Ownership, value, and meaning

May 17, 2009

The Exlibris listserv reached a full boil last week over the deaccessioning and sale of materials from the University of San Francisco’s library collection.  Jeremey Dibbell at Philobiblos has a good write-up of the many issues raised by the institutional moves.  In general, my feeling is that deaccession is the third-rail of collections with there being no one right answer, but the hub-bub reminded me of similar issues raised by James Cuno in Who Owns Antiquity?  Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage.

I recognize that Cuno is the head of the Art Institute of Chicago, but I have to admit to being surprised with the argument that he put forward regarding the claims of national heritage.  Typically, ownership of cultural heritage is determined by its location or origination.  Cuno, however, argues quite insightfully that in our current nationalist era cultural heritage is being claimed and valued not on some sort of universal basis, but to meet the political and social needs of the present nation states.

His examples of China and Turkey struck me as very apt and convincing models for how modern states consciously work to co-opt particular historic cultures (in these cases Han and Turk), while ignoring, undervaluing, and actively working to destroy the cultures of ethnic minorities within the current borders.  The voices that are driving the international institutions to enact treaties and laws are not set-up to preserve the past for the benefit of everyone, rather only for the dominant culture of post-colonial states.

Cuno tries to make the case for the  “encyclopedic” museum as a means to best preserve the world’s cultural heritage, and in this era of globalization and trans-national migrations he presents a strong argument (even recognizing that he is inserting new facts into the same argument that has taken place in museums for the past 100 years).

I don’t think that these debates of ownership and value directly impact the work of conservators, but it does highlight the constant need to re-evaluate  our assumptions of culture and  ownership.  Are there universal values that can guide our decision-making , or are there culturally-specific considerations that must be taken into consideration?  And if there are specific considerations, are those historically or politically determined?

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