back to home  
Home Blog Profiles Press Contact Archive Photogallery Students
The Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra  
La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Encyclopedic Art Museums, Culture Property and Cosmopolitanism
James Cuno
La Pietra Dialogues
April 24, 2010

I am a director of an encyclopedic art museum with representative examples of most of the world’s visual cultures in our collections. We are dedicated to the proposition that by introducing our visitors to works of art from different cultures we are helping to dissipate ignorance and superstition about the world and to promote inquiry and tolerance of difference itself.

This I hold to be important, especially in metropolitan centers like Chicago. For such cities are--Chicago is and always has been--cities of immigrants. Some 22 percent of Chicago’s population is foreign born, which is twice the national average, and we have more than twenty-six ethnic groups of greater than 25,000 members each, with more than forty languages spoken in our city by at least 1000 people each. By introducing our visitors to artifacts of the world’s diverse cultures, we are not only introducing them to cultures distant from them in time and space, but increasingly, as immigrants continue to move into our city, we are introducing Chicago residents to the historic cultures of their new neighbors.

Encyclopedic art museums are cosmopolitan institutions, dedicated to the presentation of works of art from the world’s many cultures without prejudice. In this, they aspire to the condition of cosmopolitanism as articulated by the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who famously urged his readers not to forget “the closeness of man’s brotherhood with his kind; a brotherhood not of blood or human seed, but of a common intelligence,” or by the 18th-century British philosopher David Hume, who saw the cosmopolite as “a creature, whose thoughts are not limited by any narrow bounds, either of place or time..,” or indeed by Indian Nobel-Prize winner and nationalist Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1908 wrote in a letter to a friend, “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity.”

This is especially important in the United States, given our powerful position in the world and tendency to nationalist triumphalism and essentialist interpretations of national cultural identities. We fear pluralism even more than diversity. Despite the hundreds of languages spoken in the US, since 1981, twenty-two US states have adopted various forms of “official English legislation.” What it means to be an American is still debated. Witness the continuing attacks on President Obama as not being legally our President--because it is said that he was born outside the US to an Islamic African father, when in fact he was born in Hawaii, a US state and from birth has been a US citizen. Those who disagree with President Obama’s policies (or do not like the fact that someone of his race with his mixed background—and, it is said, with his “un-American name”) argue that he is not really American: not one of us.

We may not have a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity as the French have, nor have we initiated a formal “grand debate” on our national identity, as President Sarkozy has—an idea, by the way that has apparently fizzled due to lack of public interest, the French public seeing the initiative for what it is: an attempt to divert public attention away from the President’s unpopular political standing—so, we may not have a formal platform for debates about national cultural identity, but we debate it all the time, often through surrogate issues like national health care, abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, and the proper role of government in our lives.

The tendency to claim--and police--national cultural identity is a political act. It is what governments do, not what people do. And governments do this—and argue about it and legislate it—to confirm their place in power. Take the Chinese government. It identifies, protects, and policies access to what it claims to be Chinese cultural property. In 2005, the Chinese government asked the US government to impose import restrictions into the US on all metal, ceramic, stone, painting and calligraphy, textiles, lacquer, bone, ivory, and horn objects from the Paleolithic period through the Qing dynasty, or nearly two million years of human artistic production. Four years later, just before the end of his presidency, George W. Bush accepted the Chinese request and agreed to restrict the import into the US of broad categories of material from the Paleolithic Period through the Tang Dynasty, and monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old.

The Chinese government is proud of China’s long history, which it claims to be unbroken and of independent origin. It funds the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project to establish exact dates for China’s early cultures. Some have criticized the Project as being politically motivated. But its director, Lu Xueqin, disagrees: “We just want to figure out how China developed. It’s no different from studying ancient Greece, or Egypt,” he said. “These other ancient cultures have all been studied more than China. And China has a special characteristic: it still exists whereas the others have all disappeared.”

