Only Collect?

  • Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.University of Chicago Press. April 2009.
  • James Cuno, ed. Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities.Princeton University Press. April 2009.

As the US prepared to invade Iraq, Arthur Houghton began to worry about the fate of the country’s archaeological heritage. An antiquities collector and former White House international policy analyst, Houghton tried to locate the office in the Defense or State Department concerned with protecting Iraq’s heritage during the invasion. He soon discovered that “nobody was handling the issue, there was no one I could find who was tagged with the responsibility for dealing with the protection and preservation of … material culture in Iraq.” What unfolded is a tragedy: since the American invasion, an immense amount of ancient material has been dispersed or destroyed, and with it, the chance of knowing more about a deep past whose traces had remained intact for five thousand years.

The looting of the National Museum of Baghdad in the early days of the 2003 invasion was widely reported at the time. While statues of Hussein tumbled, locals plundered the museum, a repository of ancient artifacts founded by Gertrude Bell in 1926. The museum was so full of antiquities because modern Iraq covers a uniquely rich soil. Home to the cultures of Sumer, Babylon, Media, and Assyria, Mesopotamia saw the world’s first cities as well as the invention of writing. Saddam Hussein took advantage of this past, trying to affirm a visible continuity between his regime and the ancients. He sponsored much archaeological work but also indulged in vulgar displays, such as the minting of coins with fake cuneiform inscriptions and the celebration of modern festivals on the ancient sites.

However crass Hussein’s propaganda, his regime preserved this ancient patrimony, even as it increasingly lacked the resources to study it adequately. Only the no-fly zones and embargo imposed after the first Gulf War stopped Hussein’s efforts to prevent looting of archaeological sites. His regime could no longer patrol areas of the country from the air, and the descent from occasional thievery to regular looting operations was encouraged by the contraction of the domestic economy. Meanwhile Western demand surged for Mesopotamian antiquities, in particular cylinder seals—small, highly decorative stone and ceramic cylinders. When the American invasion plunged Iraq into near-anarchy, almost all remaining restraints on plundering crumbled.

Today, much of Iraq’s ancient heritage has disappeared. The wreckage is enormous: pock-marked satellite photographs of the sites show its extent. Theft from the National Museum in Baghdad represents perhaps one-twentieth of the overall losses, and the looting continues.


Lawrence Rothfield, the former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, has produced an exposé that is all the more powerful for its calm tone. His research involved twenty-eight interviews with policymakers, archaeologists, and collectors of antiquities. His conclusion: Americans in positions of power and responsibility are collectively culpable for the destruction of the Iraqi cultural heritage, a “pervasive policy failure.”

Rothfield delves deeper into the matter than simply blaming the Bush administration. As he notes, “American suspicion of governmental involvement in cultural matters is deeply engrained.” The US is a global power with no cultural ministry and was not a member of UNESCO from 1984 to late 2003. There were, therefore, structural causes for US negligence in Iraq: for one, “the absence of social networks between cultural heritage advocates and war planners.” This, Rothfield notes, stands in contrast to the (otherwise regrettable) British occupation, in which political players had a lively interest in Mesopotamian archaeology and were connected by social networks to scholars. In the American case, within a generally hurried and often inefficient war planning process, protecting cultural sites received little attention. General Tommy Franks was most succinct: “I don’t have time for this fucking bullshit.” If war planners failed to think of Iraq’s heritage, archaeologists and curators share the blame for what came to pass. Archaeologists did not focus on the problem of preserving Iraq’s cultural heritage until the fall of 2002. Once they did, they found they had no access to important players in the State and Defense departments.

According to Rothfield, it was Houghton who finally broke through to the government in January 2003, inviting a group of collectors and one prominent Mesopotamian archaeologist to a meeting at the Defense Department. The collectors stressed the need for a list of targets that the US army should avoid hitting. The collectors and government officials was solely focused on the potential for direct damage by the military, underestimating the power of anarchy to transform ordinary farmers into looters of art objects and destroyers of cultural patrimony. The lone archaeologist’s request for a broader policy went unheard.

