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Environment
NYT Critic: NAGPRA hurts cultural heritage


"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. It has been used not just to protect but also to restrict.

In the United States, for example, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required every museum getting public funds to survey its collections; identify Indian remains and funerary, sacred and other objects; and consult with Indian tribes and ”repatriate” the artifacts if requested. Such objects may have been legitimately purchased a century ago from the tribes or have no issue clouding their provenance, but claims of ordinary property give way before claims of cultural property. The grievous sins of the past are now being repaid with a vengeance. And the risks of repatriation and the requirements of tribal consultation have led to promotional, uninformative and self-indulgent themes in exhibitions about American Indians.

The idea of cultural property also led to the Army Corps of Engineers’ bulldozing an archaeological site in Washington State in 1998 that had yielded a 9,200-year-old skeleton, known as Kennewick Man, the oldest ever found in North America. Without any evidence local Indian tribes claimed the skeleton was their cultural property — the bones of an ancestor — and they successfully prevented a complete scientific examination. The bulldozing was apparently a new form of protection, philistinism triumphing in the name of enlightened ideas."

Get the Story:
Critic Edward Rothstein: Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland (The New York Times 5/27)
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