Early--earliest even—and unbroken: these are the twin pillars of the Chinese government’s pride in China’s history, the only blemish of which were the indignities China is thought to have suffered during the British and French-triumphant Opium Wars of the 19th century and the civil war and the flight of the Nationalists to Taiwan in the middle of the twentieth century. In each case, political weakness was underscored by the loss of Chinese cultural property: the destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in the first instance and the removal of much of the Imperial art collection in the latter. Now, a reinvigorated China is claiming back what it believes to be its cultural property, and using its financial might to purchase Chinese works of art—those important to the Han national narrative—for the nation.

The Chairman of the Poly Group, for instance, a Beijing-based industrial conglomerate with close ties to the Chinese military and with a very handsome and important art museum, wrote in the preface to a catalogue of selected highlights of the museum’s ancient bronzes in 2001, “Most of these pieces, lost to overseas collections, have exchanged hands many times…Their return not only makes us fondly recollect days of old, but is more importantly a source of great comfort.” Buying back Chinese art for China is seen as a patriotic act, a means of correcting past imbalances of power from which the Chinese government see China as having suffered unfairly.

In 2000, the Poly Museum bought three tiger head from the Zodiac Fountain of the Cinq dynasty Summer Palace. Designed by the French Jesuit, Michel Benoist, for the Qianlong emperor in the middle of the 18th century, the fountain once included twelve animals placed around a pool in two groups of six, representing the twelve double-hours of the day and were designed to spout water, each at their designated time during the day. A century later, in 1860, the Summer Palace was looted and destroyed by French and British troops during the Opium War. In the preface to the 2001 catalogue of selected highlights of the Poly Museum ancient bronzes, the chairman of the Poly Group wrote of his museum’s purchase of three Zodiac figures from the fountain, the “rescue of three bronze animal heads, formerly of the Summer Palace, particularly aroused the patriotic passions of Chinese sons and daughters. Regardless of the difference in their political stands and religions, they all equally praised the rescue.”

Seven years later a Chinese casino billionaire named Stanley Ho purchased from Sothebys in Hong Kong the head of the boar and gave it to the Poly Museum. And the following year, in 2008, Christie’s put up for auction two other bronze animal heads from the Summer Palace.  They had belonged to the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge. The sale was condemned by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage as having “damaged Chinese citizens’ cultural rights.” And the successful bidder (at $40 million)--Cai Mingchao, a collection advisor to the National Treasure Funds of China, an entity established under the administration of the China Foundation for the Development of Social Culture and registered under the name of the Ministry of Culture for the purpose of repatriating what it describes as looted Chinese artifacts—refused to pay, saying that his bid was made “on behalf of all Chinese people” and that the sculptures should be returned.

Such statements as “on behalf of all the Chinese people” and “regardless of the difference in their political stands and religions, [all of the Chinese sons and daughters] equally praised the rescue” of the Zodiac figures, should give us pause. Who is speaking for the sons and daughters of China? And how does China today relate to China of the past, and not just to Cinq Dynasty China but to ancient China from which modern Chinese culture and identity is said to have developed continuously?

Xinjiang, in the far west of China, means “new frontier” or “new territory”. It was a separate central Asian territory until the 18th century and the reign of the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty (the same emperor who commissioned Benoist to design the Zodiac fountain for the Imperial Summer Palace). Until then, it had been ruled by various tribal confederations and was ethnically Central Asian and Mongolian whose peoples practiced Buddhism and Manichaenism and eventually Islam. It is now home to China’s largest Muslim population.

The Xinjiang region has been a borderland. As the historian Peter Purdue has written of it “the frontier zone was a liminal space where cultural identities merged and shifted, as peoples of different ethnic and linguistic roots interacted for common economic purposes…The story of the eighteenth-century Qing empire is of an effort to seal off this ambiguous, threatening frontier experience once and for all by incorporating it within the fixed boundaries of a distinctly defined space, and by drawing lines that clearly demarcated separate cultures.” Once the overwhelmingly dominate cultures were Muslim. In 1949, when the PRC reinstated control over the region, only 5% of the Xinjiang population was Han Chinese. By 1982 it was 40%, and is still around 40% (it capital city, Urumuqi is 76% Han Chinese). It can not go without mentioning that the area is sitting on 40% of China’s proven oil reserves and 34% of its natural gas reserves. The region is of both strategic and economic importance to Beijing and the government’s “Go West” policy is intended to secure the region for Chinese interests.

