Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, James Cuno (Ed.), Princeton University Press, Pp 220
Edited by a former director of the Art Institute of Chicago, this book is a compilation of essays that argue from different points of view – directorial, curatorial, historical, legal and philosophical – to say that museums have value as repositories of objects dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge and the removal of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to others without prejudice.
This view was challenged recently as outmoded as a view of a past and misguided era of colonisation during the European nations’ removal of artifacts from other cultures for selfish reasons and at the expense of cultural diversities of “foreign” peoples and the archaeological knowledge of the sites where these artifacts were found. Critics of the encyclopaedic museums support nationalist cultural property laws in a bid to respect the cultural interests of the “local” people and prevent looting of archaeological sites.
The essays point out the flaws in this criticism saying that they prevent understanding and appreciation of similarities of situations between cultures and that more is to be gained from seeing representative examples of diverse cultures together “under one roof” than to segregate them within modern national borders. Information through objects preserved is useful to our understanding of the past and the way culture works and has worked over the millennia. Each contributor makes salient points in favour of their museological argument, explaining why exhibition is essential for responsible acquisitions, why our shared heritage trumps nationalist agendas and why restrictive cultural property laws put antiquities at risk from unstable governments and so on.
James Cuno argues that antiquities are the cultural property of mankind, not of the countries that lay exclusive claim to them and through this compilation explains why the museums’ critics couldn’t be more wrong. Speaking of the cosmopolitan language of cultural pluralism, Cuno shows that culture matters more than concocted national pride, as curators and museum directors do know.
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