Museum Security Network



In this era of resurgent nationalist violence, encyclopedic museums are more important than ever.”’Dr. James Cuno

There is a remarkable presentation in the Financial Times of 22 May, 2015 in the defence of the so-called “universal museum” or encyclopedic museum” by one of its main proponents, Dr. James Cuno. The article entitled “Time to celebrate our differences” accumulates a number of misleading impressions and insinuations that may impress the uninformed but I doubt if any of those who have followed the discussions on the “universal museum” will fail to notice the attempts by the writer to answer criticisms without stating clearly the objections of his opponents. Time to celebrate our differences – – Financial Times

To say that immigration has fuelled the growth of Brooklyn and Los Angeles and add that today the population of New York is nearly 32per cent African descent is to mislead the reader. Are the large majority of people of African descent in New York not African Americans whose ancestors were brought there not through immigration but slavery? African-Americans are Americans and not migrants from Africa.

The aim of Cuno’s article is to defend the concept of the universal museum but without referring even once to what the whole debate is about: acquisition of looted artefacts of others and artefacts of doubtful acquisition, both in the past and at present by the powerful museums in the West. A group of the world’s largest museums signed a Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums (2002) defending their possession of ill-gotten artefacts and arguing that they hold these objects in the interest of mankind and that the large museums enable more people to see the artefacts they have unilaterally declared to be part of the heritage of mankind.

Cuno’s attack on the modern nation-State is aimed at accusing certain States of restricting the free acquisition of artefacts by the rich museums in the West and lamenting the olden days when Western States could more or less take whatever they wanted from countries like Egypt under the so-called partage system.

None of the States and peoples requesting the return of their looted or stolen artefacts has based its claim on identity of any kind. The claims have been largely based on the territorial principle that objects within a particular State can be controlled by that State. The identity issue brought in here by Cuno is irrelevant but allows attacks of certain States.

The self-styled universal museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Berlin State- Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts, New York and others are all in the West. Cuno now brings in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai to create the impression that the voracious museums are not all in the West. For most of those critical of the concept of universal museum, the main characteristics of these museums are that they have been enriched by looting from the colonial and imperialist periods, they claim to have those objects as of right of conquest by their States, so called war booty,(or by purchase after conquest), refuse to return them to their rightful owners, claim to have an almost God-given duty to preserve the artefacts for mankind and hold millions of objects from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. We do not know whether the museum in Mumbai shares any of the main characteristics of the large museums. We read that it has only 50,000 artefacts as compared to the 9 million artefacts in the British Museum.

Throwing in quotations to criticize cultures that may not admit that they are also hybrid is fine. But this is a red-herring. None of those claiming the return of their looted artefacts like the Greeks, the Italians, the Egyptians and the Nigerians, has ever argued that their culture is pure and on that basis requests the return of the objects. Dr. Cuno keeps repeating this unfounded argument but has never provided a single example of such a claim. It is all too easy to attribute a ridiculous point of view to an opponent and then demolish it.

Cuno claims for the “universal museum” virtues it does not possess;

“This is why, in the era of resurgent nationalist and sectarian violence in which we live, encyclopedic museums are more important than ever. They enlarge people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence.”

Has the violence of our times really been “nationalist”? Contrary to the impression some readers may gain, none of those claiming the return of their looted artefacts can be in any way connected to “nationalist violence” in their attempts to retrieve the looted objects. It would be unfortunate in a period where some are violently destroying cultural artefacts, if those who have been requesting for decades the return of their looted or stolen artefacts were in anyway linked in the mind of others to such violence, directly or indirectly. If violence is at all relevant here, it is the violence used in looting artefacts from areas such as Benin, China, Ethiopia, Gold Coast (Ghana), Latin America, and elsewhere. Readers can imagine the damage done to artefacts in those invasions and lootings.

Presenting the “universal museum” as a factor for peace is of course not credible and the insinuation that the creation of more of the voracious museums is somehow desirable for peace and understanding has not been established:

“They enlarge people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence. If only for this reason, large metropolises, not only Brooklyn and Los Angeles but also Jakarta, Shanghai, Mexico City, São Paulo, Tokyo and others, should encourage the development of such museums with all financial and political means possible”.

The existence of “universal museums” in the Western world has not enlarged “people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence.

