September 8, 2007

The Universal Museum concept rumbles on

Posted at 10:48 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Universal Museum concept never really had its day of fame, as it was shot down from all sides almost as soon as it had been dreamt up. It is still not completely dead tough & various attempts are being made to re-brand this idea until eventually the world finds it palatable enough to buy into it.


(Friday, 07 September 2007) – Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku – Last Updated (Friday, 07 September 2007)

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) had as theme for this year’s General Conference, MUSEUMS AND UNIVERSAL HERITAGE

I was rather surprised that after all the serious criticisms which had been made against the 2003 so-called “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” by which certain museums declared themselves to be universal museums in an attempt to discourage any demands for the return of stolen or looted art objects from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania which are found in museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, Völkerkunde Museum, Berlin, Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna and other institutions.

Although not a signatory, the idea or the impulse for the Declaration came mainly from the British Museum which was trying to secure allies to ward off the increasing political pressure being gathered by Greece for the return of the Parthenon Marbles which belong to Greece but are being held in the British Museum.

The signatories had not defined the conditions under which other museums, e.g. African museums can qualify as universal museums and no attempt was ever considered to make the governing bodies of these museums a little more representative of the world community. In short, these museums remained national museums whatever their pretensions to universality may have been.

It is clear to all serious scholars that in our day, with the existence of truly universal organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO and the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations system, no group of national museums, however powerful or lawless, can simply arrogate to themselves a right to designate themselves, without further ado, as universal museums. Criticism of this unfortunate attempt came from all quarters, including the Chairman of the ICOM Ethics Committee, Geoffrey Lewis, who roundly condemned the Declaration:

“The real purpose of the Declaration was, however, to establish a higher degree of immunity from claims for the repatriation of objects from the collections of these museums. The presumption that a museum with universally defined objectives may be considered exempt from such demands is specious. The Declaration is a statement of self-interest, made by a group representing some of the world’s richest museums: they do not, as they imply, speak for the “international museum community”. The debate today is not about the desirability of “universal museums” but about the ability of a people to present their cultural heritage in their own territory. “Geoffrey Lewis further added that “It (ICOM) advocates that dialogue be initiated that might lead to the return of cultural property and it encourages prompt and responsible steps be taken where specific requests are made.” (1)

George Abungu, former Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya suggested that “The Declaration responds to the fear of many museum directors that they would be left with empty museums or with hardly any collections worth talking about. This seems to me to be an unnecessary fear.” Abungu further added: “It seems to me that the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums is signed principally by a group of large museums who want to create a different pedigree of museum, largely due to fears that materials held in their collections of which the ownership is contested, will face claims for repatriation. It is a way of refusing to engage in dialogue around the issue of repatriation. If the signatories of the Declaration are trying to create the idea that their collections are held in trust for all of humanity, then why do they still call themselves by their original names? Why not “Universal Museum in Britain” rather than “British Museum”? (ICOM NEWS No. 1).

In a very well written and informative article, entitled “Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global”, Mark O’Neill, Head of Glasgow Museums, referring to the signatories of the Declaration has quite correctly pointed out that “the absence in public communications of any empathy with, and the denial of any legitimacy at all, to repatriation claims undermines the credibility of their case that they are capable of universal view”. The signatories had not in their history emphasized the universal but rather been concerned with emphasizing the distinctiveness and separateness of cultures. O’Neill adds that during most of the time the museums retained the objects there, they “were co-opted into communicating messages of imperial, white, male and national superiority .They did ‘see the world as one’, but as one which was appropriately ruled by the West and where the Western aesthetic sense was accepted as a universal valid perspective”. (2)

Tom Flynn in an article, The Universal Museum – a valid model for the 21st century? states that “The British Museum’s recent energetic revival of its enlightenment origins as a universal museum can be seen not only as an elaborate act of birthday self-congratulation, but also a coordinated attempt to counter increasingly frequent claims for the repatriation of key objects in its collections.” (3) It is clear then from the above that the recent attempts to introduce a concept of universal museums are aimed at preventing claims for repatriation directed against certain museums for art works stolen or looted in colonial times and thereafter.

