In this post I am going to briefly explore why the national retention argument against repatriation, laid out by scholars like James Cuno, is not a valid argument. This post acts as an introduction to my thoughts, I will build upon this over the next few weeks by looking at successful cases of repatriation within the last decade, specifically the case of the agreement between the Yale Peabody Museum and Peru.
Cuno criticizes the use of the term cultural patrimony and relative laws, arguing that cultural patrimony is a political construct, as well as a retentionalist policy, because many countries consider all antiquity found within their borders as cultural property that is central to their national identity (Cuno 2005 and 2008). He also questions the idea of national identity and cultural property, mainly because many ancient cultures span the borders of many modern nation-states, which makes the idea of repatriation to a single country difficult in many cases (Cuno 2008). If an item, however, belonged to a culture that only spanned one nation, and perhaps created in a modern nation, then Cuno‟s argument that repatriation to a single country would not suffice. In the case of the Machu Picchu collection, the objects clearly originate within the borders of Peru, and even if cultural patrimony is a political construct, that does not necessarily negate the right for repatriation.
I do understand several of Cuno’s arguments, such as his concern that cultural patrimony laws are retentionalist, but I do not believe that museums should not return cultural property to a source country, especially if that country has evidence that the antiquities originated there and left illegally. Hiram Bingham, however, legally removed the Machu Picchu collection from Peru (although some argue against this).
I previously argued that a successful repatriation consists of multiple factors, one of which involves a cultural agreement between the parties in the dispute. Such agreements include cultural exchanges like a long-term loan of artifacts, research opportunities, and a strong sense of public relations.
In regards to long-term loans, I wrote that countries wishing to have antiquities returned to their country should consider making agreements with museums, which provide opportunities for long-term loans and collaboration. Countries that signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention agree to promote an exchange of knowledge, and I believe that loans are a good way for material to move around the world and attract interest in a country’s culture, while that country still retains property rights to the material. Museums must also make efforts to loan countries and other museums material because this will allow other countries to showcase material outside its borders.
Concerning research opportunities I believe that agreements that involve research opportunities, such as the ability for students to travel between countries and study collections, should satisfy critics who state that source countries restrict knowledge (Cuno 2005 and 2008; Merryman 2005). In response to those who argue that cultural property belongs to all of humanity, the continuous exchange of antiquities will provide a broader audience the opportunity to view the antiquities, and hopefully antiquities will not remain in one place for decades or centuries. I feel that when a country restricts access they also restrict the ability for students to broaden their knowledge.
In my next post, I will delve deeper into the Yale/Peru agreement, and demonstrate why it acts as a prime example of a successful repatriation.