Phi Beta Cons

Who Owns Antiquity?

James Cuno, head of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes in CHE:

The sad truth is that nationalist cultural-property laws are not intended to protect the world’s ancient heritage. Instead, they are meant to claim that heritage as the property of the modern nation-state, important to its identity and esteem. They are used to legitimize modern governments’ claims as heirs to an ancient past: modern Egypt to Pharaonic Egypt, modern Greece to Athens, Italy to ancient Rome, the People’s Republic of China to the first emperor, modern Iraq to Mesopotamia (Saddam’s government’s slogan was “Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein”). As such, the laws impose nationalist characteristics on antiquity when none could possibly exist. And they distort the truth of culture, which is that it is and always has been fluid and mongrel, the result of contact with new and strange things, never static or pure.

For more on this, check out my recent NRO podcast interview with Cuno, here.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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