Cuno and his supporters would have to explain why the existence of “universal museums” in Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States of America for decades has not prevented those countries from going to wars and fighting each other. France and Germany fought for several years despite the existence of the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Peoples in those countries have not considered themselves and their identity as part of the larger world otherwise they would not have proceeded on the destructive path of war and aggression which unfortunately has characterized our world in the last centuries.

Using the methods of the supporters of the “universal museum,” one could even prove the contrary since the existence of these rapacious museums could increase or stimulate the necessity or interest in invading other States for other resources and artefacts. The British Museum was established in 1753 but this did not prevent the invasion of Benin in 1897 after the possibility of securing precious artefacts had been discussed in the Foreign Office. Whether the existence of the British Museum and the various British invasions of other States-Benin, Gold Coast (Ghana), Ethiopia, China- are related has not been clearly established. It is known though that in most invasions the venerable museum sent specialists as part of the army to advise the invading troops about what artefacts to collect.

The European Enlightenment philosophy which is said to be at the base of the concept of “universal museum” has been in many ways, through its racist ideology, partly responsible for European aggression in the rest of the world.

Cuno’s attempts to attribute to the so-called universal museum certain virtues clearly fail to convince since this would imply activities that do not normally fall within the purview of museums. Dr. Cuno’s statements remain what they are: mere affirmations without an iota of evidence in support. Is this a service to the museums insofar as they are being connected to activities over which they have no influence at all? Affirmation and declarations…

The so-called “universal museums” such as the British Museum, Cuno’s favourite model, have come to symbolize for many in Africa, Asia and Latin America oppression and denial of the rights of others. They symbolize the total defeat of our countries and their political systems. The continued feelings of defeat are kept alive by the lack of understanding of our need to recover our looted artefacts.

Instead of spending energy and resources to remind us constantly of our past defeats, Cuno and his supporters could try reconciliation by returning some of the looted artefacts and by adopting a more reconciliatory tone. Insisting on replicating or imitating institutions that represent our defeat will in the end only create hate.

At a time when there are groups that are destroying physically precious ancient cultural artefacts, should one not be more concerned with them than rather continuing to deny the rights of those who simply want their looted objects back? The United Nations and UNESCO have been calling on Member States to prevent the damage. It would seem to me that this is clearly not the time to revive the pretentious claims of the so-called universal museums.

We should not be put into a situation where we have only a choice between an outmoded model of museum or no museum at all because of the hatred generated by the claims of the large museums. Cuno could plead for museums generally and not for the model of museum that represents oppression of others and the denial of their right to their own artefacts. At a time when some museums have been attacked and their artefacts destroyed, it does not seem right to plead only for that model of museum that revises bad memories of imperialism in the world. Cuno and his supporters should abandon the “universal museum” and embrace simply the museum so that we can all concentrate our efforts and thoughts in saving precious records of human history.

At a time when Western States have increased their immigration restrictions and indeed have decided to use military force to prevent migrants from Africa and the Middle-East from entering their territories, we found strange this statement from Cuno:

“Then all those young people who cannot, or do not wish to, move to Los Angeles or Brooklyn can experience the truth about national identity as being limited only by access to new and different things. And, by broadening access to difference, nations can lay the foundation of greater understanding of both difference and similarity. That can only be good for all of us, regardless of where we live”.

Does Dr.Cuno want to encourage our youth to move to Los Angeles or Brooklyn knowing fully well the difficulties youth of African or Asian descent face in those great cities? Does Cuno really believe that “the truth about national identity as being limited only by access to new and different things? Does the American scholar believe that the difference between an African national identity and an American national identity is that the first have limited access to new and different things whereas the other has unlimited access to all the modern gadgets? He should honestly discuss this issue with some of his colleagues in the social sciences.

The young people for whom Dr. Cuno seems to care a lot would like to live in peace in the world and would wish the African American youth could be sure of their lives when they go out onto the streets of those great American cities. American immigration laws would prevent most of the youth from moving to Los Angeles or Brooklyn even if they wanted to move. However, they would like to see in their own countries artefacts that were produced by their ancestors and are now in museums in America and Europe.

“Whether the Enlightenment model of the universal museum currently being promoted by some museum professionals is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the competing semantic claims made on today’s museums by diverse communities and interest groups remains a matter of conjecture. What seems certain is that the increasingly combative postures adopted by a number of European and North American museum directors can only exacerbate the problem, although this is how things are currently developing.”

Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum A valid model for the 21st century? (Lulu Press, Inc.)


Kwame Opoku. 31 May 2015.



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