An interesting discussion between Jim Cuno and Patty Gerstenblith. A few observations:
The moderator calls Cuno's bluff about his claim that governments care much more about symbols of national identity than people do. Is that really true? She asks him if he thinks a poll of Egyptians would show they would prefer to have the bust of Nefertiti or the Rosetta Stone returned, or be indifferent? "I have no way of guessing," he responds, surely disingenuously. Cuno must know that the image of Nefertiti is on Egyptian currency and that the Egyptian press covers repatriation stories assiduously. Of course both of these are governmentally-backed undertakings, and yes, governments use symbols of national identity to promote their agendas, but the public in Egypt would not accept the imposition of a symbol on their currency, and the press would not cover a topic if its readers were not interested. Cuno goes on to throw in the red herring of suggesting that most Egyptians would probably place many other issues (freedom of speech, for example) much higher on their list of priorities, as if one would have to choose between pride in one's heritage and the wish to make one's country or one's own life better.
The argument against nationalist feeling as the basis for claims to cultural patrimony, then, is: nationalism is a conspiracy by governments to create identity where none exists, to invent traditions; luckily, most people have no deep investment in national identity, despite the efforts of states, so we can discount any claims that certain objects really are connected to a people.
But what about where people of a country, say Greece, have somehow internalized the invented tradition and show they do care, in ways that cannot be poohpoohed as merely the effects of governmental incitement? In that case, their caring is outweighed by our caring more about the tradition that has been built up (i.e., not invented) over several hundred years while the Elgin marbles have resided in the British Museum.
The moderator does a fine job of continuing to push Cuno, asking him whether then he would be happy if, say, the Declaration of Independence had somehow been taken back to London (she might have done the thought experiment by imagining this happening in the War of 1812). Cuno said it would not bother him at all. Incredulous, the moderator asks whether it makes no difference viewing the Declaration in the context of Washington, DC. Not to Cuno. Authenticity, yes; context, no (unless the context is the museum's collection, apparently).
Unfortunately, time ran out before the conversation could really come to grips with the issue which is much more pressing than that of repatriation: the problem of looting today. The recent adoption of more stringent rules for acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities gives Cuno the chance to point out that very few antiquities are being acquired by US museums today. Gerstenblith raises the question of whether museums are using the same standards in accepting donations from collectors, but time runs out before that can be answered.
The follow-up question, which never gets raised, is whether museums should go beyond the "clean hands" position to something like "active engagement" in protecting archaeological sites from destruction at the hands of looters (as well as by development). What does Cuno think could and should be done about the problem of site destruction?