The nationalist sensitivities of the Chinese government are real and are consistent and coincident with its efforts to quell internal dissent. They are each expressions of control, of defining and policing official Chinese identity. Foreign criticism of Chinese politics and its limitations on freedom of speech is denounced by government officials as an attack on Chinese “culture,” and the Chinese who agree with these foreign criticisms are often treated not just as dissidents but as traitors, enemies of the state and its official culture.

Recently U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called for a global Internet free of censorship and demanded that China investigate claims by Google that e-mail accounts belonging to human rights activists had been targeted by hackers, Chinese authorities quickly jumped on her remarks as promoting a kind of “information imperialism.” A writer in the official newspaper, China Daily, wrote that “Unlike advanced Western countries, the Chinese society is still vulnerable to multifarious information flowing in, especially those intended to create disorder. As we know,” he continued, “the west world holds the speech hegemony, flooding those countries that won’t follow their lead with aggressive rhetoric.” And the English-language, Chinese daily, The Global Times, argued that “The U.S. campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy,” and that the U.S. employs the Internet as a weapon to achieve worldwide hegemony.

Definitions of national culture—whether through the promotion of national cultural property laws or the control of access to information and the suppression of freedom of speech—are political acts intent on strengthening the identity of the local--the nation—as defined by government.

Now, take a case, closer to home, here in Italy; a case I raise with all due respect to my colleagues here and all of your good work and generosity. It is a case defined by the politics of the Italian government.

Nine years ago, the US government entered into an agreement with the government of Italy to restrict the import into the US of antiquities that Italy claimed to be its national, cultural property. In its request to the US government, the Italian government stated that “these materials are of cultural significance because they derive from cultures that developed autonomously in the region of present day Italy… [and] the cultural patrimony represented by these materials is a source of identity and esteem for the modern Italian nation.”

By chance, I was in Rome on the very day the Euphronius krater was returned to the jurisdiction of the Italian state by the Metropolitan Museum. On its arrival, it was taken to the state attorney’s office where it was unveiled before a gathering of press and state officials. Then it was whisked away to the state television network, where it featured in a broadcast about the perils of illicit trafficking in cultural property. And then it was put on view in a special exhibition in the Quirinale Palace, where it joined 60 other antiquities returned by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Princeton Art Museum.

At a press conference marking the exhibition’s opening, then Italian Minister of Culture, Francesco Rutelli, declared that “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum. With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.” And the exhibition’s brochure described the various objects on view as having “features which characterize our past and strengthen the roots of our Country” as “precious items of our national heritage.”

The exhibition was shown where it was--in the Quirinale Palace—because, as the exhibition brochure declared, it is “symbolically the home of all Italians,” built in the 16th century as a papal summer palace, converted in the 19th century into the official royal residence of the new kingdom of Italy, and then again in 1946 into the official residence and workplace for the President of the Italian Republic. It’s hard to imagine a more nationalistic setting for the exhibition. And of course that was the point. The exhibition was a triumphant display of what the Italian government claims to be Italy’s cultural heritage, the products of cultures autonomous to the region of present day Italy and defining of its national identity..

But surely it was Greek culture that produced the Euphronius krater.  It was made in the 6th century BC by the Attic potter Euxitheos and the painter Euphronius and is decorated with a scene from the war between Greece and Troy as told by Homer in the Illiad. It came to Etruria in trade at a time when much of what is now southern Italy and Sicily was a Greek colony known locally in Greek as Megale Hellas, or Magna Graecia in Latin; Greater Greece in English.

