Review of Cunos Museums Matter
AFFIRMATIONS AND DECLARATIONS: REVIEW OF JAMES CUNOS MUSEUMS MATTER.
Enlightenment philosophy was instrumental in codifying and institutionalizing both the scientific and popular European perceptions of the human race. The numerous writings on race by Hume, Kant and Hegel played a strong role in articulating Europe’s sense not only of its cultural but also racial superiority.
E. Chukwudi Eze, Race and Enlightenment. (1)
Members of the notorious British Punitive Expedition that invaded Benin in 1897 displaying proudly the artefacts they looted from the palace of the Oba of Benin.
When Dr.James Cuno, former Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and now President and Chief Executive Officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust, published his book, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, in 2009 (2) David Gill wrote that Cuno had not given himself sufficient time to respond to the various serious criticisms that had been made against his earlier books, especially as regards the universal/encyclopaedic museum in its acquisition, possession and ownership of looted/stolen/confiscated artefacts.(3) Some thought that Cuno had adopted a policy not to enter into any form of dialogue with his critics hence the repetition of views that had been heavily criticized, without the least attempt to answer them. Some may have seen this as a sign of contempt for his critics and a mark of arrogance. (4) Cuno has now published Museums Matter – In praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. (5)
Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom. One of the Benin Artefacts looted by the British in the nefarious invasion of 1897
After an introduction, the author deals successively with, the Enlightenment Museum, the Discursive Museum, the Cosmopolitan Museum and the Imperial Museum and ends with an epilogue. Cuno has clearly and consciously decided not to tackle any of the issues relating to the acquisition, possession or ownership of cultural property of others since this has earned him in the past a whole lot of criticism from scholars everywhere. One cannot criticize an author for not writing on a particular subject. But if an author writes a book In praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, can he honestly ignore a salient aspect of the universal museum, namely, the acquisition and the possession of cultural artefacts from the different cultures of the world? David Gill has remarked:
A browse suggests that Cuno has chosen to sidestep one of the most pressing issues for so-called encyclopedic museums in North America, Europe and Japan: the acquisition of newly surfaced antiquities. The “Medici Conspiracy” has brought about the return of some 130 antiquities to Italy from North American collections. How have these high profile encylopedic museums damaged the reputation of museums in general? (6)
Without the presence of such artefacts, the universal museums, such as British Museum, the Louvre, the Vlkerkunde Museum, Vienna, the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago etc, lose their most attractive characteristic. Could they even pretend to be universal or encyclopaedic? But as it soon becomes clear, the author cannot totally avoid referring to the presence of these objects if he is to talk about universal museums, if he is to make any comparisons between cultural objects from different cultures. What he tries to do is to avoid discussion in any detail of how foreign artefacts came to the universal museums. This is the kind of question that springs to the mind whenever a foreign object is seen in these museums. Even a child would ask how these heavy Egyptian mummies came to the museum. How did the mighty statute of Ramses II come into the British Museum, seeing the size of the statue?
In explaining the origin of the objects, the author is forced to give a very misleading account and if possible, to avoid any discussion on the legality or morality of the acquisition, possession and retention by the museum. Take for example what Dr.Cuno says about a Benin bronze of a Warrior Chief in possession of his former institution, the Art Institute of Chicago:
Take the plaque shown in figure 5, it was forcibly removed from the West African kingdom of Benin in 1897 by British troops seeking retribution for the deaths of their colleagues. (7)
Plaque of a War Chief, Benin/Nigeria, now in Art Institute of Chicago,
Looted in the British Invasion of Benin in 1897.
An uninformed reader might think that a group of soldiers had gone out on a Saturday night, perhaps drinking, and some of their comrades had been killed in a brawl in Benin and decided to seek revenge by taking whatever valuable objects they could find. Cuno, as well as all those Western writers who give misleading accounts of this nefarious aggression by Britain against the Benin kingdom have their own reasons. It was one of those shameful and criminal events of British imperialistic adventures in Africa and they would like to hide it if possible but they cannot because anytime you show the Benin bronzes the story comes up.
The truth is that the British had determined long before 1897 that the Oba of Benin who was resisting the imposition of British rule in his kingdom had to go. They had calculated that the artworks in the kings palace would be enough to cover expenses of military operation. A first attempt by the so-called Pre-emptive Forces had failed when the King of Benin and his army got wind of the imminent attack. Under the pretext of visiting the king who had advised them not to come, the army of 129 soldiers and officers set off for Benin City. They were attacked and many killed. Britain then sent a larger army. The so-called Punitive Expedition which captured Benin treasures, killed Benin nobles, men, women and children and burnt Benin City. (8) Further comments by Cuno on this plaque are all tendentious:
The Benin kingdom was a war faring power, and war was the force behind its empire building from the second half of the fifteenth century until the conquest by the British four hundred years later. This plaque was no stranger to violence – not in its production through fire, its role in a bellicose culture, nor the confrontation with another empire that led to its removal (one empire confronting the remnants of another).(9)
These phrases, war faring power, bellicose culture, war was the force behind its empire building clearly indicate the prejudiced views of Cuno and a determination to justify the British invasion of Benin and the looting of the artefacts that are now in Western museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The author seems to be saying that war was the usual business of Benin and so if the Edo people lost their power and artefacts to another empire, there is no much ground to feel sorry. The Benin culture becomes here bellicose culture. These phrases coming from a Westerner, from a country much involved in the war business can lead to very fruitful reflections. Can Cuno mention one single empire in the history of humankind in the past or at present that did not rely on military force to maintain itself? Where are the non-bellicose cultures? Clearly not in those countries that have been involved for centuries in slave trade and subjugation of non-Western peoples. The destruction of the Benin kingdom which had existed for four centuries is described by Cuno as removal. The British travelled all the way from Europe to Africa, bringing war to Benin just as they did in Magdala (Ethiopia) in 1868, and in Kumasi (Ghana) in 1874 but are not described as war-faring. The victim of British aggression is presented as a nation addicted to war. Cuno is here reflecting the prejudice imbedded in Western intellectual tradition which often defeats common sense.
