Heritage wars

A historian points out the problems behind today’s claims of cultural ownership over historical artefacts.

David Lowenthal

Topics Culture

Heritage is in demand. Ever more of the world’s heritage is looted, destroyed, mutilated, shorn of context, hidden from scrutiny, auctioned on eBay. Why? Partly because its virtuous stewards treat nations and tribes as enduring entities with sacred rights to time-honoured legacies.

Heritage is piously declared the legacy of all humanity. But the possessive jealousies of particular claimants pose huge obstacles to our global common inheritance. Confining possession to some while excluding others is the raison d’être of most heritage. Created to generate and protect group interests, it benefits us mainly if withheld from others (1).

Chauvinism underpins heritage rapine. The Rosetta Stone entered the British Museum ‘honourably acquired by the fortune of war’; Napoleon looted all Europe and North Africa to prove France the Roman Empire’s rightful heir; fin-de-siècle Americans threatened to buy up all England. Jingoist rivalry still foments plunder and inhibits global sharing. National and local self-esteem are sacred writ in international protocols. Equating heritage with identity justifies every group’s claim to the bones, the belongings, the riddles, and the refuse of every forebear back into the mists of time. All that stands in the way of everyone’s reunion with all their ancestral things is its utter impossibility.

It is impossible because it flies in the face of historical reality. There are no well-attested, long-enduring, pure, unchanged social or cultural entities. Every people are hybrid, every legacy multiple, every society heterogeneous, every tradition as much recent as ancient. All cultures are compages stemming from manifold antecedents. The farther back in time the more mixed is every ancestry. Multiple entitlements vitiate demands based on prior existence, occupance, use and discovery.

In Europe, each ethnic group ardently claims a realm defined by ancient settlements or kingdoms, no matter who lives there now. But this is willful fancy, as I argued in my book, Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History:

‘Congruence between early medieval and contemporary ‘peoples’ is a myth…. The history of European peoples…is not the story of a primordial moment but of a continuous process,…a history of constant change, of radical discontinuities…. Franks “born with the baptism of Clovis” are not the Franks of Charlemagne or those of the French people [of] Jean Le Pen. The Serbs…in the decaying remnants of the Avar Empire were not the people defeated at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and neither were they the Serbs called to national aggrandizement by Slobodan Milosevic.’ (2)

Indigenes redefine themselves like European essentialists – we are the same people we have always been, our values unchanged since time immemorial.. Australian Aborigines assert continuity with prehistoric cave painters: ‘The same communities that made rock art are making the art we see today.’ (3) Modern Hopis and Navajos parade as hoary traditionalists, rightful stewards by ancestral occupance. Indeed, they feel forced to feign such links. ‘We have to learn to be Indian again. First, the whites came and stripped us. Then, they come again and “find” us. Now, we are paid to behave the way we did when they tried to get rid of us.’ (4) Conveniently forgotten are the European incursions, cultural innovations, sexual mixing, and tourist commerce that transformed Southwestern tribes.

Mainstream stewards promote this fiction. A South Dakota exhibit celebrates Sioux ‘generosity, fortitude, wisdom now, as ever,…a timeless culture.’ (5) Morally inalienable from the original owners, each discrete creation myth, custom, language, lifestyle, and artifact is an imperilled treasure. To be saved, it must be admired, but uncorrupted by modern admixture. ‘Museums have to persuade indigenous people to exhibit their culture without amalgamating it into the Western tradition.’ (6)

The chimera of timeless tribal purity harks back to the 1920s, when ‘authentic’ Hopi arts and crafts were ‘rescued’ by banning aniline dyes and ‘restoring’ prehistoric Anasazi and Mimbres pottery motifs. A Santa Fe Indian potter could not use a wheel without being chastised as inauthentic (7). The same mystique animated English folklorists to find and nurture ‘ancient and unchanging links with a lost rural past when the folk…responded simply and directly to the rhythms of nature’. Subsequent accretions were dismissed as degenerative. As late as 1968, Cecil Sharp devotees in England and Appalachia asserted that ‘folk society and folk art do not accept, reflect, or value change’ (8).