On the ground, the American record at respecting the “no strike” list turned out to be remarkably good. Americans did not bomb or otherwise obliterate any cultural artifacts in Iraq. But the US armed forces felt no responsibility for the behavior of civilians, in the capital or elsewhere. In the early days in Baghdad, the only two buildings that the tanks secured were the hotel hosting the foreign press and the Ministry of Oil.

These events offer several lessons. Most notably, international law does matter. Even though the US never ratified the Hague Convention of 1959 for the protection of cultural property in wartime, its army complied with a “no strike” list out of a desire to respect customary law of war. But this law was observed loosely—the Hague also requires the prevention of looting, a responsibility entirely shirked by the occupying forces in Iraq. The failure of American archaeologists and art curators to respond only underscores the importance of stronger laws and better mechanisms of accountability. The collectors who did manage to meet with top government officials completely underestimated the problem of looting, unwilling or perhaps unable to recognize the nefarious consequences of their own practices as collectors of antiquities. As Rothfield puts it, “what transpired was a tragic series of missed opportunities, misdirected communications, and misstatements, culminating in the looting of the National Museum and the depredation of Iraq’s archaeological sites.” The black market demand from wealthy countries was a major factor—looting would not have taken place without it.


Postwar Iraq is an exceptional case, but this failure to protect cultural patrimony should focus our attention on the necessity of worldwide policies to protect material traces of the past. These traces are constantly under threat—if not from human activity, then from natural disasters. The need to protect the remains of antiquity is urgent, but how to achieve this goal remains unresolved and contested.

Recent years have seen the birth of a curatorial “cosmopolitanism,” and Whose Culture?—an essay collection edited by James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago—assembles contributions from its prime exponents. These include a variety of influential figures from the museum world, including Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and Philippe de Montebello, longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose essay for this volume, “Whose Culture Is It?,” first appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2006.

Appiah’s starting point is the “inevitably mongrel, hybrid nature of living cultures.” Since culture is fluid and intrinsically mixed, no group can ever lay an exclusive claim to it. Appiah admits a long-standing connection between imperialism and the distribution of artworks across the globe, yet he finds great value in the scattering of the world’s cultural artifacts, so the often politically salient question of restitution—witness the Elgin Marbles dispute between Britain and Greece—does not interest him. If one conceives with Appiah of each country as a “trustee for humanity” in its stewardship of cultural property, the relevant question then becomes: “What system of international rules about [cultural artifacts] will respect the many legitimate human interests at stake?” These many interests might be contained in the ideal of worldwide access—how to best enhance and display the patrimony of mankind, and how to give as many people as possible the ability to enjoy as much of it as possible. From the perspective of this ideal, Appiah worries that developing countries lack “the resources to enforce the regulations they make.” The problem of Mali, for instance, is that it simply “doesn’t have enough money” to care for its art objects. Though developing countries may claim to look after their artworks, they are simply incapable of being good trustees of world culture. This global predicament, aptly diagnosed by Appiah, might occasion a variety of responses, not all of which are necessarily cosmopolitan.

At least since his Who Owns Antiquity? (2008), Cuno has cast himself as the prophet of a cosmopolitan approach to cultural property. In that book, Cuno attacked “retentionist” national cultural property laws—in countries like Egypt, China, Turkey, and Italy—which seek to protect cultural goods by making a national ownership claim on them. Retentionist policies, today common around the world, conceive of the sovereign state as the best protector of cultural property found on its territory. Since a 1970 UNESCO convention, illegally removed cultural goods must be denied entry to signatory countries, which include the US. If discovered, illegally imported artifacts must be returned to their country of origin. At least since the 2002 conviction of a New York dealer who imported and sold illegally acquired Egyptian antiquities, it has been clear that the cultural property claims of foreign nations are upheld in US courts.

