Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why fight over cultural property?


"Who, if anyone, owns the past? Who has the right or responsibility to preserve
cultural remains of the past? When, if ever, should preservational or educational
considerations override national sovereignty in determining the disposition of
cultural materials? What should be declared illegal or illicit trade in cultural
properties? What values are at stake in conflicts over cultural properties, and how
should these conflicts be resolved?" (Karen J. Warren 1989)
The above questions posed by Karen J. Warren highlight the core issues in the debate on who owns cultural property.  Can we even consider culture as a form of property, and if so, why?

I believe that ownership of property comes from the desire to possess the "exotic" or "the other". This is at the core of why collectors purchase antiquity all over the world and what keeps auction houses and museums thriving.

I am afraid I am going on a little tangent, but I have my reasons.  In my thesis, I focused on three cases of repatriation (return of antiquities) to countries of origin from museums (The MFA in Boston and the Yale Peabody Museum).  I spoke about the history of collecting as a foundation as to why countries "fight" for the return of objects that they consider "property" or a part of their heritage.

In the second chapter of my thesis I broke down some of the arguments for and against repatriation, below is exactly what I wrote:

The arguments for repatriation involve ownership, cultural heritage and identity, and context. The ownership argument is that the country of origin owns its cultural property and has the ethical and legal right to have the property returned to it. The cultural heritage argument states that “[a]ll peoples have a right to those cultural properties which form an integral part of their cultural heritage and identity…and cultural properties presently displaced in foreign countries should be
returned to their countries of origin” (Warren 1989:8). One contradiction between the ownership argument and the heritage argument is that a foreign country can use the heritage argument to claim a piece of cultural property that has been in the country for such a long time that it now part of that country‟s heritage (Warren 1989:9). The British Museum uses the cultural heritage argument by claiming that the marbles have been in Britain for two centuries and is integral to British cultural patrimony and should not go to Greece (Greenfield 1996; Kersel 2004)


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The final argument is that the collecting and importing of cultural property destroys the scholarly value or context of the property (Coggins 1972) and, according to Bell (2010), repatriation and ownership claims to materials in publicly visible collections block undocumented excavation (looting) and illegal export of artifacts. Coggins refers to looting as “the wholesale destruction of the remains of a number of ancient civilizations and primitive cultures” (1972:263). If museums fear that in the future they might have to return items to a country, then they will be less inclined to purchase an antiquity that does not have a clearly documented provenance. If they do purchase suspicious antiquities, then they face losing the money they spent on the acquisition, as well as money needed for litigation, deaccesioning an object, and shipping the item back to its country of origin. These factors do not even take into account the negative publicity a museum might face for acquiring looted antiquity. If museums stop collecting contested items, then in theory the demand for the items will decrease, as will the incentive to loot.


The reason I pasted this excerpt from my thesis is because I would like to see what thoughts others have on these arguments.  What arguments do you feel are the strongest, weakest?  Do you see any contradictions in these arguments?

I pose these questions because I hope to begin discussing in my next post, the current dilemma concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls, parts of which are up for sale to the public. Here is a link to the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls up for sale