As indicated by the sub-title of the book, In praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, Cuno sets out in this book to show us or rather tell us how beneficial the concept of the universal museum or the encyclopaedic museum has been and why there should be more of such museums:
If encyclopedic museums hold the promise I believe they do – that from curiosity come tolerance and understanding – we should encourage their creation everywhere. Without such institutions, one risks a hardening of views about ones own, particular culture as being pure. essential, and organic, something into which one is born, something one cannot change or rise above through exercise of free will and reason. The collective, political risk of not having encyclopedic museums everywhere possible – in Shanghai, Lagos, Cairo, Delhi and all other major metropoles – is that culture becomes fixed national culture, with all the dangers entailed by fragmentation of humanity that Sternhell describes. (10)
Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Germany.
After telling us, page after page, that the universal museum is good for all countries, Cuno warns that without such an institution there is a danger that we may come to believe that our particular culture is pure, essential, and organic, something into which one is born, something one cannot change. But is there any truth in all this? I never saw or visited any of the so-called universal museums before I was nineteen but I was fully aware that my own culture was not the only one in the world in so far as my mother and father had different languages and different cultures, in addition to recognizing various different cultural manifestations everyday. Cunos African friends could have told him that most Africans move through different cultures everyday. We do not know where Cuno and his friends got this idea that some people believe that their cultures are pure, uninfluenced by any other culture. Certainly, none of those writing about culture or claiming the return of their looted/stolen cultural objects makes this argument; it appears to have been invented to make those claiming cultural objects appear to be dangerous elements, out of touch with history and reality. An alleged purity of culture has never been an argument in recent discussions. For Africans, it is easily acknowledged that the impact of Europe, since contact in the fifteenth century and especially since colonialism has been remarkable.
Surely, if there are dangers of fragmentation in the African countries, this is not due to the absence of universal museums but largely due to the absence of strong national cohesion, the nationalism that appears to be anathema to Cuno and others if it rears its head anywhere outside the Western world where nationalism reigns supreme despite all protestations to the contrary.
Having decided not to write about the acquisition, possession and control of artefacts from other cultures in the universal museums, Cuno can ignore the histories of acquisition and even dare to suggest we build universal museums in places such as Lagos, Cairo, Delhi etc. The author does not need to take into account that many Nigerian artefacts, including the Benin Bronzes, and others are in foreign museums, mostly in the universal museums. How could Nigeria acquire artefacts from the Western world? With military force as was the case in the British invasion of Benin? Cuno had previously denied that there was any link between the British, French and other empires on the one hand, and the universal museums on the other hand. Cuno now admits, as we shall see later, that there are links between colonial empire and the universal museum but he does not specify what these links are. Moreover, he has not explicitly or implicitly admitted that those links allowed the museums to acquire more artefacts. Not dealing with acquisition of artefacts. he does not have to deal with such links here but the British Museum, Louvre, Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Ethnology Museum, Vienna, have all acknowledged that without colonialism they would not now be in possession of many cultural artefacts. Even the British Museum which is the example par excellence of the so-called encyclopaedic museum has admitted at various instances the connection between its large collection and the imperial connection. David M. Wilson declared in The Collections of the British Museum as follows:
The Asante’s skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874, 1896 and 1900″. (11)
Cuno declares at the beginning of his section on the Enlightenment Museum that
The encyclopedic museum is a modern institution, born of the intellectual ferment of early modern Europe. Its founders were figures of the Enlightenment, confident in the promise of reasoned inquiry and deeply sceptical of received and unverifiable truths.(12) Later on Dr. Cuno declares that: We are heirs to the Enlightenment, connected not by faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather [by] the permanent reactivation of an attitude – that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as permanent critique of our historical era. (13)
Cuno does not explain why, for instance, we Africans who are not inheritors of the Enlightenment should adopt the universal museum. When Cuno says we are inheritors to the Enlightenment, it is not clear to me whether he includes us Africans and other non-Western peoples. One point though is clear: the founders of the European Enlightenment did not include Africans in their thoughts on liberty or intellectual, scientific inquiry. David Hume, who never visited Africa or knew any Africans, denied the Africans any talent:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. (14)
The great Hegel did not have any good opinion about Africans: The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must put aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.(15) Immanuel Kant also denied the Africans any capacity for creativity and thought the colour of Africans was a clear indication of their stupidity:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour. (16)
And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid. (17)
Thus the leading lights of the European Enlightenment not only provided justifications for colonialism and imperialism but were also racists, convinced of their harmful views.
The intellectual history left by the philosophers of the Enlightenment cannot be said to be one that is propitious for developing honest and unprejudiced ideas about social development outside Europe. Many of the racial prejudices that prevail in the West, both in ordinary life and in the social sciences have their origins in these philosophers. The museums which are largely the creations of the Enlightenment could not escape the grip of these foolish ideas. (18)Thus the European Enlightenment is not per se a persuasive recommendation as Cuno seems to assume. He must provide more credible and concrete examples to convince us that the encyclopaedic museum is the right kind of museum for all of us, independent of the concrete experiences we may have made with colonialism and the existing universal museums.
Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
After the Enlightenment Museum, Cuno discusses what he calls the Discursive Museum which centres on the museums function of presenting to the public objects and information about the worlds natural and artificial creations. The collections enable the visitor to make up her own mind. According to Cuno, some critics of the museum believe the institution has power over the visitors is even deeper, more fundamental and basic, and can only be described in psychoanalytic terms
To these critics, museum installations – and thus museums themselves – are never not ideologically motivated and strategically determined. They are always already part of a discursive formation in which discourse is power (19)
Cuno asks the reader whether she feels controlled in any significant way when she walks through her local galleries. What about a museum like Louvre? Cuno states that the Louvre has nationalist foundations and that as a French national museum, its director does not report to an independent board of trustees like the British Museum but to the Ministry of Culture. An examination of the appointment of the Trustees of the British Museum clearly indicates who their masters are. The twenty five Trustees of the British Museum are appointed as follows: one by the Queen, fifteen by the Prime Minister, four by the Secretary of State, and five by the Trustees of the British Museum. There is no way the Trustees can deny that they act in the interest of the British Government and, perhaps, people. The tendency of Anglo-American writers to present others as more nationalistic is simply amazing when in truth all present States are nationalistic. (20)
Dr.Cuno asks whether the fact that the Louvre has nationalist foundations and is a national museum, make people see it as indicating the heritage and pride of a nation. Does its decision to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi affect ones experience of Louvre in Paris or make it an instrument for defining and glorifying an essential French cultural identity?