In Whose Culture?, as in his previous work, Cuno insists on setting encyclopedic and national museums in a specious opposition, arguing that the former have laudable cosmopolitan aspirations while the latter have narrow ones. As Ingrid Rowland pointed out in the New Republic, the binary dissolves rather quickly upon inspection. While the National Museum in Beirut exclusively exhibits local archaeological finds, its purpose is not to celebrate the eternity of Lebanese cultural identity but rather to highlight the utter variety of peoples and conquerors that has inhabited this strip of the Mediterranean littoral. Likewise, the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the National Gallery of Washington, DC, are—among other things, certainly—emphatic statements of American power and prestige, not despite but because of their cosmopolitan collections. Their very classicizing façades evoke the continuity between the modern US and ancient, “classical” societies (and empires). The British Museum, Cuno’s classic example of the encyclopedic collection, is cosmopolitan in no small part because it is housed in a city that, within a century of the museum’s founding, became the capital of the world’s largest empire.


The link between cultural cosmopolitanism and political imperialism is made explicitly by MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, albeit in what might be read as a Freudian slip. Writing about African axes, he says that they

allowed our ancestors to butcher better and get that crucial protein advantage over other peoples. This let us conquer the world and build great cities like London, where visitors to the British Museum first saw … the truth … the origin of their culture, the world’s culture and human making.

To turn the question back on the book’s contributors, whose culture, indeed? Who is this “us” who conquered the world? (In his memoir, Mohandas K. Gandhi recollects how as a young man he believed that the secret of the British must be their consumption of beef. Though he soon abandoned what we might call the protein theory of empire, clearly it still has exponents in the onetime imperial capital.)

It is worth asking whether cosmopolitanism necessarily confuses conquered and conqueror. If this tendency to obscure power dynamics were an intrinsic aspect of cosmopolitan thought, we might be very much inclined to reject it as a guiding philosophy.

In fashioning the contemporary encyclopedic collection into a world force for good, Cuno appeals to the “Enlightenment ideal” of universal knowledge. Yet he limits his focus to those aspects of such an ideal that presage today’s pluralist and profoundly egalitarian sensibility, ignoring those that offend us, such as the hierarchical vision of human societies developed by Enlightenment thinkers from Adam Smith to Condorcet. It seems obvious enough that encyclopedic museums are in no way intrinsically enlightening forces. They are only as good as their curators, and they can be and have been used to tell rather unappealing stories about the ranking of human societies. After all, comparison is only a step away from comparative judgment. Intrinsic to the study of aesthetic objects is discernment and appraisal. Witness the longtime relegation of so-called “primitive” art to specialized collections. To reduce the history of the museum or even the encyclopedic art museum to a simple story of enlightenment and the championing of pluralist, democratic values is either an act of ignorance, which one doubts, or disingenuousness.

Cuno’s cosmopolitanism falls rather short of the universal concept it purports to be. In response to the accusation that the policies he advocates would cause a transfer of cultural artifacts from developing (or undeveloped) parts of the world to developed ones, he dismisses the idea that it is a problem that “encyclopedic museums are primarily in the West.” He continues: “If it is a good idea to have representative examples of all the world’s cultures for curious people to see … then it is a good idea, period.” Yet a genuinely cosmopolitan curator should reason in terms of global access to cultural materials.  His primary goal should be making all of them accessible to all of mankind, not providing as many of them as possible to those who can afford to collect and exhibit them. Cuno simply aims to amass beautiful objects from around the world for the good people of Chicago (and London and New York), whether through a market of freely tradable antiquities or by reintroducing the imperialistic practice of partage, in which Western excavators took part of their discoveries  home with them, leaving the rest to local governments.

