James Cuno, Snake Charmer
'Cosmopolite: A citizen of the world.' Dictionary of the English Language, Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1775.
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
James Cuno, head of the Chicago Art Institute, dove into the snake pit, fearlessly, Indiana Jones-style. Typically, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, despite its priceless collection of viper-inspired ancient artifacts, doesn't get such a caustic rap, especially in welcoming a prominent visiting scholar like Cuno, from one of the world's great encyclopedic museums.
How distinguished? Well, for starters, Cuno, the Art Institute's president and director since 2004, was on the short-list last year vying for the prestigious directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the world's premier encyclopedic museum. The Harvard-educated scholar also served as head of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and, before that, was director of art museums at Harvard, as well as a professor of art and architecture.
Yet as Cuno stepped onto the stage in Rainey Auditorium last week, you could almost hear an audible hiss from the crowd. OK, that's a bit a prosed-up hyperbole. But, still, the drama of the moment was papable.
In one corner is the Penn Museum, a legendary teaching institution that pioneered Near Eastern 'discovery' back in its romantic heyday in the early 20th century. You know, what we now call the period of 'looting' and 'plundering' of ancient patrimonies.
In recognition of any perceived, even alleged wrong-doing, Penn in nolo contendre-style offered up almost 40 years ago a mea culpa of sorts, now known as the Pennsylvania Declaration, a seminal fiat that put the museum on record that it would purchase 'no more art objects or antiquities' unless their legal standing and provenance were completely verifiable.
That 1970 statement sent shock waves through the nation's museum nomenclature. Read the The Getty in Malibu, California, and the Met, two of the most high-profile museums that were getting their way for years. (In the Met's case, since its founding in late 19th century when, thanks to its avaricious first director Luigi Palma di Cesnola, it started shipping ancient antiquities to New York by the carload).
About the same time as Penn's commitment to transparent legitimacy, the United Nations, via UNESCO, was also propounding papal bull-like declarations that countries (read, Western nations) respect Third World heritages. All mouth, no teeth.
Still, the Penn and UNESCO conventions were a one-two punch, pretty much establishing the cultural ethic of today's museum world. Perhaps the best known -- at least that for creating the most noise -- is the case of the British Museum vs the Government of Greece over the Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles. Greece wants them back. The British Museum hasn't cried uncle -- yet. (More recently, The Getty and the Met, under legal threat, returned treasures to -- Italy. Like Greece, Third World? Don't ask).
In 1970, the then-19-year-old James Cuno, was visiting Paris as a student. Topping his itinerary not surprisingly was the Louvre. More surprisingly, his visit was the first time that Cuno had ever been in a museum.
'...As I walked from room to room I became profoundly aware of the strange, new universe I had entered,' he remembered in Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton University Press, 2008, $24.95). 'Most of the world was there before me, or so it seemed, on the museum's walls and in its cases: fragile artifacts from places of which I had never heard...'
This was young Cuno's epiphany -- 'the world under one roof,' as he described it. And his awakening as museum guru, iconoclast, and one of this country's most out-spoken critics against what he sees as the self-aggrandizing, self-promoting bullying by new nation states to 'repatriate' Western museum treasures for financial and political gain.
So, in the other corner, at Penn last week, enter the fly in the ointment. Thirty-nine years later.
Much of Cuno's talk to students as guest of the university's Cultural Heritage Center, and later to a packed audience in Rainey, including some power hitters in Philadelphia's cultural firmament (Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Barnes' Derek Gillman, and the like) was an impassioned restating of his overall thesis, as detailed in his book from last year. And what a book it is!
OK. Who Owns Antiquity isn't the easiest of reads. But through the hard-slogging thicket of scholarly detail and context, the work makes a profound case for American, indeed, Western, museums to man up to those who would want to cherry pick encyclopedic institutions in the self-serving name of national legacy and heritage.
Cuno also introduces the 'P' word. No, not the almost now sacred provenance. But partage.
In its simplest interpretation, partage is mutual cooperation, or as my Larousse translates it,'sharing.' Cuno puts it, 'The preservation and sharing of ancient artifacts between local governments and international museums.'
'Culture has never known physical borders,' Cuno told the Penn audience.
And, despite Penn's later-day remorse, he added, partage enabled Penn to build its stupendous collections. As it did at university museums at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and at the University of Chicago.
How important was partage? Well, significant enough -- though this went without mention -- that partage was instrumental in making possible the museum's current major exhibit, 'Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery.' Based on artifacts and scholarship from Penn's joint 1922 excavation with the British Museum in what is now Iraq, this 'sharing' was deemed on the up and up. And, seemingly, OK with the Iraq. At least, its ambassador to the United States was on hand last month, giving his imprimatur at the exhibit's official opening.
By and large, Cuno went on, partage served the best interests of both national entities and museums. What changed? '[T]he flood of national retentionist cultural property laws in the second half of the twentieth century....'
Interestingly, the failing state of partage and the continuing strength of scholarship at the Penn Museum have particular importance to all Philadelphians, even non-academics. That's because the Penn Museum is, in a way, an extension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though the PMA is rightfully known as an encylopediac museum, in its early days it agreed that the fledging Penn Museum, then known as the Free Museum, would house the city's collection of classical and ancient antiquities. (Though there's an admission 'donation,' the Penn Museum actually still remains admission free. Pay what you wish).
Moreover, controversy over legal ownership hasn't escaped Philadelphia, extending well beyond ancient times. What happens when a museum gets wind that a holding was stolen by Nazi art scavengers? Some years ago, the PMA learned that some armor it held actually belonged to a German museum. Back it went.
Cuno's argument is nuanced. Laws must be abided; stolen goods, returned. But museums must also stand up as 'cosmopolites, in Dr. Johnson's definition of the word, 'citizens of the world,' he told the Penn audience.
And the center of that world? Chicago, Cuno told me with wink, before we departed for a wine reception in Lower Eygpt hall. Oh, yeah, that venue, too, also owes its existence to partage.