To what culture does the concept of “cultural property” belong? Who owns this idea?
It has, like much material property in the last 50 years, often changed hands. And in doing so, it has also changed meanings and grown in importance. It now affects the development of museums, alters the nature of international commerce and even seems to subsume traditional notions of property.
It was brought to modern prominence in 1954 by Unesco as a way of characterizing the special status of monuments, houses of worship and works of art — objects that suffered “grave damage” in “recent armed conflicts.” In its statement Unesco asserted that such “cultural property” was part of the “cultural heritage of all mankind” and deserved special protection.
But the framers of that doctrine with its universalist stance would hardly recognize cultural property in its current guise. The concept is now being narrowly applied to assert possession, not to affirm value. It is used to stake claims on objects in museums, to prevent them from being displayed and to control the international trade of antiquities.
It is critically surveyed in an illuminating new book, “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage” (Princeton) by James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago and former director of the Harvard University Art Museums. The idea is as troubling as Mr. Cuno suggests.
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If you are interested in this topic, David Gill keeps tabs on heritage ownership news and issues on his Looting Matters blog.