Cuno and his colleagues’ efforts to undermine the concept of national cultural patrimony end up undermining the notion of cultural patrimony tout court. Their allegiance seems to be to the notion of artifacts as freely tradeable goods, to be sold to the highest bidder. If cosmopolitanism is just a fancy word for free market capitalism or for a return to imperial-style practices like partage, then it is not a particularly rich or interesting political theory. Yet at this historical moment, the notion of a moral community of mankind is coming to seem like an unavoidable starting point, an axiom of public reason rather than a debatable claim, at least as long as stable peace, equal access to resources and culture, sustainable development, and the survival of the biosphere are goals that we prize. Ever more frequent references, including President Obama’s June 4th Cairo speech, indicate the growing salience of joint solutions to problems that touch all the inhabitants of the planet’s diverse regions.


Whose Culture? crushes underfoot the olive branch that the curator of the Art Institute claimed quite recently to be offering to archaeologists. Cuno’s previous target ostensibly was the retentionist, nationalist state; now it is Western professional excavators and scholars of the past. He accuses practitioners of the discipline of not appreciating the value and beauty of objects and of hoarding information from the public. Moreover, he blames them for being in cahoots with the states in which they perform their research.

It may not be entirely clear to outsiders why so much bad blood runs between curators and archaeologists, but the two groups have radically different goals and priorities. Curators run what are effectively educational institutions—the early role of museums as research collections has generally been eclipsed by their public-outreach function. Archaeologists by contrast are mostly university-based scholars whose primary concern remains research. Curators require objects of beauty and complexity, strong materials that they can use to tell a story about the past. Archaeologists in the field, on the other hand, are not narrating but reconstructing the past, and they do so by collecting many kinds of information. Art objects, even beautiful ones, rarely form the most important part of this reconstruction. Shards of pottery and obsidian, bits of coal, and well-defined layers of earth and matter are often more telling than a work of art. The provenance of an object may be of limited value to a scholar interested only in aesthetic interpretation, but once one broadens one’s field of vision to other aspects of the past, provenance gains tremendous importance. This difference is clearest in curators’ and archaeologists’ divergent attitudes toward prehistory. Prehistory cannot be that interesting to an art-lover: with some notable exceptions, the artifacts do not seem as exciting as the products of Neolithic and later cultures. Yet the revolutionary breakthrough in archaeology happened when researchers learned how to study human prehistory, to generate sophisticated explanations of past societies without the aid of written sources.

Archaeologists accuse curators and collectors of contributing to the destruction of archaeological contexts when they buy so-called “unprovenanced” antiquities. These are for the most part looted items, excavated by reckless diggers who do not hesitate to break up a fresco if the fragments will make more money, and who in the act of retrieving artworks destroy what surrounds them, effacing clues to the original function of an object and other data about a past society. Not only private collectors but also prominent public US museums have used the black market to buy looted antiquities. This truth was brought home by the recent restitution struggle between Italy and several major US museums that resulted in the return of many looted artworks, including the famous Euphronios krater that had been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum since the early 1970s. Partly as a response to this, the American Association of Art Museum Directors issued a new set of guidelines last year for the acquisition of ancient art and archaeological materials that puts US museums in line with international policy and practice.

Against the grain of these developments, Cuno argues that the Rosetta Stone, collected during the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1799, and the Laocoon group, discovered in Rome during the Italian Renaissance, had cultural impact irrespective of the context of their finding. This is supposed to prove that context does not matter as much as the intrinsic qualities of the artwork. The point is dangerously simplistic. We can hold ourselves to different standards than discoverers of artifacts from centuries past. What’s more, what matters is not that we define how artworks are understood, but that we ensure their preservation as well as the preservation of materials such as archaeological sites that can contribute to knowledge about past societies, so that our age and future ones will better understand both the past and its art.


