The Case for Stewardship (not Ownership) of Antiquities, Language, DNA and More

In this age of marauding markets, it almost seems quaint to ask, “Who owns culture?”  We know the answer.  When push comes to shove, the owners of copyright, trademarks and patents own everything.  We may think that the music, images and stories of our culture belong to us, but as a matter of law, in the 165+ countries that have signed the Berne Convention, our designated role is....to buy (and not use someone else's "property.")   

A new book of essays complicates this picture.  Negotiating Culture:  Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property -- just published by the University of Massachusetts Press -- points out some of the distinct limits to “intellectual property’s” dominion.  The book is a series of essays by academics from various disciplines that explores how social practice and culture have their own moral legitimacy and social power -- enough to push back on claimed property rights. 

The book chronicles controversies over who should have legal rights of ownership and control over Native American remains, Green and Roman antiquities, works of art looted by the Nazis, among many other objects and resources.  We are asked to consider whether culture should be treated as property that can be bought and sold (and treated accordingly), or whether it must be considered inalienable, or not suitable for sale on the market, and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.  

These are the magic words:  It seems that the core issue in so many of these disputes is a matter of identity, dignity, respect and, of course, power.

Museums are increasingly at the epicenter of cultural ownership issues these days.  The 2005 trial in Italy of Marion True, the former curator of classical art at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a beautiful case study of how social norms about the ownership of ancient antiquities have dramatically shifted.  Prior to that trial, museums often bought or accepted donated antiquities without too much thought about the provenance of the work.  After all, antiquities don’t usually come with title deeds or receipts, and it was an open secret that many of them were dug up by looters and spirited out of the country into the hands of profit-minded dealers.

In a chapter on the Marion True trial by Laetitia La Follette, who is also the editor of the anthology, we learn how ancient artifacts often smile at us blankly, posing unanswerable riddles:  Who should be entitled to “own” the sculpted torso of the god Mithras, or the large Greek kylix, or drinking cup, that the Getty had acquired?  

One can make the case that the museum bought it fair and square.  But without papers proving their provenance, museums adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy are essentially sanctioning the illegal plunder and trafficking of priceless historical artifacts from archaeological sites around the world. 

But critics may respond:  The nation-states of Greece and Italy were not even around when those works were created.  Why should they be entitled to claim ownership of such antiquities?  Perhaps we should regard such works as belonging to all of humankind, as a shared cultural legacy.  And let's be realistic:  premier museums may be better able to protect than countries without the proper funds and curatorial staff.  (The limitations of Greece and postwar Iraq come to mind.) 

Answering these questions has all sorts of cascading implications that are not necessarily obvious.  For example, if stolen antiquities can be sold to museums with impunity, it will only encourage the looting of antiquities for their aesthetic and resale value, at the expense of the historical knowledge that would come from careful archaeological extraction and study.  The interests of museums in acquiring beautiful, historical objects often clash with the interests of art historians and anthropologists in studying the historical significance and context of antiquities.  

As a result of the Marion True trial, museums around the world have changed their acquisitions policies for ancient art to ensure that the provenance of artifacts is carefully scrutinized.  The return of antiquities to the originating countries is another frequent outcome.  Significantly, the US Government has since agreed to collaborate with international partners to stop the looting of antiquities from the Mediterranean, which replicated similar agreements for antiquities looted from Mali and several Latin American countries. 

What is emerging in the aftermath of the True trial, writes La Follette, is “a new model of international collaboration over cultural property, one based on stewardship instead of ownership.”

This controversy – like the ones over Native American’s remains and indigenous people’s sacred objects – highlights the way that our identities in a sense merge with objects.  We can see more clearly how certain objects become morally, culturally and personally “necessary” for our collective identities. 

Consider the skull of Kennewick Man,” prehistoric human remains found along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State.  American Indians have been disturbed by the scientific study of these remains.  Yet anthropologists and scientists regard such Kennewick Man as an invaluable specimen that can shed more light on early human societies.  Whose interests should prevail?  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 has sought to provide a framework for resolving such disputes in more respectful, predictable ways. 

In a chapter on the “politics of archaeology,” Joe Watkins, an indigenous archaeologist who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, explains how the “trade-offs” implied by such arguments are really specious:  “To me, repatriation [of remains] has created opportunities for archaeologists to draw from the indigenous knowledge held by those people whose ancestors created the archaeological record we write about.  It has opened up hitherto untapped pools of knowledge that can help inform archaeological understanding….”

There are other interesting essays here about who should be able to own or control or act as stewards for a given body of cultural knowledge or objects.  Linguistics professor Margaret Speas notes that Microsoft once proposed creating a Windows operating system based on the Mapudungun language, the ancestral language of the Mapuche People in Chile.  Far from welcoming their integration into global computing, the Mapuche People objected strenuously.  They complained that “only the Mapuche People must and can safeguard, maintain, manage, develop and recreate its cultural heritage.” 

This is one of those rare clashes between a bounded commons and an open network platform. The latter is often mistaken as a commons, but in reality open networks are often closed systems controlled by the corporations that own them (think Facebook, Google and Twitter).   

The Microsoft/Mapuche confrontation mirrors similar ones that linguists have had in trying to study indigenous languages of the Americas.  Linguists may have only the best intentions – to study and help preserve languages that are in danger of dying out.  But when working as a coauthor of a textbook of Navajo, Speas found that her expertise as a linguist was sometimes beside the point; what the community wanted and needed was culturally relevant and appropriate materials. 

In another essay in the book, Banu Subramaniam, who studies feminist science, writes about “DNA and the Politics of Belonging.”  It turns out that some ethnic groups in India are trying to use DNA as a “material-semiotic object” to indicate their genealogical proximity to Europeans vs. Asians, and thus make the case for their more elevated social caste. To some, Indians with a European genetic heritage should be considered more upper caste, and those associated with West Asian genetic lines would be more lower caste.

“Does the proving ort disproving of the genetic basis of caste serve to justify inequality, inequity and a disproportionate access to power and education for fair-skinned Indo-Aryans over their darker Dravidian neighbors?” asked Subramaniam.  In the end she concludes, “claims of identity and ancestry cannot be reduced to genetic or biological simplifications but must necessarily be complex, grounded din the multifaceted lived realities of our histories.”  The more telling revelations of this episode, she writes, is what “tracing claims of ownership tells us about the complex machinations of power.”

I have  my own essay in this volume – “Digital Commons:  The Rise of New Models of Collaborative Ownership.”  Readers of this blog will find nothing surprising in the essay, but it does nicely summarize the waning powers of exclusive control in the context of the Internet.

Negotiating Culture was the outcome of a faculty seminar – the Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Humanities and Fine Arts – that I participated in as a non-faculty outsider, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in 2006-2007.  It's fantastic to see this work in print, finally.  A salute to Laetitia La Follette for pulling it together!