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Pierre Losson: A Brief Chat with a Fellow

Claiming objects serves a political purpose

Spotlight on a 2020–2021 Fellow:
Read our Q&A with Pierre Losson about his work on the restitution of cultural heritage items to Latin America – and its relationship with the political situation in that area.
Question:
Tell us about your research.

Losson:
I'm very happy to be at the Italian Academy this fall to continue working on the topic of my doctoral research, which focuses on the claims that Latin American countries present for the return of cultural heritage objects. And more specifically, I look at Mexico, Peru and Colombia, and I examine the reasons why these countries engage in long disputes with museums and universities in North America and in Europe. And I believe that this has a lot to do with domestic politics in these countries, more specifically, the construction of nationalist discourses and how this is done through the appropriation of the material remains of past civilizations. And also that this is a matter of policy formation, in the field of cultural policy, but also in tourism and in foreign relations. And this is what I'm doing this fall.


Question:
What do laypeople not understand about the return of cultural heritage objects or items?

Losson:
For me, one more thing that is very important to understand is that there is nothing "natural," and I use quotation marks here, about the fact of claiming objects. Heritage is a construction, so that means that claiming objects serves the political purposes of specific actors. And this is what I'm trying to look at because this is something I believe that is in general neglected in the studies of return and restitution claims.

Question:
What is it about Latin American cultural heritage that specifically interests you and is it only Latin America or are there other places as well?

Losson:
My interest in Latin America stems from my own experience of living in Mexico and in Peru for 10 years, so I guess I left part of my heart in those places. These are countries that have amazing material heritage remains, and I think that living and working there made me more aware of the political discourses around heritage. And I think that, in turn, created a more intellectual or academic interest in this topic. But I think that one thing that is really interesting about my topic is that although I focus about Latin America, I think that there are conclusions or arguments that can also be made about other parts of the world. The debate about returns and restitution is worldwide at this point. Some of the famous claims are, for instance, the Greek claim over the Parthenon marbles that are in the British Museum, and many disputes are currently taking place about African heritage. For instance, the Benin bronzes that are in different museums in Europe; also a recent report that was made on the African collections in French public museums. So there is really an international debate on this subject. And I really hope that my research can contribute to this.

Question:
Why did your research take a shift from political science more directly to the issue of cultural heritage?

Losson:
That's a great question because I think that many of my political science colleagues don't get it either. Again, I guess the answer to this question might be related to my own personal experience; the first part of my professional career was in cultural diplomacy. And that in turn made me interested in questions of cultural policy--and within the field of cultural policy, I became more interested in questions of heritage management and what it means from a political point of view. And that also connects to topics in political science, such as nation and nationalism, which is a very important topic because it is also related to political violence and to power, and also to questions of policy formation. So those are more technical concerns for me that are important to understand: how your bureaucracy work, how political entrepreneurs can push their own agenda through topics related to culture in general and heritage in particular.

Question:
Where would you like to see future research go in this area?

Losson:
Well, part of my interest in the questions of returns and restitution was that, so far, it's been mostly examined as a legal question, whether or not a country has a right to claim a specific object, or as a form of reparation, particularly in the post-colonial context. And I would really love to see more studies on what is happening politically in the countries that ask for these objects, and I have not read anything like this. So I am hoping that at some point, I will see other people wanting to understand what is going on in those countries, and that this is not a field that remains focused on what is going on in the museums that currently hold the objects, and what the consequences are for these museums.

Question:
I think you've seen everybody else's research at the Academy. You've seen everybody else present. So what did you find interesting about working with the other Fellows?

Losson:
I think it's extremely motivating to hear people from other disciplines. And I'm saying this because, well, as we already discussed, I'm coming from a discipline--political science--that is not naturally interested in topics of heritage. And I want to believe that my own work has a multidisciplinary dimension. So for me, it's really useful to hear what other people have to say, their approach to the problems that they study. So in this sense, me, for instance, listening to the neuroscientists is something really amazing because the scientific--the hard science--approach to research questions is something so different from what we do in the social sciences or in the humanities. That, it's very fascinating. And then of course, if I try to answer your question from a more topical perspective, then of course Jonah's work on architecture in the Confederate South is maybe closer to my own points of interest because of the political dimension of this; but then I listened to Rachel talk about the nativity scenes in Italy, and then many questions become interesting for me. For instance, when an object turns from an object of worship into an object of study for art history, or as an object of heritage that must be preserved. So in each of my co- Fellows, this fall, I find topics of interest, and this is what makes it really interesting to be at the Academy, even though it's to be virtually at the Academy this fall. But it's really great to be able to exchange with them.

Event Date 
Sun, Dec 30, 2012, 5:00 pm
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