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Kwame Opoku: Protection Of Cultural Artefacts Through Wide Distribution

Dr. James Cuno has given an interesting interview to Scott Simon which is not only about recent massive destructions of large monuments and built cultural structures in the Middle East but seizes this deplorable situation to present one of his pet arguments:  the need to distribute cultural artefacts around the world and not to keep them all at the places where they were produced. (1)

Cuno himself admits that a distribution of artefacts at several places would not have prevented any of the recent destructions of large cultural monuments and sites. So why do we have this interview? We can only assume that the intention was to give Dr. Cuno another opportunity to present his theory of distributing artefacts around the world as a means of their protection from destruction. As we have often stated, this idea of not accumulating many artefacts in one place would apply more directly to Western museums that have deliberately assembled artefacts of others over the past centuries. (2)

Cuno’s idea is once again not more elaborated here than in his previous article in the American journal, Foreign Affairs. (3) The learned scholar is, to be sure, not thinking of museums like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum as candidates for spreading artefacts around the world. He is not contemplating the distribution of Western masterworks around the world, presumably they need no protection. He is thinking only about artefacts in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He leaves it understood by his western readers that these objects from those areas would come to Western museums. Who contribute to the troubles in those areas is, of course, not an issue for the learned scholar. Under what conditions those distributed objects would eventually be returned is, of course, not his concern.

Indeed, Dr. Cuno suggests the repeal of an American law passed after the Iraqi invasion that required returning recently looted Iraqi artefacts found in the United States of America. Cuno states that, unlike the British Museum, a museum in America could not keep an artefact it knows to have been illegally exported from Iraq. 

As everybody is aware by now, most illegally exported artefacts end in Western museums and collections. It is also evident that without the keen interest of museums to acquire those artefacts there would be less interest in the illegal trade in antiquities. There would probably also be less interest in the destruction of massive and built structures which results in portable antiquities that are available on the illicit antiquities market. So why do some scholars and museum directors not look at the illegal market where their influence could make a difference rather than look at other fields where they have less influence?  Why would they not support the efforts of the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM in this matter? (4) Are distractions from such endeavours useful contributions to protection of culture and cultural artefacts? Larry Rothfield who considers the interview with Dr. Cuno ‘very disappointing’ has stated in his column, The Punching Bag:

"The irony here is that if Cuno turned his considerable intellect towards the problem of inhibiting the illegal trade in artifacts, he would find that distributing antiquities in the proper way could not just safeguard those antiquities by spreading them round, but could also inhibit the illegal trade. How? Museums should pull antiquities off their basement storeroom shelves and offer to allow collectors to borrow --not buy -- them in exchange for contributing to efforts to help police the borders and prevent the illicit trade".                        

Kwame Opoku.  8 September, 2015.


(1)  Protecting antiquities by distributing them - The Punching Bag

      Protecting antiquities by distributing them: Why Cuno has ...

(2) K. Opoku, ‘Defence of “Universal Museums” Through Omissions and Irrelevancies’’,


(3) “Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts”, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/...cuno/culture-war –

(4) S/RES/2199 (2015): Resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council ...

Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk:   icom.museum/resources/red-lists-database/red-list/iraq-2015/

Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk: icom.museum/resources/red-lists-database/red-list/syria/



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