Cuno answers his own question thus: Whatever the French states ambitions, in my experience the state is absent from ones experience of the Louvre and its collections. (21) Cuno later asks with reference to a Chinese ewer now in the Art Institute of Chicago, Does it matter then where we see it, in one gallery or another? (22)
We beg to differ from Cuno on these matters. Having decided not to deal with questions relating to the acquisition, possession, and ownership of artefacts in the universal museum, even though this has been the most important question in the last decades, Cuno is obliged to take certain logical positions. He must take the position that the location of an artefact is not important. Just like Neil MacGregor stated after the Greeks had opened the Acropolis Museum, built largely in response to criticisms that there was no suitable place in Athens for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles which were said to be better left in the British Museum. MacGregor declared after the completion of the ultra-modern and expensive museum, that the location of the Parthenon Marbles was never an issue: The real question is about how the Greek and British governments can work together so that the sculptures can be seen in China and Africa. Yes, this is what the venerable director of the British Museum stated. What surprised me more than this statement was that not many commentators took him up on this. (23)
The location of artefacts is not important for Cuno because he does not want to discuss the relocation or restitution of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta
Stone, the bust of Nefertiti and the Benin Bronzes or restitution from the Art Institute of Chicago. Surely, for those whose cultural artefacts are in the museums of others, the location of artefacts is a very important question. Even for persons with no stake in the question of restitution, it makes a difference whether an object is in the museum in the village, town or city where I live. If you live in London, Paris, Berlin, New York or Chicago, you have greater chance of seeing many objects in your city. But supposing you are living in Africa, in Benin City and you are keen to see the sculptures of Queen-Mother Idia and the other Benin Bronzes looted by the British in 1897. The location of these objects away from Benin City may mean you will never see them because you cannot afford the travel costs to London even assuming that you receive a visa for Britain. The hurdles Africans face when trying to obtain a visa for the Western countries should not be underestimated. The Ghanaian artist, Rikki Wemega-Kwawu has stated that the ideal of globalization:
presumes egalitarianism, with the free movement of people and goods around the globe. But the reality of the situation as exists now debars the African access to that free movement and full participation in the globalization process. Visa procurement alone to a Western country for an African is a harrowing experience, to say the least. Apart from the many requisite demands and very vigorous and sometimes humiliating procedures applicants are subjected to, astronomical visa fees are taken from applicants only to be refused the visa; the visa fee is never returned.
This almost amounts to a rip-off, not to mention the endless, winding, labyrinthine queues in the scorching sun, which El Anatsui so well captured in his famous installation Visa Queue.(24)
The experience of most Africans would confirm what Rikki Wemega-Kwawu has written. These are aspects of the question that Cuno and others never have to consider because unlike Africans, the whole world seems open to them.
El Anatsui. Visa queue, (1992), artdesigncaf. http://www.artdesigncafe.com/El-Anatsui-wood-2
Cuno may have different feelings from the rest of us when he is in the Louvre or the British Museum. He has not been a colonial subject. He and his country have different relations with the former colonial powers. He is a Westerner after all.
Those of us who were colonial subjects and Africans for that matter, have obviously different reactions when we enter these imperialist museums. When Africans enter these places, we know we are not on home grounds and sometimes we are reminded directly or indirectly that we are visitors. When we see Chinese, Korean or Japanese objects, we wonder how they came there. When we see African objects whether the Nok sculptures or the Benin Bronzes, we realize how much of African art has been transferred to Western museums. We realise that many have been looted or taken away by force. Our powerlessness runs over our whole personality for in truth, we would wish that at least some of these artefacts would be returned to their original locations. When we read what others offer as explanations for keeping our looted artefacts, our anger increases and we are reminded of the colonial and neo-colonial relationship that still keeps us in inferior position. An African in the Louvre or in Muse du Quai Branly can never ignore the fact that he is in a French museum. The same goes for the British Museum. For various reasons, many Africans do not visit these temples where they know they will be confronted with our lost treasures.
The Discursive Museum seems to have as primary objective to provide us objects and let us, as visitors, make our own experience and assessment: As liberal institutions, museums respect individual agency. We expect our visitors to determine their own experience. They bring to the museum a range of preparedness, with specific interests, curiosities, and assumptions about what they are going to see.(25) Yet one cannot avoid the impression that the author wants us to concentrate on the objects and admire their qualities but not worry about their history as to how they landed in the museum.
I enjoyed reading Cunos chapter on the Cosmopolitan Museum and can agree with much of what he says there and especially the citations of the various authors who have dealt with the concept of cosmopolitanism. I found his linking of travelling with universal museum interesting and useful:
as we saw in the last chapter, objects tell stories, and most tell stories related to travel, dislocation, transmission, and translation
Such objects are as mongrel as languages. Wandering from object to object and gallery to gallery in an encyclopaedic museum opens ones curiosity to the complex histories of cultural relations and to the workings of artistic translation among them.(26) But as usual with Cuno, his analogy has the effect that the travel of objects always ends in the universal museum. Is there any reason why the objects cannot continue their travels or indeed return home from where they started the journey?
I also agree with the response of Kwame Appiah to the question relating to opposition between patriotism and cosmopolitanism:
The cosmopolitan patriot can entertain the possibility of a world in which everyone is a rooted cosmopolitan, attached to a home of his or her own, with its own cultural particularities, but taking pleasure from the presence of the other, different, places that are home to other, different people. (27)
This is a position which many Africans who, voluntarily or not, have been drawn into a wider world of different cultures and civilisations but are still attached to their original African roots. They may know many Western languages and cultures but still find in many respects the African culture to offer insights that are absent in the others. They may find for example, that Akan funeral dirges offer explanations of life and death that are absent from other cultures. African music may move them in a way that no other music does. They may enjoy Mozart and Schubert even though Europeans constantly ask them, when they go to concerts, whether they can really enjoy Mozarts music. They may find that African family solidarity, despite all criticisms, possesses some advantages.
