Thursday, July 23, 2009

Debating the Value and Meaning of Looting Cultural Heritage

One of the great pleasures of designing courses is to set up class sessions with assigned readings written from the opposite perspectives. Occasionally, such readings – such as James Cuno, ed., Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) and Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) – appear at the same time. The Cuno (James Cuno is President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago) edited book includes essays by individuals supporting the notion of the encyclopedic museum, that “museums have value as repositories of objects dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge and the dissolution of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to others without prejudice,” with justification for museums to acquire even objects looted from archaeological sites as a means of building major research collections. Lawrence Rothfield, the former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago and an associate professor of English and comparative literature, gives us an excellent, if disturbing, account of the April 2003 looting of the museum in Baghdad, and offers no justification for such acquisition practices (especially as he presents evidence of the connection of such looting to the illicit trade in antiquities). From my vantage it seems that Rothfield’s account is the convincing, even if most disturbing, one. The Cuno volume, despite a few highlights, seems to be a justification for the ill-behavior of museums, past and present. The fact that I can admire a beautiful ancient statue in New York City or fawn over the artistry of a clay tablet in London just doesn’t seem to justify how those objects got there, the losses they may have inflicted on the cultural memory of a people, and the provenance information that may have been destroyed. I have a much longer analysis of these books coming out in the American Archivist in the future.

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