A lot of effort has been expended in recent years in arguments for & against the idea of the Universal Museum. The fact remains though, that the whole concept only seems to have existed within the last ten years. Certainly, there are no mentions of the phrase in this context, prior to Neil MacGregor becoming director of the British Museum.
Surely, if it was a valid approach in the first place, more would have been heard of it prior to this point?
The fact is, that Universal Museums are self appointed. No other countries have asked them to look after their cultural treasures – and then to refuse to return the later. As such, they have no moral right to hang on to the huge numbers of items that were acquired in very dubious circumstances, carefully omitted from the labels on the artefacts today.
Will the museum of the future be universal or defined by its borders?
May 12, 2012
When I was a 10-year-old tourist visiting London’s museums, I had a nationalist episode. It began, somewhat narcissistically, with the coins of Kanishka, the ancient king after whom I and all the world’s Kanishks are named. Something stirred in me. “Why are they kept here and not in India?” I asked my mother (never mind that the historical Kanishka hardly ever set foot in what is now India). I marvelled at the curving sword of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, austere and proud, reduced to forlorn captivity in the display case. “Why is it here?” I trembled. And then I found Tipu Sultan’s tiger, a fierce mechanical beast engineered to ravage a wooden British soldier. That was the final straw. The very symbol of Indian resistance to British conquest now lay caged in London as an eternal reminder of our defeat. Quaking with rage, I approached the nearest security guard. “Give it back!” I yelled. “Give it back!” He refused to oblige me.
But my childish protests augured the changing spirit of the times. A rash of similar demands – more sophisticated and reasoned than my own – prompted a group of agitated museum directors to issue a defensive proclamation in late 2002. Dubbed the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”, it united venerable institutions in cities across Europe and North America, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The directors responded to what they perceived as a fundamental threat to the existence of their museums: the righteous calls and legal attempts to “repatriate” artefacts.
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