But the question is whether cosmopolitanism and patriotism constitute the important divide of our times. Should we not be more concerned about the unequal distribution of wealth in countries and between countries?
What we may find surprising though is the tendency of Dr. Cuno to link many issues that may be partially connected but deserve separate treatment and consideration if one is to have a complete picture of the matters involved. Let us take for example the following citation: These few examples from just one encyclopaedic museum remind us that works of art tell stories about both roots and routes, and have been doing so for a very long time. They are both witnesses to and arguments for not just the translation but the relocation of works of art (Cunos emphasis). That is, as I have suggested elsewhere, governmental efforts to retain works of art within a given jurisdiction as evidence of a pure, essentialized, state-based identity are contrary to the truth and history of culture. Efforts to proclaim a national culture are political acts meant to authorize a governments hold on power through the misuse of cultural precedent. All such efforts in the past have failed, and in the future will as well. For culture has always circulated and engendered transculturation, which as the art historian Flood has used the term, acknowledges that cultural formations are always already hybrid and in the process, so that a translation is a dynamic activity that takes place both between and within cultural codes, forms, and practices. (28)
We have in this paragraph issues relating to
(i) Relocation of works of art,
(ii) Attempts by governments to retain works of art,
(iii) State-based identity,
(iv) Misuse of cultural precedent, and
(v) Nature of the translation process.
Each of the above deserves separate discussion and would need more explanations and evidence for conclusion one way or the other. Cuno
puts them altogether and expects us to go along with his way of thinking or conclusion. This will be more an act of faith and trust rather than evidence and history, especially as Cuno prophetically predicts that certain attempts by governments that have failed in the past, would also fail in the future. Is Cuno seriously trying to persuade us that because of the benefits of having artefacts of different origins in the museum, these benefits constitute arguments for the relocation of artefacts? Should we perhaps relocate more African artefacts to the West? Nobody, of course, thinks of relocating iconic Western artefacts to Africa. Cuno has not provided any evidence to support the proposition that relocation of artefacts of others is good. If people in London, Berlin or Vienna find it enriching to have Benin Bronzes in their museums, we must also ask whether the people of Benin also find it enriching, given the conditions under which those objects were removed. None of us would oppose having objects of other cultures in another country but this must be legally done and not with violence. Many objects in the universal museums were looted/stolen, confiscated or removed under very dubious circumstances. It is misleading to give the impression that the issue simply relates to objects of foreign culture being in another country or in the universal museum. The real issue is about the way the objects were acquired.
Dr. Cuno does not tell which governments have been trying to proclaim a national culture through the misuse of cultural precedents. This assertion must be rejected as far as most African governments and societies are concerned. This cannot be applied to the government Nigeria and the kingdom of Benin; their efforts of long date to recover their stolen/looted cultural objects cannot be described as politically motivated.
What James Cuno describes as efforts by Government to retain cultural objects appears to be a reflection of his negative attitude towards governmental attempts to control the illicit traffic in artefacts. He declares that such attempts have failed in the past and will always fail. He seems to prefer a situation of no control. (29)
The desire of Cuno to present everything as favouring the universal, cosmopolitan, encyclopaedic museums in their retention of the artefacts of others obliges him, to bend even well-known historical facts such as the British invasion of Benin.
In the chapter on the Imperial Museum, Cuno seems to deal more with nationalism and its dangers rather than with the nature of the Imperial Museum. It must be said immediately though that Cuno seems finally to have accepted that the Imperial Museum has something to do with imperialism and the empire:
This is the context in which the encyclopaedic museum was founded and has thrived and with which it is irrecusably linked. It isnt enough to say that the encyclopaedic museum is the result of empire, even if over the course of its history its fate has been intertwined with the imbalances of power that allow for, and come with, empire. Its diverse collections stand as evidence of the fact that, as Said has written. partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all cultures are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolitic. Such mixing, it must be noted, is the result of empire since the beginning of time and not just since the advent of modern European imperialism (30)
Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
This is, in many ways, typical of this book as we have already noted: too many issues are thrown into one paragraph. Some of the points raised by the text can be accepted by all but others are problematic. That the universal imperial museum was linked to the empire has been said often and will be accepted by most of us. Very few would, in the first instance, consider the fact that the museum has artefacts from various cultures as evidence that all cultures are heterogeneous, hybrid and differentiated. The heterogeneous nature of most cultures is evident and would not be suggested first to us by a visit to an imperial museum. What the huge and diverse objects would suggest to many of us is the fact that the imperial museum was a great beneficiary of an empire even if it was not created by it or used as instrument of imperialism as Cano asserts. But he cannot draw such a conclusion in the face of many demands for restitution and his own desire not to discuss the acquisition of the cultural artefacts of others by the imperialist museum. Cuno asks:
Should one look for evidence of empire, whether political, economic or cultural kind, one can find it everywhere in the encyclopedic museum, for it is a fact of history and history is objectified in the museums collections. The question is, what does one do with this? (31) The author answers his own question when he states that For all of this, the encyclopedic museum should be preserved where it exists today and encouraged where it does not yet exist.
This will take trust, compromise, and understanding by all parties in all corners of the postcolonial world. But it must be done, precisely because so much is at stake. (32)
The universal museum may or may not be an appropriate model for our age.
But following the Enlightenment principle of critical questioning of received ideas and institutions, why must the criticism stop here? Why does Dr. Cuno decree that we must stop at the universal museum and not consider other alternative forms of preserving cultural artefacts? Here again, Cunos principles and logic must bring the cultural objects to the universal museum which has been declared the best for all States and all peoples, without any prior examination. Can or should museums exist without any reference to the society in which they are supposed to operate? Must institutional development end with the model which was established during the European Enlightenment?