Long consigned to the scholarly dustbin, visions of changeless cohesive indigenes untouched by mainstream ways survive among tribalists themselves mainly as rhetorical legal ploys. Coca-Cola bottles on South Ryukus altars, Aboriginal and Maori post-modern pastiche, Pukapukan synthesis of tribal with biblical ceremony give the lie to the conceit that ‘we’ but not ‘they’ could adopt alien ways without social suicide (9). Yet this patronising view is now espoused by modern patrons of equity and global diversity. Despite caveats that tribal peoples ‘retain the right to “market” themselves if they want to’ (10), primitivist essentialism wreaks havoc in heritage affairs, especially restitution.

Failing assured and undivided ancestry, repatriation gets as dodgy as the supermarket melon labelled ‘product of more than one country’. Four nations claim Priam’s golden hoard – the Trojan treasure Schliemann smuggled out of Turkey, kept in Greece, and gave to Berlin, where Soviet forces seized it. Who are the rightful heirs of Babylon or the Ottoman Empire? To which descendants ought Oetzi or Kennewick Man be consigned? Should Britain’s Koh-i-Noor diamond go back to India, Pakistan, Iran, or Afghanistan? No UNESCO or NAGPRA (the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990) diktat can tell. Not natural justice but arbitrary fiat decide conflicts grounded in identity and descent.

‘First People’ claims are ambiguous and hindsighted. Indians, Inuits and Aborigines asserted Ur-continentality only when the continents ceased to be theirs. In any case, all ancestral roots are of equal age, harking back to our primordial ancestor, Lucy. What entitles stay-at-homes more than others? Why has Melbourne, the third-largest Greek city, no original classical legacy? Should Ghanaians have more say than African-Americans over the Gold Coast dungeons whence slaves were shipped to the New World? Diaspora are heritage hungry; ‘the more people are on the move, the more they will grasp at tangible memorials of their collective past.’ (11) Emigrant millions crave legacies. So do wannabe Maoris, Aborigines and Native Americans, attracted by the spirituality, ecological nous, exotic chic, or lucrative spin-offs of minority status. Such is the urge to become Native Americans that tribes reinstate blood-quantum criteria, rebuffing appeal from ‘reincarnated’ Indians.

However dispersed or diluted the group, presumed solidarity shores up essentialist claims. Assumed to speak with one voice, minorities and tribes assert the right to enforce heritage traditions for all members. NAGPRA returns ‘legitimate cultural authority’ to Native American groups. The United Nations explicitly vests authority in anointed chiefs, elders, and censors (12). Oligarchic control is mandated on the premise that cohesion is crucial. But such strictures pertain only to traditional indigenes and minorities; these are deemed to speak with one voice, while others do not.

Hence the disparate standards adopted for managing heritage. For the pluralistic West, universal access to heritage is an individual right. For tribalists, sanctions on heritage use and display that exclude others (outsiders, women, non-initiates) are sacrosanct. Collective tribal values assume an identity between the original makers of ritual objects and those who are now using them, and the concurrence of present-day folk with ancestral rules and hierarchies. ‘Those who are not privy to the inside knowledge must accept the authority of those persons who are privy, and the wisdom of the restrictions.’ (13)

That ‘groups have rights similar to those traditionally reserved for individuals’ is lauded by indigenous advocates as ‘neo-Enlightenment morality’ (14). But when groups are sanctified as fossil entities, the moral outcome is dubious. By what right should women today have to submit to the will of male elders? How many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative? (15) What of individuals’ rights to dispose of things personally created or lawfully acquired? Have persons less claim than groups? Western inheritance laws safeguard family, not group desires; we aim to leave cultural property to particular heirs, not to a generic state. We may deplore the miserly greed or anal retentiveness of collectors who squirrel Old Master paintings out of sight, or, as bibliophiles have done, buy up simply to destroy any incunabula whose existence detracts from the pricelessness of their otherwise unique copy. But have we any right to prevent them from doing so?

