Sebastian M. Spitra: Administering Culture in International Law, 1789-1972

Administering Culture in International Law, 1789-1972

Sebastian M. Spitra

This is a study of the coming into being of a new regulatory field in 19th and 20th century’s international law. The PhD project critically analyzes the formation of the international legal norms for the administration of cultural heritage. It is a conceptual, terminological-semantic, and interdisciplinary legal history that focuses both on state practice and doctrinal works. The traditional narratives of the history of cultural heritage protection suggest that the development of legal rules were fundamentally driven by codification efforts of the laws of war and customary international law. The first debates in international law grew out of the topic of restitution of artworks after the Congress of Vienna.
Different to this norm centered approach to the history of international law, the main argument of this project is that the concept of “civilization” in international law played a key role which is often being overlooked in the evolving of cultural heritage protection. Additionally, changing cultural, civilizational, moral, and aesthetical understandings in the 19th and 20th century effected the legal developments on the domestic and international level. Not only European scholars but also lawyers from the so-called “semi-peripheries” contributed to the juridification of that field. A postcolonial perspective shows that exclusionary ideas of the international community and international administrative law were the intellectual framework of the first doctrinal writings and codification drafts on that topic. This is essential for the understanding of cultural heritage as public common good as it is seen today.

Sebastian M. Spitra obtained his academic degrees in Law (Magi.iur) and Philosophy (BA) from the University of Vienna. Currently, he is Research Fellow and PhD candidate at the Institute for Legal and Constitutional History at the Vienna law faculty. He teaches constitutional history and history of international law and he is Fellow of the Vienna Doctoral Academy “Communicating the Law” since 2016. His research focus lies in the history and theory of international law, particularly on the intersection point of cultural heritage, identity, and international law. He writes regularly on legal topics for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse.


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