The recommendation to India and African countries to build universal museums is remarkable, bearing in mind the nature and the reputation of the universal museums. Can we, for a second, imagine India or Nigeria looting, stealing or buying religious and spiritual artefacts of others and displaying them despite the objections of the owners? Could Nigeria, for instance, procure Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Crosses and other religious artefacts and keep them in Lagos while refusing to return them to Ethiopia as the British Museum does? People in most African and Asian countries have respect for the cultural and religious objects of others and do not share the immorality or amorality that seems to prevail in many Western museums. The average person in Accra or Lagos would be shocked by the very idea of acquiring illegally the religious or cultural objects of others for the use of a museum. Why would one even touch a religious object one does not believe in and keep against the wishes of the owners? Cuno assumes that we all share the Western lack of respect for the religious and cultural objects of others and are ready to defend at all costs the illegality and immorality that underlies many of the acquisitions of the universal museums. It is true though that the West expects countries in Africa and Asia to follow Western ideas and patterns, irrespective of the religions, the geography, the politics and cultures of those countries. Dr. Cuno, in his recommendation to Africans and Asians to establish universal museums, does not make room for cultural, political or religious differences. As said already,
Tom Flynn who has studied more closely the question whether the universal museum is an appropriate model for our times, concluded:
We have seen, and continue to see, evidence of new visionary thinking among more progressive museum professionals. Many of them nurture a vision of a more enlightened museology, grounded not in further encyclopedic accumulation, ownership and confrontation, but in collaboration, co-operation and exchange. This may require replacing the outdated model of the temple with that of the forum in order to account for the museums changing social function in a rapidly changing world. However, that need not represent dissolution of its primary responsibility to engage and educate. Instead it could endow the museum with a new function: to use the exchange of material culture to help build social cohesion. If the dispersal of parts of British national collections to the regions can be identified as beneficial in building local communities, then it logically follows that the repatriation of culturally significant artefacts to source communities could be equally beneficial in helping reconstruct a sense of national identity. (33)
The words relating to trust, compromise and the understanding in all corners of the postcolonial world coming from Cuno are new in the vocabulary of the staunch supporters of the universal museum. Is Cuno sincere in this or was this merely for the consumption of his local audience in the USA? Have the supporters abandoned their arrogant and self-assured pose when dealing with requests for restitution by Africans and other non-Western people? One should not be surprised that some of us remain sceptical.
Several times the author refers to unnamed persons or groups who seem to have a very narrow conception of culture and believe that their own culture is pure. We do not know who these people are nor are there any references to their writings. Could the author be referring to those who demand restitution? We see here efforts to avoid touching the question of the illegal acquisition of artefacts by the museums. This practice has resulted in leading American museums having to return more that 100 artefacts to Italy.
Western museum directors including Cuno, MacGregor, and Philippe de Montebello (retired) have spent the last decades developing theories and strategies that support the retention by the universal museums of the artefacts removed from Africa and Asia during the colonial era and the imperialistic age. (34) They have made no attempts to reach a compromise with those claiming restitution and have generally been dismissive of such claims and quite often, arrogant and disrespectful. A good example is the request by the Benin Royal Family for restitution of some of the Benin bronzes from the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Fields Museum, Chicago.
A request for restitution was sent after James Cuno, then Director, Art Institute of Chicago, had indicated at the opening of the exhibition- Benin – Kings and Rituals: Royal Arts from Nigeria, Chicago, (10 July – 21 September 2007) that if a demand for restitution were made it would be given serious consideration. (35) The request (Annex below) was sent by the brother of the Oba of Benin through a special messenger, also a member of the Royal Family. Up to now, neither Cuno nor the Field Museum has found it necessary even to acknowledge receipt of that request. Readers may judge for themselves if this is how such requests should be treated and whether the Benin Royal Family does not deserve a better treatment. Would Cuno have reacted in the same way if the request came from a European Royal Family?
It is ironic though that Cuno keeps using Benin Bronzes to illustrate his theories about the beneficial nature of the universal museum. Benin is surely the one case where most people, even supporters of the universal museum, would say that the costs of the universal museum in terms of the destruction of Benin City and the massacre of the Edo people are too high a price if that is what can happen in building a universal museum. It is true though that Cuno once defined the Benin culture as an extinct culture at about the same time as the Benin Royal Family was collaborating with the Art Institute of Chicago and others to present the Benin exhibition in Chicago and many Benin persons and princesses were present at the institute in Chicago.(36)
It is noticeable that in a book entitled, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, there is not a single mention of the notorious Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. (2002) (37)
Readers may recall that the Declaration, signed by the worlds major museums, was aimed at halting or at least delaying the restitution movement by providing the major museums immunity against claims for restitution, especially against Greece which was mounting political pressure for the return of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles.Although the British Museum did not sign the Declaration, it issued a press release to support the statement and carried the document on its website, stating that Eighteen of the world’s great museums and galleries have signed a statement supporting the idea of the universal museum. Among the signatories was Cuno, then Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and also, the Paul Getty Museum where he has recently become President and Chief Executive Officer. The Declaration was attacked on all fronts. (38) Not long after the signature, Italy, by a mixture of threats of legal process and political pressure, secured the return of looted artefacts which several leading American institutions including Getty Museum, Princeton University and others had bought in contravention of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. A senior curator of the Getty Museum, Marion True had to stand trial and was in jail for a number of years. The extent of the illegal purchase by leading US museums shocked the art world. In the course of time, it became clear to all that the self-serving Declaration was a mistake and offered no immunity to the signatories. Thus in the meanwhile, the signatories do not refer to it and would like us to forget it. But that document clearly represents the attitude of the major museums to restitution. In the meanwhile there has been much restitution both by the signatories and non-signatories. Has Cuno also retreated from this Declaration?
It would be helpful for reconciling the interest of both the major museums and the countries claiming restitution if Cuno, MacGregor, Philippe de Montebello and other supporters of the universal museum would cease exaggerating and stop pretending that anyone who asks for restitution of an artefact wants to empty their museums. Tom Flynn has correctly noted:
Who said anything about dismantling them? Nobody. But James Cuno, Neil MacGregor, Philippe De Montebello, et al, would have everyone believe that this is the primary objective of the museum’s critics, thereby forcing Dr Singh to distance herself from such an irrational notion.
Finally, Dr Singh’s suggestion that the encyclopaedic museum could never be made again is surely correct. This contrasts with James Cuno’s sunny insistence that new encyclopaedic museums should be established everywhere.