Essentialism is a persistent delusion. Each group claims its ‘own’ history and heritage, insisting that only a Native American can know what it was like to have been Indian, only an African American to have been black, only a Jew an ancient Israelite. Ancestral mystique determines how legacies are divided, whose legends are heard, how and to whom heritage is displayed. This is politically correct, but practically wrong – wrong because we are all multiply mixed, wrong because ancestral pasts cannot be possessed anyway. To say ‘my ancestors, the Gauls’, or ‘my forebears, the Athenians’, or ‘my people, the Africans’, makes a statement not about them but about us; these Gauls, Athenians, Africans are not actual progenitors but presentist emblems of ancestry. ‘Claims that “we have always been a people” actually are appeals to become a people, appeals not grounded in history but rather, attempts to create history.’ (16)

Creating history is a fraught enterprise. ‘Who has the right to frame and interpret the past of others?’ (17) The implication is that no one has such a right. But we all have a stake in each other’s history. No ‘past of others’ is truly distinct from our own. All pasts are those of others and ourselves. Nobody ‘owns’ a past whose interpretation is their exclusive privilege. The real question is ‘not which past should count as ours but why any past should count as ours’, since most past events and actions did not happen to and were not done by us. ‘The history we study is never our own; it is always the history of people who were in some respects like us and in others different.’ (18)

But this insight is anathema to nationalists and tribalists. For them the beat of ‘their own’ history is that of their own hearts. And they coerce the compliant mainstream. The UK’s Museum Association code of ethics endorses removing from public view ceremonial and religious items whose ‘unrestricted access may cause offence to actual or cultural descendants’ (19). To use Apache blood samples, geneticists studying disease resistance had to agree to refrain from any research ‘that might contradict traditional views of the tribe’s history’ (20). Upholding a textbook’s fictitious account of heroic Japan’s war record, a Tokyo professor declared that ‘all nations have a right to interpret their history in their own way…. That is a part of sovereignty’ (21).

Such claims are flawed in logic, untenable in fact, divisive in practice. Yet they continue to shape every aspect of heritage – how it is identified, interpreted, stewarded, altered, purloined, and scuttled. They endure because embedded in long-standing notions of cultural property -even of natural and intangible legacies. The aurora borealis (northern lights) has been contested by Sweden, Norway, Russia, even by France, contending that its very absence from their skies made the French most acute observers (22). And national, tribal, and local retention and restitution claims grow more assertive when global agencies and scholarly bodies lend them moral standing.

Free trade even in images and ideas is increasingly curtailed. To prevent a Japanese ‘living treasure’ emigrating to Korea, or a dwindling Canadian First Nations band from joining a thriving Minnesota tribe (23), would seem as absurd as if Greece deterred neoclassical architects from ‘borrowing’ Corinthian designs or demanded demolishing that Greek temple, the British Museum. Yet Canada cordons off its music and media from the US juggernaut, Britons protect ‘native’ landscapes against ‘alien’ flora and fauna, peoples the world over secure everything, from deities to drumbeats and dance steps, against export. Foreign tattooists’ use of Maori designs is censured as ‘pillaging the spirit of a tribal people to sate the culturally malnourished appetites of the decadent West.’. Prince Harry of Britain committed ‘cultural theft’ in exhibiting paintings with Aboriginal motifs (24). An Aboriginal tribe sued the US National Aquarium in Baltimore for replicating its sacred waterfall for an Australian exhibit (25).

Local constraints encumber even potential heritage resources. All references to tribal culture by outsiders are subject to tribal control in United Nations declarations empowering indigenous peoples’ ‘right to maintain, protect, and develop the past, present, and future manifestations of their cultures’. Their ‘collective, permanent, and inalienable’ heritage includes ‘objects, knowledge and literary or artistic works which may be created in the future’ (26). Viewing cultures as the discrete possessions spurs demands to protect their ‘legitimacy and richness’, as Oakland’s school board did for Ebonics, the inner-city African-American lingo of fancied West African-cum-slave-ship origins (27). A UNESCO imprimatur confers on ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ the fatal kiss of eternal life. Things fluid by their very nature are ossified into factitious perpetuity. Thus we ‘reinforce the notion that heritage is a kind of fortress requiring constant protection, [and that] every breach in its walls is one more irreversible step in losing one’s culture’ (28).

Designation promotes loss: the very act of cataloguing ‘encourage[s] outsiders to think that the heritage of indigenous peoples can be sold’ (29). Heritage chauvinism also buttresses the credentials of those in charge. Rulers pose as stalwart guardians against foreign robbers. Blanket export prohibition laws mask actual inability to stem the drain of cultural property. Heritage-rich nations and tribal groups alike sound bellicose in defence of heritage whose attrition they are impotent to prevent. Looters in Belize outnumber and are better funded than the country’s entire military (30). Italy’s army and police force combined cannot secure its relic-laden soil from tombaroli, its tens of thousands of museums and churches from theft, nor its porous borders from illicit export (31).