What is the “universal heritage partnership” mentioned in the ICOM home page by Alissandra Cummins, President of ICOM? “…ICOM encourages museums to announce “Universal Heritage Museum Partnerships” for long-term cooperation, especially between museums with extensive, encyclopaedic collections and those museums and communities from which these collections have been derived…Museums claiming for themselves the title of “universal museums” must by that same token accept responsibility for universal access to that heritage for which they are merely the custodian, not the owner. No one can own the heritage which rightfully belongs to specific places and times and through history, to all humanity… As Universal Heritage is something to share, not to own, there are also cultural dividends to consider… ICOM will support through its world-wide network partnerships between “universal museums” of the have’s with the “source community” museums of the have not’s.”

After reading the statement by Alissandra Cummins, I was very perplexed. Are we dealing with a new concept of “universal heritage museums”? How are these defined and what are their characteristics? Can any museum apply for this designation and what are the requirements? Or is the term “universal heritage museum” a slight variation of “universal museum” as parts of the statement of Cummings imply? Is the concept of universal heritage only applicable to the museums that already have in their premises looted cultural works belonging to others, as parts of the statement imply or does this apply also to other works of European art, Picasso, Rembrandt, Goya, etc which are in the Louvre, British Museum and elsewhere? Or are these not concerned and if not, why not?

In my desperation for clarity, I turned to ICOM NEWS .NO 1 2007 issued in connection with the ICOM General Conference in Vienna and read the following: “In 2003, the majority of the world’s largest museums signed the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. These museums considered then that they encompassed collections with a universal vocation. Yet today, with the concept of “Universal Heritage” being developed by ICOM, we revisit the link between museums and universality at a time when some museums are leading active policies of international expansion of their structures, collections and heritage”.

This declaration makes evident the link between the unfortunate concept of “universal museums” and the “universal heritage.” Further down the same page, I read the following:

“The rich tapestry of Europe’s cultural heritage is reflected in the collections of the Kunshistorisches Museum, KHM; the renowned Picture Gallery, the Kunst- und Wunderkammer of the Habsburgs, the Imperial Treasuries with the regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and Austrian emperor’s crown as well as an impressive cross-section of Europe’s leading artists and major schools…

KHM is not an Austrian national museum. It is a universal European art Institution”. After this text, there was no certainty whether “universal” and “European” were not considered as synonyms by those for whom European values had of necessity to be considered as universal values. I was now even more than ever keen on finding some definition or clear description of what the ICOM means by Universal Heritage as regards museums. I turned to an article by Hildegard K.Vieregg, Chairperson, ICOFOM, in ICOM NEWS No. 4 2006 entitled “ICOM’S Universal Heritage” which seemed to be very much concerned with clarification of concepts. I read there that “Universal Heritage means that Heritage is to be seen as a whole. This is true of numerous places included on the UNESCO World Heritage List i.e. The city of Antigua/Guatemala, the Highlands of Minas Gerais/Brazil or the Jesuit Missions in Argentina and Paraguay… For museums, universality relates more to the general application of this precept: the museum entity, museological requirements for maintaining a museum, the common educational goals and encyclopaedic approach used throughout history in museums.”

We are also told that if we think about universal heritage, we must also think about the computer age in which we live and the possibility of making this universal heritage available in virtual terms. The virtual age makes it possible for wider participation in the Universal Heritage by people in “remote regions of the world”. It is really remarkable a person recommending the use of computers in our virtual age is still writing about “remote regions of the world.” Remote for whom and remote from where? We are reminded of the adventurers of the 15th and 16th centuries from Europe. Europe is not the centre of the world and for most people in the world Europe is an unknown area. It is no longer acceptable to view or consider the rest of the world only from a Eurocentric standpoint.

After this Eurocentric geography of the world, I concluded that even people sitting in ICOM still view the world only from a Eurocentric position. No where is there a clear definition as to what constitutes “Universal Heritage” as far as the museums are concerned. The examples mentioned are not in museums but large areas and locations.

It seems that the concept of Universal Heritage is being used here to cover indirectly stolen/looted objects in the European museums such as the British Museum which are now the subject of demands for restitution. The idea is that if these objects are part of a universal heritage, i.e. that they belong to all of us, and then there is no point in trying to claim them as your own. Indeed, the President of ICOM goes so far as to declare: “No one can own the heritage which rightfully belongs to specific cultures in specific places and times and through history, to all humanity”. I can only interpret this statement to mean that, for example, the Benin works of art belonged at a specific period to the people of Benin but through history, i.e. the looting in 1897 and their subsequent retention by the British and other European museums, they cannot even be considered as belonging to Benin but to all humanity. If this is what is intended, Africans must strongly object to the concept of universal heritage. If this is not so, then somebody should offer us a better explanation as to how African cultural objects, through looting, stealing and other illegal modes of acquisition become part of universal heritage.

We would also like to have examples of European works of art now in museums which have become part of universal heritage and cannot be claimed as belonging to Europe. Will some of this universal heritage be transferred to Africa, not in the form of “digital repatriation” since there is no repatriation here but as our share in the universal heritage that ICOM is talking about?

Underlying the ICOM’s activities regarding the concepts of “universal museums and “universal heritage”seems to be a basic failure or unwillingness to appreciate that the general critique of anthropology/ethnology and, by extention, of museums, since the 1960’s is a fundamental challenge to the epistemological and political hegemony of Europe. What is required is a fundamental change in concepts and methods and no amount of tinkering would be sufficient if at the end the result is to put Europe in control of determining how the stolen/looted cultural objects of others are to be located, presented and utilized. There is a general objection to the assumption that Europeans own the world and have a general right or duty to organize the lives and destinies of others; that they alone have a monopoly of ideas and that their conceptions must of necessity be also those of the rest of the world. The language and attitude of many museum directors and specialists give the impression that they have not been affected by any examination of the relations between their museums and the rest of the world. Self-criticism does not seem to be part of their normal practice. Any terminology which smacks of the old imperial and colonialist methods and domination will simply not do.

But what has been the reaction of the African museum directors and specialists to this not so quiet campaign to introduce this dubious concept? Or does it coincide with the interests of those who believe, as Aminata Traoré, former Malian Minister of Culture, has criticised, that our African art objects are better served by being kept in Europe and not returned to their rightful owners and home? It would be helpful if the African specialists would speak out very clearly. This would help clarify the situation for those who are for restitution as well as those who are against restitution. They could perhaps remind those now very busy professing universalism that as far as Africa is concerned, they have woefully failed to present us as part of the universal family of humankind. The museums have been largely responsible for the image of Africa and Africans as savages, wild, retarded, superstitious and less than human, brutes without culture or history who needed the strong hand of the colonizer to bring them up to civilization, away from their dark and atavistic culture. (4) Much of present day racism and intolerance derives from the presentations the museums have made in the various colonial expositions where all the racist prejudices and preconceptions of Africa and Africans were demonstrated for the European public, in what was presented as objective knowledge, reinforced by various artefacts. It is true that the Director of the British Museum seems to be aware of the less than glorious history of Britain and the British Museum in their relations to Africa and the rest of the world. He even calls that history Eurocentric and suggests we need a new history:

“I think the world needs to have a new history,” he said. “The history we grew up with is no longer enough to enable us to understand the world as it now is. It was Eurocentric. In so far as the rest of the world figured at all, it was only at the point when Europe came into contact with it — usually hostile, dominating contact. That new history is a venture in which a collection such as the British Museum is one of the key resources.

In other words, the BM, along with the other “world museums’’ — that is the Met in New York , the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Berlin museums — is one of the few places where all the different cultures of the globe can be examined, side by side.”(5)

The museums now claiming universality have not a very good record regarding Africa and we would prefer the representation of Africa to be done by our own museums, using our own materials, including the stolen objects now kept in non-African countries. We have a moral and legal duty to protect our own culture as well as our cultural objects. A variant of this concept of universality appears to be the emphasis now being put on access to the stolen cultural objects rather than on their ownership. An interview with the Director of the British Museum reveals quite well the idea behind all this:

“The key issue is access” – Interview with Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum. There are different points of view on the universal mission of museums and the massive transfer of cultural properties over the course of history. Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, participated in a debate, “Memory and Universality: New Challenges Facing Museums” held at UNESCO Headquarters on 5 February.

Interview by Sue Williams, UNESCO’s Bureau of Public Information, and Vincent Noce. Do you think the cultural property held by major museums such as your own should be given back to the countries this property originates from?

Debates that focus on questions of ownership, debates which are often as much political as cultural, tend in my view to close doors rather than to open them. The key issue for us all is surely not property, but access: how do we ensure that the cultural achievements of humanity can be seen by as many people as possible?

In consequence, I believe that the big challenge for the museum community world-wide- whether those museums have collections that are national or inter-national in scope- is to build a network of partnerships and exchanges that allow cultural objects to circulate freely and frequently.

To date, this has happened through loan exhibitions. But these have predominantly been exchanges among rich countries. We must widen the scope of those exchanges, and they must not only be exchanges of objects, but of knowledge and interpretation. People and skills need to travel, not only things.

UNESCO could contribute a great deal toward this, by encouraging the circulation of works rather than seeking to enclose them within national borders. UNESCO has a restitution committee. I believe it needs, even more, a committee for partnerships and exchange of cultural goods and museum skills.” (6)

What the Director of the British Museum is saying is that more persons will see African art objects if they are in London than, say, in Lagos, Accra, Bamako or Dakar and so we should leave them where they are i.e. in London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Hamburg, etc. I have read and heard museum directors say that the importance of a museum should not be measured by the number of visitors that it receives in a given period. If we accept the argument based on numbers, then we should surely be sending all art objects including those in the British Museum to China and India where more persons are likely to see these objects. Moreover, what ground then remains for the British or the French to hold on to stolen Chinese or Indian art objects?

Those now claiming universality know very well that even in the metropolis where they are located, they cannot claim universality; they know that majority of Africans and others in the Diaspora do not visit the museums. One does not have to do much research to know why; most Africans are offended and insulted by the presentation of their culture and persons by the museums. Ironically, the museums now advance the presence of the African Diaspora in Paris and London as additional reason for keeping the stolen African objects: the member of the Diaspora can learn about the culture of their country of origin in the museums in Europe! The museum officials forget that many of the peoples in the Diaspora are citizens of the countries where the museums are located and are most likely more concerned with securing their rights as citizens than knowing about the culture of their grand parents.

A British journalist, Sara Wajid went to the Musée du Quai Branly, one of those museums proclaiming loudly their universality, but found out that the museum was not universal in its employment policy and practice: “But it still felt very odd that the only black or minority ethnic staff I met on my day-long visit were cleaning and staffing the cloakroom. Stephane Martin, the director, could not tell me what proportion of senior management at the museum is ‘nonwestern’ because it’s apparently not their policy to hold such information. And anyway it would be ‘so embarrassing’ to ask such questions. As if to demonstrate exactly how ugly such a line of enquiry could be, he asked me bullishly if I considered myself ‘of colour’ in front of a large table of exclusively white curators, press officers and fellow journalists”. It seems much easier for certain museum directors to proclaim the universality of their museums than to think through the implications of such a proclamation and to implement policies reflecting such grand ideals.

Kwame Opoku. 3 September, 2007.


1. ICOM NEWS No.1 2004
2. Museum and society, Nov 2004. 2(3) 190-2023.
4. See Anne Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994.
6. See also the response of the University of Edinburgh to the request of Ethiopia for the return of manuscript looted by the British in 1868 from Maqdala, Ethiopia: “The manuscripts form a part of the overall richness and depth of the University’s Collections. The University of Edinburgh plays a significant role as one of the world’s leading research universities hosting scholars from all over the world and, through the use of leading edge technology, providing scholarly works to researchers. These manuscripts should be viewed within the context of an active research collection where the interaction of these items is important for scholarship both now and in the future.” – Powered by Mambo Generated: 22 June, 2008, 12:57
7. – Powered by Mambo Generated: 22 June, 2008, 12:57

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