Today, the New York Times is reporting this story, Cambodia to Ask Met to Return 10th-Century Statues, although it’s not really a story yet because Cambodia hasn’t actually asked the Met to return anything. But, apparently, they will. That’s fine, ask away, and then we’ll discuss it.
The only reason I’m linking to the story here is because of this passage:
The debate is somewhat different when a contested artifact is held by a museum rather than a private collector or auction house. Many in the museum world and beyond have argued that… advanced security systems at some institutions make them more appropriate places to house cherished artifacts and ensure they are available for worldwide study and appreciation.
Ok, technically, some people have argued that, like ten years ago. The idea that “many” people in the museum world are arguing this at present is questionable at best. This is the kind of patriarchal mentality that used to justify retention of colonially acquired artifacts like the Parthenon Marbles. I’m just not convinced this is a viable point anymore. The arguments that Cuno and those in support of encyclopedic museums have made in recent years don’t quite approach this level of condescension. I’d be interested to know who exactly is arguing that Cambodia is incapable of preserving its cultural artifacts to the point that they should not get illegally excavated and exported artifacts returned to them.
Having said that, it’d be nice if supposedly high quality reporting institutions like The New York Times could give such assignments to someone who knows something about the current climate of the cultural heritage debates, rather than generalists who write on topical scraps from the death penalty to gays in the media to opera singers.