Despite its shortcomings, Whose Culture? is more nuanced than its predecessor. Appiah, De Montebello, and MacGregor rightfully stress the importance of circulating collections more widely across the globe. This may well be the inkling of a truly cosmopolitan vision of how to share cultural patrimony across borders. Rather than reject all the international agreements and challenge all the laws that have been established in different states over the past forty years, it seems more practicable to focus on how museums across the globe can share their collections. A world of widely circulating artworks and antiquities is more than a pipe dream. Public access would be assured and the question of ownership would seem secondary as long as exhibitions traveled widely and equitably.

The case of postwar Iraq suggests who the real cosmopolitans might be. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which has a relationship with Iraq dating back to digs started in 1903, felt a responsibility towards a country with which it had been involved for so long. Therefore, the Institute created a website for the listing of stolen Iraqi antiquities, in hopes of aiding their identification and retrieval. Lost Treasures from Iraq is still online (http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/iraq.html), though as of 2008 its listings numbered only 1,352—a fraction of the approximately 15,000 objects stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the intense engagement of one museum with the collection of another, thousands of miles away, represents a serious attempt to make amends for the catastrophe wrought by the US government.

Another cosmopolitan effort was that of Elizabeth C. Stone of Stony Brook University, who purchased and studied satellite imagery of Iraqi archaeological sites to create a chronology of looting across the country. The existence of satellite photos from different moments in time allows a precise study of when damage—including the damage caused by occupation forces after the invasion—took place. The images that Stone examined cover, she writes, “some six square miles of looting holes. This represents an area one hundred times greater than has ever been excavated by archaeologists.”

Together, these two efforts show how recent technologies make productive cultural preservation efforts possible even at great distance. Yet they amount to only a small part of the work that can be done to stop looting and preserve what remains of the ancient past in Iraq. There is much more to do: curb the demand for illegal antiquities, restore the rule of law in Iraq, enact more powerful legislation for cultural property protection in war and peace, educate the worldwide public about the urgency of such matters, and finally guarantee the circulation of artworks among museums of antiquities, ensuring widespread access to mankind’s shared cultural heritage. Just as important, instead of using poor countries’ shortcomings as a preliminary to claiming the right to buy their works, surely cosmopolitans should devise means to share resources and know-how with these countries. Such consulting might be done in exchange for traveling exhibitions of nationally-owned art.

Meanwhile, the record on Iraq of collectors and curators is dismal. Rothfield tells us that “wealthy antiquities collectors, dealers, and museum directors” responded to the emergency in 2003, but “gave little more than words.” Philippe de Montebello’s Metropolitan Museum “gave nothing” to any initiative intended to help the National Museum of Iraq. To add insult to injury, de Montebello and other contributors to Cuno’s book try to diminish the importance of the illegal global antiquities market. De Montebello wants to “debunk” the “exaggerated and often fanciful claims” about the extent of the black market. John Boardman, an emeritus classicist at Oxford, asks: “Should we not simply admit the impossibility of controlling the antiquities trade?”

This callous attitude ultimately shows Cuno’s collection to be a shamelessly self-interested appeal on the part of wealthy US and UK museums prevented by current legislation from acquiring as many historical artworks as they would like. Public access to the traces of the past is an admirable value that curators rightly hold highly. But these curators at least are solely concerned with access for their own patrons. World access to world cultural heritage would be a much more ambitious goal. True cosmopolitanism is demanding of its practitioners: it requires belief in a world that does not exist and that has questionable potential for realization, given the long and painful record of human history. Likewise, it requires sympathy for vast numbers of very distant people, a massive effort for the human imagination. This effort is not even visible in Whose Culture?

All of this makes Cuno’s collection a moral failure even more than an intellectual one. Despite coming at such a crucial moment in US involvement in the destruction of the world’s cultural patrimony, Whose Culture? contains only a single extended discussion—in an endnote—of looting in Iraq, which blithely dismisses the problem as blown out of proportion. The book’s major intervention into the question of looting is to flatly deny that a massive demand for antiquities fuels organized looting and the black market. As if those desperate Iraqis were looting the ancient patrimony of their country to display it in their homes.

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