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.
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. However, the legislation has its limitations and has been successfully contested both domestically and extraterritorially.
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.
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. 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. They also supported their actions with the opinion that their sophisticated artistic taste would allow them to appreciate the plundered art. 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. 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.