Author: Fiona Macmillan, Professor of Law, Birkbeck Law School.

Durer Rhinoceros

About the image

Source: The British Museum, Registration 1895, 0122.714
Title: The Rhinoceros.
Creator: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1515
Medium: Woodcut
Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum

What does it mean for the process of development when law facilitates the (mis)appropriation of cultural heritage?  Does it matter that the great European metropolitan museums continue to hold their “encyclopaedic” 7 collections of artefacts from around the world, regardless of prior claims to ownership?  And, anyway, what does it mean to “own” cultural heritage?

Despite being unusually well-travelled for a European of his period, Dürer had never seen a rhinoceros when he made this famous and much-emulated woodcut.  Rather, he informed himself as best he could from texts and sketches that were circulating in Europe at the time.  So what we have here is an image derived from the accounts of unknown others, by someone we would now describe as German, said to celebrate a chapter in Pliny’s Natural History describing rhinoceroses, which were apparently known in Rome during the classical period.  The rhinoceros depicted was Indian, owned by the Portuguese king, who had acquired it in the course of Portugal’s colonial enterprise in India, and on its way to the Pope in Rome.  What’s it doing in the British Museum?  This, at least, is a question to which I can hazard a guess: it is probably part of the great British history (or is it heritage?) of the appropriation of artefacts from other parts of the world – a practice that was particularly prevalent during the colonial period.

Perhaps the acquisition of pieces like this is part of British history and so part of British cultural heritage – although maybe this confuses history with heritage.  But, if it does then what is the relationship between history and heritage?  And if the question of the ownership of cultural heritage is really a battle over history and how it is translated into present day identity, then how do we resolve competing claims to diverse national and cultural identities?

7 N MacGregor, “Preface” in K Sloan (ed), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London: 2003), 6.  See also, N MacGregor, “To Shape the Citizens of ‘that great city, the world’” in J Cuno (ed), Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009) and F Macmillan, “Development, Cultural Self-Determination and the World Trade Organization” in A Perry-Kessaris, Law in Pursuit of Development: Principles into Practice?(London: Routledge/Cavendish, 2009).