In other words, the only way to defend your own unsustainable conspicuous consumption is to recommend that everyone else start consuming in a similarly unsustainable way. (39).
An example of this outrageous exaggeration can be seen in a letter by Philippe de Montebello. After the publication of my article, Is Legality still a Viable Concept for European and American Museum Directors? in Afrikanet.info,Philippe de Montebello then Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York wrote mischievously, inter alia, the following:
Dr. Opoku believes all Nok, Ife, and Benin pieces outside of Nigeria should be returned to Nigeria; that all works produced on its territory should remain there. (40) Instead of dealing with the criticisms of the lack of respect of legality by the museum directors, Montebello preferred to divert attention to other issues.
When Dr. James Cuno was appointed recently as President and Chief Executive Officer of the J.Paul Getty Trust, many were wondering whether he was going to change the Gettys policy as regards the purchase of unpronvenanced antiquities. The Getty Trust had been involved in many scandals of purchasing antiquities they should have known were illegally transferred from the country of origin. Lately they had to return to Italy a considerable number of such antiquities. After such scandals, the Getty modified its policy. Was Cuno who had until then been regarded as the most fervent supporter of acquiring artefacts not properly provenanced, going to modify the Gettys new policy? David Gill asked: Will Cuno be toning down his position as he takes up his new role? (41)
In Museums Matter, Cuno has toned down considerably his language. His language and style are no longer abrasive and provocative. He writes almost in a statesmans mode and not that of a partisan, fighting from the trenches, bent on provoking and attacking the other side. He calls for reconciliation and co-operation from all corners. We cannot yet speak of a new Cuno or the metamorphosis of the partisan of retention of illegally acquired artefacts or artefacts without proper provenance. It must have been impressed on him that, after going through so many scandals and restitutions, the Getty could not afford to be constantly linked with illegal acquisition of artefacts. (42)
Cuno has admitted the existence of links between the universal museum and the colonial empire but has not specified what these links are and their implications for the universal museum. He has not admitted that the massive collection of the universal museum was made possible by colonial violence, actual or structural. Nor has he admitted any link between the insatiable appetite of the universal museum for artefacts and the illegal trade in artefacts. Dr. Cuno has not given up the substance of his well-known opposition to restitution. He has not yet answered any of the substantive questions raised by his previous publications. Museum Matters has taken care of the questions of presentation but not the substance of his views. This is a change in tactics and strategy but not in objectives. The President and Chief Executive Officer has improved the public relation aspects of his presentation. We must wait for substantial changes in his position and concrete acts.
Cuno recommends that we build universal museums where there is none in Lagos, Delhi and other places. Has he thought about the costs, at a time and in places where persons are dying of hunger because of lack of adequate resources?
Or is this not relevant for the supporters of the universal museum?
At several places in Museums Matter, we are told that the universal museums as liberal, cosmopolitan institutions, they encourage identification with others in the world, a shared sense of being human, of having in every meaningful way a common history, with a common future not only at stake but increasingly, in an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence, at risk.(emphasis by Cuno) (43) Similar statements are found through the book, trying to convince us that the universal museums work to dissipate ignorance and superstition about the world and promote tolerance of difference itself, they promote tolerance and understanding of difference(44)
Dr. Cuno is trying to convince us that the universal museum is a factor for understanding between persons of different cultures and works for tolerance. But these are only affirmations and declarations. He does not provide a shred of evidence to support the view that these huge institutions contribute to tolerance and understanding among different cultures. Ironically, his model of the universal museum, the British Museum, is located in a country that for most part of its history has been at war and does not seem to wish to change this tradition. There is no evidence or semblance of evidence that the presence of a universal museum in London has contributed to understanding of persons or countries or other cultures and thus created more tolerance.
If Cunos model of universal museum has not been able to create more tolerance in its original home where it has been for hundreds of years (established in 1753), how can Cuno expect the institution to contribute to tolerance in countries where it has so far not been established?
The final paragraph in Museums Matter seems to me to signal the ultimate failure of the universal museum to convince even the British of its attributes and usefulness as propagated by Cuno:
The example of India is evidence of the need to cultivate a cosmopolitan view of the world and encourage cultural institutions to support it. The British, having launched the quintessential cultural institution – the encyclopedic museum – exploited India economically, deprived its citizens of self-determination (withdrawing only after decades of protests and violent confrontations), and established many of its lasting cultural institutions. But they failed to give India what Britain enjoyed for itself, and what others have since emulated: museums with representative examples of the worlds cultures, committed to scientific inquiry, open to the public and respectful of individual agency, and dedicated to the dissipation of ignorance about the world. The absence of such museums, except for the few small but noble ones established locally, is part of the tragic legacy of empire in India.(45)
Does Dr. Cuno really believe in what he has written? Does he really expect the British to have built a universal museum/British Museum in India, in Delhi perhaps? Should the British have created such universal museums in Accra, Lagos and other colonial capitals? Should they have sent the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Accra and the Benin Bronzes to Delhi instead of London? `
To suggest the creation of such an institution in the colonies is to misunderstand the aims and objectives of the universal museum. The main aim of this European Enlightenment institution was to show British citizens how the natives, outside Europe, lived their lives, their cultures and religions. It was not the objective of the museums to show natives in Africa and Asia how the Europeans lived, or the nature of the British; that they would know through British rule. The Enlightenment created interest in Europe about how the non-European peoples lived.
We should perhaps be grateful that the British did not create such universal museums and so did not transfer looted artefacts from Asia to Africa or vice versa. If that had happened, we would now be perhaps confronted with claims for restitution from India against Ghana and Nigeria might be urging India to return the Benin Bronzes that the British looted.
But all this is speculation or even idle speculation. But this is a characteristic of the fanatic supporters of the universal museum. They are past masters in diverting attention from concrete and actual claims. Instead of facing directly a claim for the restitution of looted objects, such as the Benin Bronzes, they rather draw attention to discussions as to whether Nigeria has adequate facilities for keeping the Bronzes. Instead of returning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens, they argued for years that Athens had no adequate facilities for the Marbles that Lord Elgin took away from Greece under unclarified circumstances. Once the Greeks built ultramodern facilities, the British Museum director proclaimed that the location of the Marbles was never an issue.
