Museums furnished by colonial looting have largely shaped the way a nation imagines its dominion, the nature of the human beings under its power, the geography of the land, and the legitimacy of its ancestors, working to suggest a process of political inheriting.[41] It is necessary to understand the paradoxical way in which the objects on display at museums are tangible reminders of the power held by those who gaze at them.[42] Eliot Colla describes the structure of the Egyptian sculpture room in the British Museum as an assemblage that "form[s] an abstract image of the globe with London at the center".[43] The British Museum, as Colla describes, presents a lesson of human development and progress: "the forward march of human civilization from its classical origins in Greece and Rome, through Renaissance Italy, to modern-day London".[43]
China, for example, while agitating for the return of cultural properties exported from its lands, has ignored the archaeological history of the Uighur minority within its borders and instead has collected and exhibited ancient objects that endorse the reigning Han Chinese. Meanwhile, Cuno asserts, China’s ostensible care for its material past is belied by the government’s failure to control the internal looting and sale of artifacts and by projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which upon its completion will flood as many as 1,300 archaeological sites. Similarly, he argues, Greece’s calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain, where they have been located since the early 19th century, are born of nationalist greed: Greek authorities want the marbles back not in the interests of archaeological consistency, but in order to confer ancient legitimacy on their modern government. The objects are co-opted as a “political symbol of the new Greece . . . said to belong to Greece and to hold within them the very spirit of its people.”
Greece is seeking repatriation of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, taken from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Since 1816, the British Museum has held the Parthenon Marbles ("In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while other critics compared The British Consul at Greece Elgin's actions to vandalism or looting", text from the Marbles article), and, despite the tortuous and ill-explained path from Greece to England, the museum strongly defends its right to own and display the marbles.
Impressive in its grasp of historical and political issues, ranging across anthropology, archaeology, and law, Cuno’s book evinces careful thought about the implications of antiquities trafficking across many eras. Yet it also raises complicated questions that will surely provoke further debate within the art community. Most important, the dichotomy between tribal nation-states and cosmopolitan museums cannot be so simple as Cuno pretends. The encyclopedic museum is, after all, a product, even an instrument, of modern national and imperial interests. The Louvre was populated by Napo­leon’s rapacious plunder, then used as a political tool to demonstrate France’s dominance in the theater of Europe. And who can walk the halls of the British Museum without thinking of the empire on which the sun never set? A related question that could be posed by nation-states demanding restitution of valuable artifacts is: If encyclopedic museums are truly institutions of “international, indeed universal aspirations,” then why are they located primarily in powerful First World countries? Cuno advocates their extension to nations all over the globe, but the fact is that no such collection will be coming to the Darfur region anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the encyclopedic museum and policies that promote it will chiefly serve rich Westerners.
Luna’s Artifact Piece (1987) and Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1993) both confront issues of identity and stereotypes of Native peoples. In Artifact Piece, Luna placed himself into a glass vitrine (like the ones we often see in museums) as if he were a static artifact, a relic of the past, accompanied by personal items like pictures of his family. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna asks his audience to come take a picture with him. He changes clothes three times. He wears a loincloth, then a loincloth with a feather and a bone breastplate, and then what we might call “street clothes.” Most people choose to take a picture with him in the former two, and so Luna draws attention to the problematic idea that somehow he is less authentically Native when dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
This is a worrying attitude. It indicates that Spain is willing to use direct rule for its own benefit, even if that means opposing the long-standing policies of the democratically elected government that has just been ousted and jailed under charges of tumultuous sedition. The case of the heritage of Sixena has a long history of legal disputes between the governments of Catalonia and Aragon.

The broader issue here regards cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that informs Cuno’s defense of the modern museum. As formulated by Jacques Derrida, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others in conversation with a tradition stretching back thousands of years and through many intellectual traditions, cosmopolitanism asserts that our common humanity gives us grounds for mutual understanding. It requires us to try to comprehend alien points of view. If cosmopolitan values call attention to the importance of the museum—helping us to look beyond its sometimes exploitative past toward a future in which it deepens the cultural awareness of people across the world—then they also demand that we take a tolerant approach to its foes. We owe something to countries laying claim to artifacts, even if they are doing so in ways that appear “tribal,” selfish, or politically motivated. After all, the priorities of these nation-states may be just as important for them as sharing a common artistic patrimony is for “enlightened” members of the world community.


Second, this movement shows an absolute disregard for the right of regional governments, such as the Catalan one, to have views and policies that oppose those of the central government. The Spanish government sees Catalonia not as a nation, but as a property, and therefore it is acceptable, if not imperative, to correct the mismanagements of the local rulers as soon as the opportunity arises.
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.
It was here at Morgantina, just outside the modern town of Aidone, that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a breathtaking statue of a goddess, draped in a windswept robe and standing over seven feet tall, is believed to have been found. First thought to be Aphrodite and now widely considered to be Persephone, the statue, which dates to about 425 B.C., has become one of the most contested artworks in the world.
Australian Aboriginal cultural artefacts as well as people have been the objects of study in museums; many were taken in the decades either side of the turn of the 20th century. There has been greater success with returning human remains than cultural objects in recent years, as the question of repatriating objects is less straightforward than bringing home ancestors.[56] Australia has no laws directly governing repatriation, but there is a government programme relating to the return of Aboriginal remains and artefacts, the International Repatriation Program (IRP), administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts. This programme "supports the repatriation of ancestral remains and secret sacred objects to their communities of origin to help promote healing and reconciliation" and assists community representatives work towards repatriation of remains in various ways.[57][58][59]
Luna’s Artifact Piece (1987) and Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1993) both confront issues of identity and stereotypes of Native peoples. In Artifact Piece, Luna placed himself into a glass vitrine (like the ones we often see in museums) as if he were a static artifact, a relic of the past, accompanied by personal items like pictures of his family. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna asks his audience to come take a picture with him. He changes clothes three times. He wears a loincloth, then a loincloth with a feather and a bone breastplate, and then what we might call “street clothes.” Most people choose to take a picture with him in the former two, and so Luna draws attention to the problematic idea that somehow he is less authentically Native when dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
Many twentieth and twenty-first century artists, including Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Sioux), Alex Janvier (Chipewyan [Dene]) and Robert Davidson (Haida), don’t consider themselves to work outside of so-called “traditional arts.” In 1958, Howe even wrote a famous letter commenting on his methods when his work was denounced by Philbrook Indian Art Annual Jurors as not being “authentic” Native art:
A precedent for art repatriation was set in Roman antiquity when Cicero prosecuted Verres, a senate member and illegal appropriator of art. Cicero's speech influenced Enlightenment European thought and had an indirect impact on the modern debate about art repatriation.[21] Cicero's argument uses military episodes of plunder as "case law" and expresses certain standards when it comes to appropriating cultural property of another people.[22] Cicero makes a distinction between public and private uses of art and what is appropriate for each and he also asserts that the primary purpose of art is religious expression and veneration. He also sets standards for the responsibilities of imperial administration abroad to the code of ethics surrounding the collection of art from defeated Greece and Rome in wartime. Later, both Napoleon and Lord Elgin would be likened to Verres in condemnations of their plundering of art.[23]
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