In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.
In truth, there is no need to reject the premises of the contemporary nation-state—a move likely to alienate the very parties with whom compromise is needed—in order to advance the changes Cuno proposes. Try as they might, Italy, Greece, and China cannot hope to repossess all the antiquities ever removed from their soil. As he suggests, agreements that give these countries custody of certain objects while promoting long-term loans, reciprocal education, and responsible archaeology are an obvious way forward. Such governments could even be convinced that sharing their patrimony with others will advance their national reputation abroad. Cuno’s concept of a change in terminology from “ownership” of cultural properties to their “stewardship”—different nations holding such objects in trust for the benefit of various audiences—could also attract the support of these states. However, in order for agreements to happen, First World museumgoers will have to respect the concerns and claims of source nations.
In 1972, the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art acquired, for the then-astounding price of $1 million, an exceptional artifact of Greek vase painting dating from the sixth century B.C. Executed in black glaze on red clay, the Euphronios Krater’s decoration depicts an episode from the Iliad in which the slain warrior Sarpedon, son of Zeus, is carried toward his homeland by the figures of Sleep and Death. Perhaps the most famous example of Attic red-figure painting known to the modern West, the vessel has offered millions of viewers a portal into the ancient world and a potent initiation into the mysteries of painting. Endlessly reproduced and carefully studied during its three decades on display in New York, the work has enlightened generations of Americans and visitors.
Art was repatriated for the first time in modern history when Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington overturned art plundered by Napoleon to Italy after his and Marshal Blücher's armies defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.[20] This decision contrasted sharply to a long-held tradition to the effect that "to the victors go the spoils."[20] This is remarkable considering that in the battle of Waterloo alone, the financial and human costs were colossal; the decision to not only refrain from plundering France but to repatriate France's prior seizures from the Netherlands, Italy, Prussia, and Spain, was extraordinary.[24] Moreover, the British paid for the restitution of the papal collection to Rome because the Pope could not finance the shipping himself.[25] When British troops began packing up looted art from the Louvre, there was a public outcry in France. Crowds reportedly tried to prevent the taking of the Horses of Saint Mark and there were throngs of weeping ladies outside the Louvre Museum.[26] Despite the unprecedented nature of this repatriation effort, there are recent estimations that only about 55 percent of what was taken was actually repatriated: the Louvre Director at the time, Vivant Denon, had sent out many important works to other parts of France before the British could take them.[27] Wellington viewed himself as representing all of Europe's nations and he believed that the moral decision would be to restore the art in its apparently proper context.[28] In a letter to Lord Castlereagh he wrote:
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain cultural items such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, etc. to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organisations.[65][56] However, the legislation has its limitations and has been successfully contested both domestically and extraterritorially.[66]
Even the naming conventions applied to peoples need to be revisited. In the past, the Navajo term “Anasazi” was used to name the ancestors of modern-day Puebloans. Today, “Ancestral Puebloans” is considered more acceptable. Likewise, “Eskimo” designated peoples in the Arctic region, but this word has fallen out of favor because it homogenizes the First Nations in this area. In general, it is always preferable to use a tribe or Nation’s specific name when possible, and to do so in its own language.
Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
According to Cuno, the logic whereby so-called source nations claim ownership of artifacts extracted from their territories is faulty, for such valuable relics of our human history really belong to a common, global cultural patrimony shared by all the world’s peoples—not only present-day Italians, but also all descendants of the Greeks and Romans the world over, as well as Turks, Chinese, Indians, and Africans. He contrasts the values of nation-states, which advocate strict “retentionist cultural property laws” and manipulate archaeological objects to advance questionable political agendas, with those of “encyclopedic museums,” cosmopolitan institutions like the Met and the British Museum, which seek to draw together diverse artifacts for the education and delectation of a global public.
The scale of plundering that took place under Napoleon's French Empire was unprecedented in modern history with the only comparable looting expeditions taking place in ancient Roman history.[13] In fact, the French revolutionaries justified the large-scale and systematic looting of Italy in 1796 by viewing themselves as the political successors of Rome, in the same way that ancient Romans saw themselves as the heirs of Greek civilization.[14] They also supported their actions with the opinion that their sophisticated artistic taste would allow them to appreciate the plundered art.[15] Napoleon's soldiers crudely dismantled the art by tearing paintings out of their frames hung in churches and sometimes causing damage during the shipping process. Napoleon's soldiers appropriated private collections and even the papal collection.[16] Of the most famous artworks plundered included the Bronze Horses of Saint Mark in Venice and the Laocoön and His Sons in Rome (both since returned), with the later being considered the most impressive sculpture from antiquity at the time.
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