The universalists would use any argument however speculative or unreasonable it may be provided in the end it leaves the Parthenon Marbles, the Benin Bronzes, the Ethiopian holy crosses and other looted artefacts in the British Museum.
`We do not know whether any Indian expressed to Cuno the view that the British failed in India by not creating a universal museum. We have not heard any Ethiopian, Ghanaian or Nigerian complain that the British did not create a universal/British Museum in Addis Ababa, Accra or Lagos. Indeed, many Africans would say that it would be enough if the British would return what they had looted from us. To suggest that the British should have created a universal museum in any of their Asian or African colonies betrays a misunderstanding of the objectives of colonialism. The colonial power came to the colony to take as much wealth as he could and not to enrich the cultural life of the colony.
Can one evaluate an institution such as the universal museum by leaving out an aspect of that institution which raises many questions and has been discussed intensively in recent decades? To leave out, as Cuno does inMuseums Matter, questions relating to the acquisition and possession of the cultural objects of others is to leave out a whole series of important issues:
1. Legality of acquisition of artefacts
2. Morality of acquisitions of artefacts
3. Role of violence, actual and structural, in the acquisition of artefacts
4. Restitution or acceptance of restitution demands
i) Justifications for restitution demands
ii) History of restitution demands
iii) Relationships, past and present, of demanders and holders of artefacts
iv) Effects of acceptance or rejection of restitution on museums as a whole and previous owners.
5. How are the acquisition policies of the major museums linked to the illicit trade in artefacts?
i) Do these policies encourage stimulate or dampen the illicit trade?
ii) How do recent revelations concerning illicit acquisitions by major museums relate to the very nature of the institution?
iii) What has been learnt from the recent scandals involving major American museums and their staff?
6. Acquisition of the artefacts of other peoples under International Law and the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM. Have the relations between these bodies and the universal museums been co-operative or conflictual?
We must ask whether from a methodological point of view, it is acceptable to leave out important and controversial aspects of an institution, examine parts of that bodys development and draw general conclusions to cover the whole institution. Is it acceptable to examine an institution said to derive from the European Enlightenment and leave the main characteristic principle of the Enlightenment?
For, if nothing else, the Enlightenment taught us to examine all thoughts and evidence and hold none to be irrefutably true, not even Enlightenment principles themselves. As Kant concluded,Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. Cuno. (46)
Well, when I hear people talk about human rights, I question their sincerity, because I walk through the British Museum and see artefacts and ornaments belonging to my people, the Asantes, being showcased in London, and they won’t give them back to me.
I went to Windsor Castle some time ago and saw the gold cup of Nana Karikari and other artefacts being exhibited there. They still have our treasures there; and also at the British Museum. But when we talk about human rights, are we not saying that I, the Asantehene, also have things over which I have rights? And why can’t I have the treasures and gold looted by the British from my people back?
Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, Asantehene. (47)
Kwame Opoku. 15 February, 2012
1. E. Chukwudi Eze, Race and Enlightenment, Blackwell Oxford, 1997, p.5.
2. Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, Princeton University Press, 2009.
3. See reviews and criticism of James Cunos Who Owns Antiquity? 2008, in Looting Matters, Sat June 21, 2008.
See also, New Interview with Cuno, Looting Matters, Friday, March, 2009.
4. Kwame Opoku, Refusal of Intellectual Dialogue: Comments on an Interview with James Cuno,www.modernghana.com.
5. James Cuno, Museums Matter: In praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, 2011, University of Chicago Press, 148pp.
7. Museums Matter p. 63.
8. K. Opoku, Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes: Comments on Article by Professor John Picton on the Restitution of Benin Artefacts, http://www.modernghana.com http://www.museum-security.org
See also the rap version of the history of the invasion by Monday Midnite, 1897 (Notorious B I Gs is Dead Wrong REMIX)http://www.google.at
9. Museums Matter, p. 65.
10. Ibid, p. 30.
11. British Museum Press, 1989, p. 97.
The Visitor’s guide to the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, admits the enormous expansion of its African collection during the colonial period: The greatest number of objects, however, came to the Berlin museum during the colonial period. Before 1884 – the year of the Berlin Conference, at which African territory was formally divided between the various colonial powers – and 1914 the African collection grew to 55,000 objects. Members of the German colonial administration and military in Africa were instructed to assemble collections for the Berlin Museum of Ethnography (Museum fr Vlkerkunde). At the same time, the museum contributed to the financing of joint collecting expeditions beyond German colonial regions, or acquired collections on the European market for art and ethnographica. As an example it is sufficient here to cite the acquisition made by Felix von Luschan, who served as Director of the African and Oceanic Department from 1905. Luschan acquired, at auctions in London and elsewhere, the collection of objects from Benin that is one of the most important and largest in the world. Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Prestel, Museum Guide, Mnchen 2007, p.113. On p.114 of the same guide we read the following: The outstanding works of art from Africa presented here give an impression of the cultural and artistic significance of this great continent, a greatness that despite centuries of plunder, subjection, colonial exploitation and racism has remained unbroken in its creative powers.
12. Museums matter, p.11.
13. Ibid. p.23.
14. David Hume, Selected Essays, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p.360.
15. Georg W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History. Dover Philosophical Classics, Dover Publications, New York, 1956, p.93.
16. Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1960, p.111.
17. I. Kant, ibid. p. 113.
18. K. Opoku, Why do Europeans, even Intellectuals, have Difficulty in Contemplating the Restitution of Stolen African Cultural Objects? Wolf Lepenies and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin,http://www.modernghana.com
19. Museums Matter, p. 43.
20. Ibid. p.44.
See also K. Opoku, Is Nationalism such a Dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Property? http://www.modernghana.com K. Opoku When will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution?http://www.modernghana.com
21. Museums Matter, p.45.
22. Idem, p.50.
23 K. Opoku, The Amazing Director of the British Museum: Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy? http://www.modernghanal
24. Museums Matter, p.52.
26. Museums Matter, p.68
27. Idem p. 78.
28. Idem. p. 77.29, See comments on the Cunos attitude towards efforts to curb the illicit trade in artefacts in K. Opoku, A Blank Cheque to Plunder Nok Terra cotta? http://www.modernghana.com
30. Museums Matter, p. 102.
31. Idem. p. 103.
32. Idem, p.113.
33. Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?