From bellicose words ensue bellicose acts. ‘As tools of cultural identity and proof of ancestral claims to the land, heritage sites have acquired new attributes important and perverse enough to merit their obliteration and fuel war.’ Chauvinism everywhere, as in Europe, ‘has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism,…seeped deep into popular consciousness.’ (32)

Heritage stewards foster chauvinism by making autonomy holy writ and trusting each sovereign people to mount effective controls. ‘Collectors will develop the moral sense to stop purchasing unprovenanced artefacts’, in the militant view, ‘only when they have been humiliated into submission by public opprobrium’. But ‘do Western collectors really stimulate looting, or does the cause lie more with corrupt source governments and impoverished social conditions?’ (33) Or, perhaps, with cultural-property knights in shining armour?

A generation ago, heritage professionals were seen as selfless. No more (34). Defence of heritage is now denigrated as backward looking, deluded, or self-seeking. Claims of disinterested inquiry elicit cynical responses. ‘Artefacts represent money and power to archaeologists and art historians’, say tomb-robbers. ‘That is how they make their upper-class living.’ In much of the world, illegal digging is not only a crucial adjunct to subsistence but ‘an institutionalized part of community life.’ (35) Rural villagers join curators and collectors in upbraiding ‘archaeologists [who] argue that every shard is a buried treasure and ought to remain in the ground as a nonrenewable resource until it is discovered – but only by them.’ (36) Museum staff suffer similar opprobrium; the very term ‘keeper’ suggests a curmudgeon clinging to other people’s stuff, much of it out of sight (37).

Militant reformers would suppress antiquities looting by international treaty, court order, state fiat, and the moral artillery of shame and guilt. ‘No wonder the trade feels so besieged: their opponents act like a combined Pope, Minister of Culture and nagging parent, all the while claiming that they are the victims’, yet coping with a ‘system where unaccountable bureaucrats pass down prohibitive edicts based on moral posturing’ (38).

High motives – justice, equality, global sharing – actuate many who would ban trafficking and enjoin repatriation. But visionary reforms dis-serve their cause. The vast majority of prized portable property, and ever more of what used to be immovable, is no longer in lands of origin. And the vast majority of heritage attachments are now commingled among countless shifting clienteles. ‘No efforts of romantics, politicians, or social scientists’, warns an historian, ‘can preserve once and for all some essential soul of a people or a nation’ (39). Both the solitary stakeholder and the unalloyed tribe are dying breeds. We sanction their heritage claims at our personal and collective peril.

David Lowenthal is professor emeritus at the Department of Geography, University College London. This is an edited except from his article ‘Why sanctions seldom work: reflections on cultural property internationalism’, International Journal of Cultural Property 12 (2005).

(1) On heritage aims, see my Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge UP, 1998), chs. 6, 7, 10

(2) Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton UP, 2002), 37, 156-57, 174

(3) Aboriginal & Torres Straits Islander curator quoted by Tony Clifton, International Herald Tribune, 26 Apr. 2003

(4) M. Estellie Smith, ‘The process of sociocultural continuity.’ Current Anthropology 23 (1982): 132

(5) Claudia J. Nicholson, ‘Advisors to partners: bridging the cultural gap.’ History News 50:4 (1995): 11

(6) Elazar Barkan, ‘Amending historical injustices: the restitution of cultural property,’ in his and Ronald Bush, eds., Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethnic Identity (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002), 32, 39

(7) Edwin L. Wade, ‘The ethnic art market in the American Southwest, 1880-1980.’ in Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, ed G W Stocking Jr. (Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1985). 167-91; Deirdre Evans-Pritchard. ‘The Portal case: authenticity, tourism, traditions, and the law.’ Journal of American Folklore 100 (1987): 287-92

(8) Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester UP, 1993), 96-99, 133-41;.Roger D. Abrahams and George Foss. Anglo-American Folksong Style (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 11

(9) Signe Howell, ‘Whose knowledge and whose power? a new perspective on cultural diffusion,’ in Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, ed. Richard Fardon (London: Routledge, 1995), 164-81

(10) J. Anthony Paredes, ‘Preface,’ in Intellectual Property Rights for Indigenous Peoples, ed. Tom Greaves (Oklahoma City: Society for Applied Anthropology, 1994), vii

