The Case against the Universal Museum

Isaac Kaplan
Apr 26, 2016 11:18PM

In claiming to present the history of the entire world, the “universal museum” fails to recognize that world’s present.

In 2002, 18 major museums released a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” Of the current signatories—which include the Met, the Getty, and the British Museum—all save one were located in the West. And over half can be found in English-speaking countries. “We should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source,” the declaration reads. “The universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artifacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums.” Ultimately, it concludes, “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”

Despite its lofty language, the declaration serves at least partly as an affirmative defense against specific and general allegations of looted objects being held in the collections of various major museums. Some museums point to a “universal” culture as “a way of refusing to engage in dialogue around the issue of repatriation,” writes George Abungu, former director general of the National Museums of Kenya. The reality is that the “universal” museum is not universal at all. While the term—which has since morphed into the “encyclopedic museum”—implies a hermetically sealed institution where knowledge floats above nationality, museums are actually political spaces tied to very specific histories and contexts.

If museums can honestly address their inherent limitations and treat objects of the past ethically in the present, we may, ever so slowly, build a better future.

For but one example of this, we might look to those leading the museums themselves. All of the directors of the 10 signatory museums located in English-speaking countries are currently white men. Highlighting this is not a criticism of their job performance, nor an attempt to dismiss them or the museums they govern. Rather, it speaks to the very realities of who in our society—which is rife with gender and racial inequity—is privileged enough to be in a position to define so-called universality.

This is partly what Abungu means when he writes that “the museum’s ‘universalism’ is an ideological position that has its own history and its own politics, and the universal museum is fighting to preserve its own heritage, not the world’s.” Obviously, recognizing such limitations is not the same as calling for the removal of artifacts from cultures around the globe from within the walls of Western institutions. But rather than try to present these objects as apolitical works of art, museums should realize (or better yet embrace) that they have always been a part of society at large, reflecting its biases, flaws, and politics.

The lightning rod in these arguments is the case of the Elgin Marbles (or really, the Parthenon Marbles). Some 200 years after the sculptures and architectural elements were gruesomely chiseled from the Acropolis, Greece continues to ask for them back. Asserting legality and universality, the British Museum has ignored or declined Greek requests of various forms since the country gained independence in 1832. Rather than make a repatriation claim on the basis of ownership, some argue the marbles should be returned so that they can be seen in context of the Parthenon. This context, they argue, is what animates the marbles. But such a position is at odds with the idea of the universal museum.

While there is no perfect or singular way to exhibit works that have lost their original context, the presentation of artifacts primarily as static pieces of art—the preference of universal museums—has specific shortcomings. At a conference last month on the marbles, Irini A. Stamatoudi, general director of Hellenic Copyright Organization, argued that the “[universal museum’s] absolute way of approaching all treasures, irrespective of their particularities, seems to promote one single way of approaching cultural property. And that is through its function as art. In other words, the theory of the universal museum privileges the universal museum over [an object’s] original functions—for example as a religious utensil.”

It isn’t about ownership. It is about understanding these pieces not as static works of art for study, but as living pieces of significance to indigenous groups who have a right to them.

Some museums have begun listening to indigenous groups who assert that foreign universal museums are simply the wrong place for their heritage. In 1993, the Council of Australian Museum Associations backed guidelines for bringing in indigenous people to consult on exhibitions. To its credit, the British Museum has made the initial steps towards loaning sacred Dja Dja Wurrung barks for an exhibition in Australia following years of requests by an Aboriginal clan for their return. It is possible the loan could be the precursor to a more permanent solution. As the University of Melbourne’s Robyn Sloggett writes, “major institutions can provide some context, but communities such as the Dja Dja Wurrung have the ability to fit new pieces into the jigsaw of Australian history.”

Even these modest steps displease writer and sociologist Tiffany Jenkins. “Such removals are political,” she writes in Aeon, “enacted in the name of decolonisation and the right to self-determination of Native peoples.” Jenkins argues that conceiving of masks and rattles made by the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest, for example, as being “owned” by those people “echo and reinforce a racial discourse.” Knowledge, she believes, is objective and universal—and to recognize that indigenous groups have a specific claim to their heritage “advances the idea that cultures are separate and irreconcilable.”

Her very position is an example of the impossibility and error of what she calls for. For one thing, it isn’t about ownership. It is about understanding these pieces not as static works of art for study, but as living pieces of significance to indigenous groups who have a right to them. Moreover, though she attempts to zoom in just on museums, her argument smacks of “post-racial” thought, a broader concept that ignores that different groups of people have very different lived experiences and histories in favor of advancing a totalizing, universal position. Such universality is a myth.

Currently, there is an important discussion about race, history, and heritage playing out in the U.S. and elsewhere. Though inequality has long manifested in museums, the discussions may appear new to some because they are only now gaining mainstream traction. Museums should not rush to sweep such conversations under the universal rug. Recognizing the claims of indigenous groups and the existence of different identities isn’t manufacturing a wedge that wouldn’t otherwise exist—it’s acknowledging a divide that has always existed. It is recognizing history. Rather than pull back or dictate terms, now is the time to listen to those who are calling for the return of looted objects, those of dubious provenance, and those of spiritual and religious significance. If museums can honestly address their inherent limitations and treat objects of the past ethically in the present, we may, ever so slowly, build a better future.

Isaac Kaplan

Illustration by Jan Buchczik for Artsy.