ideological view holds that the world and its history and cultural forms are divided between peoples on the basis of ethnicity coincident with modern nationhood. On these terms, civilizations make things because the people who make them are defined by their ethnicity which is determinative of their civilization, from ancient times until the modern nation state: people and their civilizations (now nations) are one and the same.
Nationalism is the motive for modern nation state claims on antiquity. The rub of nationalism, however, is that there are many more potential nations than there are possible viable states. And not all nationalisms can be satisfied, at least at the same time. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that many of the world’s potential nations live, or until recently have lived, not in compact territorial units but intermixed with other nations in complex patterns. It then follows that a territorial political unit can only become ethnically homogenous in such cases if, in Ernst Gellner’s words, it either “kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals.”
The pressure to forge cultural identity, property
The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has identified the inherent tension in nationalism between the motive for collective identity and the desire to build an efficient, dynamic modern state. And he sees this tension as particularly severe in the new states – those that emerged from collapsed empires over the course of the 20th century – “because of the great extent to which their peoples’ sense of self remains bound up in the gross actualities of blood, race, language, locality, religion, or tradition, and because of the steadily accelerating importance in this century of the sovereign state as a positive instrument for the realization of collective aims.” We have seen and do see this in new states throughout much of the world – in Iraq and Afghanistan currently – but it is true almost everywhere. As people move about the world to live in new places — about three per cent of the world’s population, or nearly 200 million people lived outside the nation of their birth in 2005 – identity pressures are increasing within the context of the state and its responsibility to build a civil society.
Strengthening claims of national identity by assuming that civilizations (now nations) make things and that nations have claims on those things as their indelible and inalienable cultural property – as things with which they and they alone have ethnic solidarity and which is theirs by fact of inheritance – can only work against our efforts to increase our understanding of the greater world of which we are a part. They are expressions of our tendency to divide the world into mutually exclusive parts, and they are born of fear and insecurity in the face of change.
In his recent book, Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen wrote similarly against reducing individuals to a single cultural identity. “The prospects of peace in the contemporary world,” he wrote, “may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations and in the use of reasoning as common inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates rigidly incarcerated in little containers.”
“Where do the great treasures of ancient art belong? In Western museums or in countries where the civilizations that created them once flourished?”
National cultural property is a political construction. The great treasures of ancient art belong to no nation but to all of us as heirs to a common heritage. They belong in Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern museums. And we should do everything in power to distribute them around the world, encourage curiosity about them as evidence of our common heritage, and assume shared responsibility for their preservation. If nations spent as many resources seeking to build public, encyclopedic collections – those with representative examples of the world’s diverse artistic legacy — as they do in trying to prevent the export of what they claim to be their cultural property and in building national, indeed nationalist museums instead, we would all be better off.
Encyclopedic museums, like the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, serve as a force for understanding, tolerance, and the dissolution of ignorance and superstition about the world. They remind us of the connections that course through history and manifest themselves in the objects we prize for their beauty, eloquence, and fresh strangeness. They remind us that culture is always living culture, always changing the way we see the world, and always transforming us, ourselves, into the bargain.
Some argue that they are the legacy of empire, the fruits of military, political, or economic coercion. After all, we are reminded, encyclopedic museums are only in the capital cities of rich countries in the northern hemisphere. It is true that encyclopedic museums are not everywhere equally; they are not even everywhere equally in rich, First World countries. But they are not the legacy of empire. If so, they would be not only in London and Paris but also in Rome, Istanbul, Cairo, and Beijing, each equally the capital of one of the world’s great historical empires. And they are not. There are wherever the Enlightenment left its mark – France, Russia, the Anglo-Saxon countries, principally; the legacy of inquiry in pursuit of truth.
Current national cultural property laws constrain the development of encyclopedic museums and serve only the interest of nationalism. They claim culture for the nation and they use culture to buttress claims of national identity. They ignore the evidence of history, which, as the late literary scholar and cultural critic, Edward Said, reminds us, demonstrates that cultural expressions have always been both diverse and hybrid. In his words,
“As the twentieth century moves to a close, there has been a gathering awareness nearly everywhere of the lines between cultures, the divisions and differences that not only allow us to discriminate one culture from another, but also enable us to see the extent to which cultures are humanly made structures of both authority and participation, benevolent in what they include, incorporate, and validate, less benevolent in what they exclude and demote. There is in all nationally defined cultures…an aspiration to sovereignty, to sway, and to dominance…At the same time, paradoxically, we have never been as aware as we now are of how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism. Far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more ‘foreign’ elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude.”
James Cuno is president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago and former director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Harvard University Art Museums. He has written widely on museums and cultural policy. His recent books include Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public’s Trust, Who Owns Antiquity?:Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage and the forthcoming edited volume Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities.