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Do global museums really serve everyone?

The so called “Universal Museums” claim to represent the whole world, but it must be borne in mind, that this is an entirely self-appointed role, which comes at the expense of many specialist local museums. Proclaiming that they are in a different category of institution, to which the rules don;t apply in the same way as they do to others, raises far more problems than it solves.

The Art Newspaper [1]

We serve all cultures, say the big, global museums
Leading institutions seek to shift focus of debate on restitution
By Martin Bailey

LONDON. The world’s leading museums have for the first time united to issue a declaration. Their statement on “the importance and value of universal museums” follows increasing concern about the politicisation of Greek claims against the British Museum (BM) over the Parthenon Marbles.

Although the declaration released in December does not specifically mention the marbles, it points out that the acquisition of classical antiquities from Greece by European and North American museums “marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world.”

The thrust of the international declaration is that “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era.” It points out that demands to repatriate objects which have belonged to museum collections for many years have now become an important issue for museums. “Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”

The statement followed the meeting in Munich last October of what is known as the International Group of Organisers of Large-scale Exhibitions.

Despite its uninspiring title, this is a powerful forum which comprises the directors of the world’s 40 or so leading museums and galleries, who meet annually to discuss common concerns. Insiders refer to it as the Bizot Group, after Irθne Bizot, the former head of the Rιunion des Musιes Nationaux, who years ago set up the first meeting. The gatherings are held on an informal basis, and so far the Bizot Group has kept a very low public profile, which makes its recent statement particularly significant.

The universal museums declaration has been signed by directors of more than 30 of the world’s major institutions, including the big five—the Metropolitan (Philippe de Montebello), the Louvre (Henri Loyrette), the Hermitage (Mikhail Piotrovski), the State museums of Berlin (Peter-Klaus Schuster) and the BM (Neil MacGregor). A dozen Bizot members had not yet formally signed when we went to press, but most are expected to do so, and the declaration does represent the views of the international group.

Mr MacGregor admits that the dispute over the Parthenon sculptures lies behind the declaration: “At our Munich meeting there was grave alarm at the way Greece was applying political pressure over the Marbles and the idea that one Western country could build a museum to house objects belonging to another.”

Other directors wanted to support the BM, but felt that it would be more positive to articulate the ideals of the universal museum, which is threatened by wider calls for repatriation. “So far the public debate has been conducted very much in terms of the value of restitution, but there has been much less debate about the importance of the context which a great museum offers,” Mr MacGregor explained.

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, told The Art Newspaper that the declaration had been “a European initiative”, which he had been happy to support.

One of the European museum directors at the Munich meeting had pointed out that the issue of repatriation claims was not going away, and there was a increasing move towards national and sectarian collections, so “it was time to issue a statement about the good of museums.” Mr de Montebello added: “If people stopped looking retrospectively at centuries ago, and moved forward, then everyone would be ‘on the same page’.”

Rijksmuseum director Professor Ronald de Leeuw told The Art Newspaper that nationalistic calls for restitution are having a one-sided effect and that “another voice should be heard”. He spoke of his own country, where Napoleon had robbed Dutch national collections in the early 1800s. “We see this as history and are not going to claim them back from the Louvre.”

Professor de Leeuw stressed that the declaration did not apply to more recent acquisitions. “Of course, we would not now dream of buying illegally exported antiquities or ethnographic objects, or of not returning a painting to a rightful Jewish owner.”

Professor de Leeuw said another reason for concern was that there had been a few recent cases of objects being returned, and questions had been asked at Munich as to whether this “had been premature, or perhaps done for emotional or political reasons”. He was unwilling to cite examples, but last month Italy returned a fragment of the Parthenon frieze—part of the figure of Peitho, from the archaeological museum in Palermo—to Greece on long-term loan.

As well as the BM, a number of other major institutions are facing restitution demands. Two Parthenon sculptures are being claimed from the Louvre. The Pergamon Altar, the highlight of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, has been claimed by Turkey. Nigeria has called for the return of Benin bronzes from dozens of museums. Egypt has made claims for major antiquities. US museums have faced calls for the return of pre-Columbian antiquities from Latin America.

The Bizot Group’s declaration on universal museums is an attempt to shift the focus of the debate over restitution, but inevitably it will spark considerable controversy and debate, particularly from countries which feel they have legitimate claims.