Roman culture emulated earlier Greek culture. The Roman empire had assumed much of what had been the Greek empire before it: from the western coast of what is today Turkey to Egypt and west along North Africa to the eastern coast of Spain and southern coast of France (there from Marseilles, which began as the Greek city of Massalia, to Antibes, which once was the Greek city of Antipolis). It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that everywhere the Romans went they found evidence of Greeks having been there before them.

In a review of a new book on Rome’s so-called “cultural revolution,” the Harvard classicist Emma Dench wrote, somewhat uncharitably I think, that “As for Roman culture, that was a contradiction in terms: Roman art consisted almost entirely of thefts or copies of Greek masterpieces, while Roman literature was translated, generally rather badly, from Greek classics.” Romans, she said, “located themselves in relation to the Greeks” and “the dichotomy between Romans and Greeks didn’t so much describe or prescribe behavior, talents or tendencies, as assign roles in the management and manipulation of power.

To claim that the cultures of the early Roman inhabitants of what is today Italy were autonomous is to distort history for the sake of contemporary politics. It serves the nationalist interest of the present Italian government at the expense our greater understanding of past cultures.

Encyclopedic art museums work to hold the question of national cultural identity in suspension, arguing instead, by the evidence of the artifacts in their collections, that culture has never known national borders, that it has always flourished through contact with new and strange cultural manifestations, and that it has always been hybrid, mongrel, a bricolage of different cultural impressions.

Encyclopedic museums promote a comparative approach to the study of culture. They encourage what the South Asian historian David Ludden has described as a shift from the stasis of ‘civilizational’ histories with their boundaries, boundedness, and closures, to a more dynamic emphasis on networks of encounter and exchange. ‘[T]he idea of civilization,” he writes, “necessarily (if not intentionally) indices a reading back of ‘present-national-sentiments’ into a timeless past: it thereby prevents history from working against cultural hegemonies in the present by stultifying our analysis of mobility, context, agency, contingency and change.”

This is the dynamic truth about culture, now and in the past. One object alone is enough to make this clear. This limestone capital in the Metropolitan Museum is from south Italy, Apulia, probably Troia, and dates from the early 13th century. It includes the features of four different racial types (the one in the foreground of this image is meant to represent an African). And it reminds us of the mélange of cultural contacts in south Italy and Sicily during the Middle Ages. In 863, for example, a monk named Thedosius wrote of the grandeur of Palermo, describing it as “full of citizens and strangers…Blended with the Sicilians, the Greeks, the Lombards and the Jews, there are Arabs, Berbers, Persians, Tartars, Negroes, some wrapped in long robes and turbans…faces oval, square, or round, of every complexion and profile, beards and hair of every variety of color and cut.” And with all of these different people came their different cultures, and these cultures inspired new forms of cultural expression.

This is what encyclopedic museums celebrate: recognition of hybridity as the true condition of culture. Governments, and the nationalist politics they encourage through the imposition and policing of retentionist cultural property laws, propagate a false ideology of cultural essentialism and cultural purity where none exists naturally. If we are to be true to the truth about culture, and if we wish to address ignorance and superstition about the world and promote inquiry and tolerance of difference itself, we need to encourage broader access to the world’s cultures through an extensive program of legal trade in and/or long-term loan or lease of artifacts representative of the world’s cultural legacy. For as the Indian economic journalist Sanjay Subrahmanyam has written, “…a national culture that does not have the confidence to declare that, like all other national cultures, it too is a hybrid, a crossroads, a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia.” A path I think we can all agree that is littered with the tragedies of sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing, and social and racial discrimination.

In our discussion of “Ethics, Culture and Law” as it pertains to the stewardship of the world’s ancient cultural heritage, I hope we can find the time to address the consequences of the nationalization of culture. Much, I fear, hangs in the balance. Thank you very much.

Thank you again for this chance to be with you today. Thank you.

    share print
twitter linkedin facebook facebook


NYU Florence
NYU Global
NYU Wagner




Villa La Pietra
Via Bolognese, 120
50139 Florence - Italy




Phone +39 055 5007 557
Fax +39 055 5007 576