(11) Simon Jenkins, ‘Dead and dismembered on the Nile,’ The Times, 9 Jan. 1993: 12

(12) ‘Introduction,’ in Barkan and Bush, Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones, 5; UN ‘Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples’ (1997), App .B, art.15, in Cultural Rights and Wrongs (Paris: UNESCO/Institute of Art and Law, 1998), 99

(13) Diane Bell, Ngarrindigeri Wurruwarrin: A World That Is, Was, and Will Be (N. Melbourne: Spinefex, 1998), 537; on this issue, John Henry Merryman, ‘Cultural property internationalism.’ and Lyndel Prott, ‘The international movement of cultural objects.’ International Journal of Cultural Property 12 (2005): 1-29 and 226-48

(14) Barkan, ‘Amending historical injustices,’ 16

(15) Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2003), 184

(16) Geary, Myth of Nations, 37

(17) Barkan and Bush, ‘Introduction,’ and Claire Lyons, ‘Objects and identities: claiming and reclaiming the past.’ in Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones, 2 and 127

(18) Walter Benn Michaels, ‘Race into culture.’ Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 655-85 at 682

(19) Tiffany Jenkins, ‘The censoring of our museums,’ New Statesman, 11 July 2005

(20) Phil Cohen, ‘Totems and taboos,’ New Scientist, 29 Aug. 1998: 5

(21) Professor Fujioka, quoted in Doug Struck, ‘To critic’s ire, revisionists insist Tokyo’s war record is twisted,’ International Herald Tribune, 19 Apr. 2001: 5

(22) Patricia Fara. ‘Northern possession: laying claim to the Aurora Borealis.’ History Workshop Journal 42 (1996): 37-57

(23) Merryman, ‘Cultural property internationalism,’ 16

(24) Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, ‘More than skin deep: Ta Moko today,’ in Barkan and Bush, Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones, 248, 253; Rodney Dillon quoted in The Times, 21 Aug. 2003: B2

(25) Executive director David Pittinger, personal communication, 19 Oct. 2005

(26) UN 1994 App., art.12, and 1997 App..B, arts. 3 and 11, in Cultural Rights and Wrongs, 193, 198

(27) Louis Menand, ‘Johnny be good.’ New Yorker, 13 Jan. 1997: 4-5

(28) Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Labiyi Babalola Joseph Yai, ‘Authenticity and diaspora,’ in ‘Views and Visions of the Intangible,’ Museum International 56:1-2 (May 2004): 190-97 at 197

(29) Erica-Irene Daes, Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples (UN, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997), quoted in Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? 210

(30) David M. Pendergast and Elizabeth Graham. ‘The battle for the Maya past: the effects of international looting and collecting in Belize,’ in The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? ed. Phyllis Mauch Messenger (Albuquerque: New Mexico UP, 1989). 51-60

(31) Italy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, An Evaluation of Cultural Policies in Italy (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1995), 131-32, 142-49. 182-95; David Gordon, National Cultural Policy in Italy (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1995), 13, 66, 74

(32) Gustavo Araos, ‘Heritage as Conscience,’ US/ICOMOS Newsletter No. 3 (May-June 2000), 7; Geary, Myth of Nations, 15

(33) Steven Vincent, in ‘‘The Good Collector’: fabulous beast or endangered species?’ Forum, Public Archaeology 1 (2000): 80-81

(34) Lawrence J. Zimmerman, ‘When data become people: archaeological ethics, reburial, and the past as public heritage.’ International Journal of Cultural Property 7 (1998): 69-86

(35) Diura Thoden van Velzen, ‘The world of Tuscan tomb robbers: living with the local community and the ancestors.’ International Journal of Cultural Property 5 (1996): 111-26 at 112, 125

(36) Peter Marks, ‘The ethics of art dealing.’ and David Matsuda, ‘The ethics of archaeology, subsistence digging, and artifact looting in Latin America.’ International Journal of Cultural Property 7 (1998): 116-27 and 87-98

(37) David Lowenthal, White Elephants and Ivory Towers: Embattled Museums? (London: British Museum, 1999)

(38) Steven Vincent, ‘Good Collector,’ 80-81

(39) Geary, Myth of Nations, 174

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Topics Culture


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