Skip to main content

Princeton Scholar Defends Museums, Says Art Is Cosmopolitan Not Tied to Place of Origin

Lecture at Getty Villa is part of USC International Museum Institute’s series on the appropriation of artifacts and ownership of ancient art

Princeton Scholar Defends Museums, Says Art Is Cosmopolitan Not Tied to Place of Origin

In the wake of the lawsuit surrounding the Getty’s alleged purchase of stolen Italian antiquities, what better place than the Getty Villa to hear a lecture defending American and European museums’ ownership of cultural artifacts. That is what Princeton University philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah delivered recently as he questioned the assumptions underlying the “knee-jerk returns of cultural patrimony” — art objects, crafts, religious and other relics — to their site of origin. He delivered his talk to a packed audience at the Getty Villa in Malibu on Feb. 27.

Appiah’s controversial public lecture “Museums: Toward a Culture of Cosmopolitanism” was the third of five lectures in the ongoing discussion series — “Who Owns the Past in the Future?” — produced by the USC International Museum Institute (IMI) in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). IMI, a unit within USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, is a think-tank for museum professionals

At its heart, Appiah’s lecture took the audience on a tour through his life, then used his theories on identity and ethical behavior to validate the view that art is best understood as cosmopolitan rather than tied to geography. He started off reminiscing about the magical experiences he had while attending museums as a young boy in Ghana, his father’s home country, and the connection he experienced with foreign cultures by viewing their cultural expressions through artistic artifacts. Through these objects, Appiah said, he was able to vicariously commune with a variety of cultures and experience something broader, something he termed a “cosmopolitan culture.”

His heart-felt retelling of these intimate experiences was used to buttress his defense of the universal or encyclopedic museum — a museum containing art objects, manuscripts, weapons, religious relics and other items from all mediums, all schools and all eras of history. Appiah decried the widespread sentiment that a modern nation justly ‘owns’ the artifacts left behind by earlier civilizations that existed within its borders. This is not only a romantic idea, he said, but more importantly it is unethical. What right do these nations have to own relics from cultures that no longer exist? None, according to Appiah.   

The great European and American survey museums — among them the British Museum, the Louvre, the Getty — connect human to human, culture to culture, in a profound way, he said. At the end of the day, Appiah said, the cross-continental ownership of these cultural artifacts and their international exhibition is, according to logic, more inherently ethical than an unquestioning philosophy of “just returns.”

“This is the most groundbreaking lecture of the ‘Who Owns the Past in the Future?’ series to date,” said Selma Holo, professor of art history and director of the USC Fisher Gallery and IMI. “Not only is it presenting a highly controversial view, it is also taking place on Getty grounds. This is taking our series to an entirely new level.”

IMI is a partnership between USC and UNAM, the Autonomous National University of Mexico and is dedicated to the redefinition of museum ethics and practice across international borders. “Who Owns the Past in the Future?” is one of the institute’s public discussion programs and has been sponsored by the Ahmanson Foundation. It presents the disparate views of scholars, art historians, museum professionals and lawyers on cultural and legal issues, such as the questions involved in the return of art from museums to communities of origin.

The next lecture of the discussion series is “Cultural Patrimony: The Rise of National Museums in Late Ottoman Turkey and Under the Republic.” It will take place at 7:30 p.m., April 17 at LACMA’s Bing Theatre. Ilber Ortayli, director of the Topkapi Pallace Museum in Istanbul, will discuss Turkey’s initial interest in retaining and preserving cultural patrimony and the development of national museums. Admission is free.