Ideology, politics and bone-headed provincialism come together comfortably when they make war on the world's great museums.
The issue is cultural property. Countries believing that colonialists stole their spiritual heritage are uniting in a send-back-our-stuff campaign. They envision populations and art objects moving in opposite directions: While citizens try to emigrate to Europe and North America for better lives, art objects should travel the other way, delivering national identity and self-esteem through ancient artifacts.
Greece yearns for the return of the Elgin Marbles, owned by the British Museum since they were taken from the Parthenon in 1803. Peru wants Yale University to return thousands of Inca artifacts discovered by the Yale historian who uncovered the lost mountainside town of Machu Picchu in 1911.
Turkey, China, Cambodia, Guatemala -- they all pine, if you believe their political leaders, for fragments of their distant past that are held abroad and must be brought "home" where they "belong."
And then there's Egypt. The government has its eye on the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of rock that opened up ancient Egyptian culture. It was carved for a temple in 196 BC but later abandoned and used as building material. French soldiers accidentally discovered it in 1799 while rebuilding a fort in the city of Rosetta during Napoleon's brief reign over Egypt. When the British moved in, they shipped it to the Brit-ish Museum.
The text inscribed on the stone, itself a document of craven colonialism, announces an agreement between Egyptian priests and Ptolemy V, the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, praising the generosity of Ptolemy and promising to demonstrate loyalty by erecting statues of him in the holiest places.
It's utterly boring but it's trilingually boring, in ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic (the everyday language of contracts). In 1822 a French Egyptologist cracked the hieroglyphics code and thereby learned to translate ancient Egyptian.
Who now deserves to own such a wondrous object? The state of Macedonia, or maybe the Macedonian part of Greece? Unfortunately, populations have shifted so much in two millennia that neither can demonstrate historical continuity with 196 BC. Nor can Egypt. No one pretends that 2009 Egyptians are the same people who pledged fealty to that alien king. Modern France has a case, for guessing the text's importance in 1799 and decoding it just 23 years later. But on fifth thought, perhaps the Rosetta Stone should remain in the British Museum, where it's been well treated for two centuries.
That's more or less the argument behind Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Princeton University Press), by James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and nine fellow professionals. Cuno, the author of another book on the same subject last year, has emerged as the champion of museums who want to keep their holdings -- and not a moment too soon.
For years, the emotional propaganda of rights-asserting nations has been winning this war and scoring some specific victories. The Italians managed to get the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to send 68 objects to Rome, and Yale has agreed to send some Machu Picchu material to Peru -- though not nearly as fast as Peru would like.
Meanwhile, Palestinians are using the ownership controversy as another nail in what they hope will be the coffin of Israel. For more than half a century,
Israel has possessed the Dead Sea Scrolls -- discovered in the middle part of the 20th century in caves near the Dead Sea's northwest shore -- exhibiting them in Jerusalem, and sending them around the world. Some of these two-millennium-old documents are to arrive at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on June 27, for a six-month stay. But the Palestinians have decided, after all this time, that the scrolls were found on what they (dubiously) consider Palestinian land, therefore Palestinians own them. The Toronto Star recently displayed this nonsense on page one.
Cuno believes major museums, with their Enlightenment-inspired dedication to spreading knowledge, can best protect antiquities, study them and reveal the relationships of distinct ancient cultures by exhibiting them side by side. Cuno speaks the cosmopolitan language of cultural pluralism. The other side, insisting that art remain where it happened to be found, deploys the rhetoric of jealous nationalism in the service of government.
Culture matters more than concocted national pride, as curators and museum directors know. At last they're reasserting their principles, after an embarrassing period of passivity and pusillanimity.