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.”