34. K.Opoku, Does the Demand for the Restitution of Stolen Africa Cultural Objects Constitute an Obstacle to the Dissemination of Knowledge about African Arts?; Comments on a Letter from Philippe de Montebello,Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, afrikanet.info
K. Opoku, Do Directors of Universal Museums ever Learn from Experience? http://www.modernghana.com
K. Opoku. Once in the British Museum, always in the British Museum: Is the De-accession Policy of the British Museum a Farce?
35. See Annex below.
36. K.Opoku, Benin Exhibition in Chicago: Cuno A grees to Consider Request for Restitution of Benin Bronzes.http://www.modernghana.com
37. Signatories of the Declaration were the Directors of the following museums:
: The Art Institute of Chicago
Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek,
State Museums, Berlin
Cleveland Museum of Art
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Louvre Museum, Paris
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Prado Museum, Madrid
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
38. See M. ONeill, Enlightenment Museums: universal or merely global? http://www2.le.ac.ukf
Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?
K. Opoku . Is the Declaration on the Value and Importance of the Universal Museums now Worthless? Comments on Imperialist Museology, http://www.modernghana.com
39. Tom Flynn, “Terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art”: the encyclopaedic museum comes of age, http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com/2008/06
See also, Tom Flynn, Ex Africa semper aliquid novi
41. Looting Matters.. 42. See Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy, Public Affairs, New York, 2006;
Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, New York, 2011.
Michael Gross, Rogues Gallery, Broadway Books, New York, 2010.
43. Museums Matter. p. 6.
44. Idem. pp. 8, 29, 30, 54, 83, 84, 112 and 121.
45. Idem. p.121
46. Idem. p. 7.
47. Interview of the Asantehene by Ankomah, Baffour, New African, Apr 2009 http://findarticles.com
See also Freeonline Library http://www.thefreelibrary.com
LETTER ON BEHALF OF THE OBA OF BENIN TO HOLDERS OF BENIN BRONZES
OPINIONS ON THE UNIVERSAL MUSEUM
Artknows, The Mythology of the Antiquities Market: Reading Ricardo Elia, Culture in Development
As long as encyclopedic or universal museums remain intransigent in the face of claims for the return of cultural objects — many of which were looted at the expense of the archaeological record — the looting and collecting of antiquities will continue (as will the arrogant denial of the implications). Museums are, by definition, and certainly in practice, the institutional face of ‘culture without context’
The encyclopaedic museum may be all we have, but in its present form it is both disreputable and unsustainable. Can it be made over? What can the great encyclopedic museums do to transform themselves from symbols of overweening power and acquisitiveness into forces for good in a rapidly changing world?
They could start by setting a better example to collectors of antiquities. Not by giving things back — although a genuinely well-meaning, selective approach to that would help — but rather by rethinking their prejudiced and anachronistic condemnation of a notional ‘nationalism’ as the main motivation of source nations seeking dominion over their own heritage. Until that happens, the History of the World in 100 Objects will remain what many already see it as: wretched propaganda.
Dr.Kavita Singh, Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?
The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us how Western museums are seen outside the west: as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding would only provoke anger or derision
For the last 100 years, new nations have needed to show themselves not as modern constructs, but as the fulfilment of a historic destiny. The development of the idea of national heritage has been fundamentally important in shoring up national feeling, and now when artefacts from the nation circulate in the world they become metonyms for national citizens. Their pricing becomes a shorthand for how people are valued. Their trade, licit and illicit, evokes lived experiences of immigration.
Museums like the British Museum or the Louvre describe themselves as universal museums. We are now well aware that these great collections were mostly made possible by historically traumatic events such as conquest or colonialism, at a particular juncture in history when there was a convergence of wealth, power, physical contact with distant lands, and an intellectual interest in encyclopaedism. Today universal museums face criticism and calls for repatriation of objects. In response, they urge us to see them as sites that rise above national boundaries, to affirm an essential unity of humankind.
Mark O Neill. Enlightenment Museums – Universal or Merely Global
A universal museum would, by definition, create displays which addressed the realities of power relations, past and present. Without facing up to human destructiveness in displays, seeing the world as one achieves little more than a Coke or Benetton advertisement, portraying humanity (or at least those of its members who were good at art) as one big happy family. The world is haunted by violence and terror because there are many bad as well as good ways of organizing society. Nor is there any clear link between those cultures which were good for people and those which were good at art. But none of the universal museums acknowledges that, in the words of Walter Benjamin, the great artworks in museums
owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to the other (Benjamin, 1970:258)
It is difficult to imagine universal museums taking on a more valuable role in society than that of exploring the relationship between universal norms and the particular (or mixed) cultural traditions within which people live. Definitions of these norms are often rejected as the imposition of western values on cultures to which they are alien and as norms which the west respects selectively, as suits its interests – hence the importance of the credibility of a universal perspective. A great deal of the violence and intimidation inflicted in the world arises from the perpetrators fear of loss of certainty in identity, and a consequent desire to return to imagined purer states, to destroy apparent threats. Identity is neither as fluid as postmodern theorists maintain, nor as fixed as fundamentalists assert, meaning that choices, by individuals and societies, are both more difficult and more important than in either school of thought. A more focused meaning of the displays of a universal museum than seeing the world as one might be something like seeing how cultures change, evolve, conflict and intermingle, while at the same time retaining deep continuities, and how choices made to change or to remain the same radically affect the lives of individuals for good or ill. The material reality of museum objects could play a unique role in exploring, in terms of possible universal values, the nature of individual and group identities in relation to their inherited cultures, their responses to change and to the cultures they encounter. Truly universal institutions would grapple with the possibility that, in the words of Michael Ignatieff the central importance of human rights in the history of human progress is that it has abolished the hierarchy of civilizations and cultures (Ignatieff, 2003:94). Only when museums embrace this as their core ethic and epistemology will they realize their potential to help create a more humane world and achieve some sort of universality.