IS THE DECLARATION ON THE VALUE AND IMPORTANCE OF THE “UNIVERSAL MUSEUMS” NOW WORTHLESS? COMMENTS ON IMPERIALIST MUSEOLOGY
“If museums were capable of helping to devise and communicate a universal perspective on cultural values which achieves credibility and currency outside western cultural elites, they would indeed make an invaluable contribution to global society.” Mark O’ Neil (1)
Horseman, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom:
David Gill has posed the question whether the Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums should be considered as worthless in view of the fact that the main objective of providing immunity against restitution claims has not been achieved. With regard to the restitutions made by major US American institutions to Italy – Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University’s Art Museum .- he states:
“Such repatriations perhaps demonstrate the flawed thinking behind the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”.
Has the time come for these major museums to review their policies? Is the declaration now worthless?” (2)
The Declaration was signed in December 2002 by 18 major museums including Art Institute of Chicago, State Museums, Berlin, Cleveland Museum of Art, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Louvre Museum, Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The British Museum initiated the project, seeking to gather support to counteract the increasing political sympathy that Greece was gaining with regard to 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. The statement was drafted at their last meeting in Munich last October, and presented to the British Museum for publication”. (3) One may wonder why a group of leading museums meeting in Munich would present their statement to the British Museum for publication. This reveals the division of labour between the British Museum which needed support and the signatories of the Declaration. Moreover, the document bears the marks of the British Museum. The well-drafted clear language which hides more than it reveals, the great emphasis on Greek civilization and the role of the museums in making it possible for the public to appreciate Greek art, all point to the influence of the museum in Bloomsbury. Readers know that the director of the British Museum often speaks and writes as if he had “discovered” or “invented” Greece. Indeed, he has gone so far as to declare: “But it is perhaps only in the British Museum that the full measure of the Greek achievement can be grasped. Walking through the galleries you can see how the Greek reinvention of the human form changed sculpture from Turkey to India, as well as providing the visual vocabulary for the entire Roman Empire”.(4) The press release of the British Museum served as preface to the Declaration. The museum did not sign the document because it looks better if a statement strongly supporting it is not signed by the beneficiary itself.