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Is the “Universal Museum” the museum concept of the future?

A lot of effort has been expended in recent years in arguments for [1] & against [2] 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.

The National [3]

Will the museum of the future be universal or defined by its borders?
Kanishk Tharoor
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.

The success, for instance, of Turkey in forcing the return of the “Lydian Hoard” (hundreds of stunning objects smuggled illegally from Turkey’s Usak province during the 1960s) from the Metropolitan Museum caused a panic among curators whose collections kept countless objects of dubious provenance. What else could they lose? The Greeks clamoured for the Parthenon Marbles, those ancient statues and friezes that British antiquarians happily gathered from Athens in the 19th century, when bagging antiquities was one of the more benign pastimes of European tourism. A slippery slope yawned perilously before the museum directors. If it’s Greek busts today, would it be African bronzes tomorrow, Indian mechanical tigers next week?

At stake, in their view, was the very possibility of a museum that sought to house the cultural heritage of the globe. Yes, the directors acknowledged, the world’s treasures had tumbled into their holds in often unscrupulous ways. But over time, these objects had “become part of the museums that cared for them”. The museums themselves offered “a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source”. This context was what mattered. The directors argued that by bringing together such a wide range of cultural artefacts under a single roof, the “universal” or “encyclopaedic” museum created a unique laboratory for the imagination. Within its hallowed halls, visitors could assess the world’s differences and similarities, ultimately reaching finer understandings of what it meant to be human. The directors concluded grandiosely: “Museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”

Nearly a decade after the declaration, the debate about who has the right to own what is as contentious as ever. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles found itself entangled through much of the 2000s in a legal battle with Italian and Greek cultural authorities, who claimed (correctly) that the museum had knowingly acquired looted antiquities. After decades of struggle, Peru secured an agreement with curators at Yale University’s Peabody Museum for the conditional return of objects taken from the Incan city of Machu Picchu during digs in the early 20th century. Many other countries are working through existing legal channels – established by a series of Unesco conventions – to retrieve artefacts held in western collections. And the Greeks still want their marbles back.

Other disputes over cultural property take place not in the court of law, but that of public opinion. At the auction in 2009 of the estate of the French designer Yves Saint Laurent, a Chinese collector named Cai Mingchao submitted winning bids for two 18th-century bronze heads. He subsequently won international headlines by very publicly refusing to pay for them. French soldiers pillaged the sculptures from an ornamental water clock during the looting of the Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860; some of the heads eventually found their way to Saint Laurent’s private collection.

Bit by bit, Chinese collectors have attempted to reassemble the 12 heads of the clock. Though they have limited artistic value in the eyes of scholars, the heads are powerful nationalist symbols. According to Cai, their dispersal represented an act of violence and theft against the Chinese people, one that could only be righted by their repatriation. “I want to stress that this money cannot be paid,” he said. How could anybody – let alone a deceased French celebrity – have the right to sell items that were never truly theirs in the first place? Cai styled himself as a patriot. “I believe that any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” He became an instant national hero.

Like all effective ideas, nationalism works at both the level of the head and the gut. We see ourselves as Indians, Chinese, Greeks and so forth, emerging from particular geographies and histories. Cultural property, whether books or jewels, friezes or bronze heads, does more than simply represent that particular national experience; it viscerally becomes the nation. It demands protection. A streak of hypocrisy underlines this possessiveness. There was outrage in India when an American collector in 2009 decided to auction a few of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal effects. Yet only a trickle of Indians visit Gandhi’s national museum in Delhi every year. As I demonstrated in my strop in London, “our” objects never seem to matter more to nationalists than when others have them.

The question of whether an object rightfully belongs somewhere is immense and perhaps impossible to answer. Can the present easily claim the past? Does a nation state that has only existed a short while have an intrinsic right to objects that predate it by centuries, if not millennia? Is political geography enough to determine what we can own and who we are?

The UN’s cultural body Unesco is rather unambiguous on some of these questions. The cultural heritage of a state is first that which was “created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State” and, second, artefacts “found within the national territory”. The first definition is perfectly logical. The second invites far more scrutiny, particularly from James Cuno, one of the more vehement defenders of the “encyclopaedic” or “universal” museum. Cuno is leading the fightback against the nationalist trend. Having run a number of august art institutions in Europe and North America, he has manned the barricades of the debate for much of his career.

He was recently appointed president and CEO of the Getty Trust, an institution that found itself at the heart of cultural property disputes in the last decade. To this new job, Cuno brings his tenacious advocacy for the cause of world museums. His books on the subject of cultural property – Who Owns Antiquity? (2008) and an edited collection of contributed essays Whose Culture? (2009) – mount an uncompromising defence of western cultural institutions and practices.

Cuno’s latest effort, Museums Matter, is similarly insistent in its belief in the promise and importance of such museums. The encyclopaedic museum offers a quietly radical vision of the nature of human history and society, in which culture is not a badge to wear, but simply something to be shared. In his words, museums “encourage identification with others in the world, a shared sense of being human, of having in every meaningful way a common history, with a common future not only at stake but increasingly in an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence, at risk”.

Cuno believes deeply in this unifying, global function of the museum. It represents the supposedly noblest sentiments of human history. In making his case for the museum, Cuno quotes a range of humanist intellectuals, from the ancient Cicero (“I am a human being; I think nothing alien to me.”) to the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (“My countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”).

His lofty globalism is as idealistic as he imagines nationalism to be crude. Cuno thinks it absurd that nation states can covet antiquities found in their territory. Italy, for instance, did not exist 2,500 years ago when a Greek-speaking sculptor made a statue of Aphrodite in Sicily. Likewise, the medieval miner who found the peerless Koh-i-noor diamond – now residing in the Tower of London – would not have thought of himself as Indian in the way Indians do today. Cuno rejects the notion that nation states enjoy a seamless, obvious connection to their past.

In Cuno’s view, nationalism is inevitably a detrimental force in human affairs, engendering violence and all sorts of ugliness. In the aesthetic realm, Cuno argues that a nationalist understanding of culture makes true knowledge impossible. Looking through the prism of a modern national identity is no way to grapple with the complexity of artefacts and their makers. Nationalism requires that culture is “something into which one is born, something one cannot change or rise above through the exercise of free will and reason”. It flattens the potential meanings of art to the mere expression of a particular identity.

What would a nationalist museum – this great bugbear of Cuno’s – look like? Recently, I had the chance to visit the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. You roam the cavernous spaces beneath its hovering modernist roof as one might explore a great spaceship fallen to earth. The museum keeps the world’s largest collection of art from “pre-Columbian” Central America (that is, from before the arrival of the Spanish), what amounts to a dizzying number of sculptures, friezes, paintings and other objects. You move through elegant room after elegant room, experiencing the various regional cultures of Mexico before arriving finally at the central hall. In this gallery at the heart of the museum, you find the art of the Mexica people (also known as the Aztecs), who ruled an empire from what is now Mexico City and whose symbols are still used by the Mexican state.

It was a revelation for me to see the sheer quantity of work, its great variation and grace. The museum left me breathless.

Cuno, however, would struggle to find satisfaction in this museum. He might bristle at the positioning of objects as only representatives of the nation and its parts. I imagine he would resent the rather heavy-handed centrality of the Mexica gallery, with the peripheries of Mexico radiating out from it – as if the current political structure of the country was prefigured by centuries of art history. And he would lament the missed possibilities. Wouldn’t these objects find much richer meanings if they sat alongside the work of others, of many others? In Cuno’s mind, only the encyclopaedic museum properly liberates art and allows it the possibility of continual reinterpretation.

Cuno roots his idealism in the 18th century Enlightenment, whose intellectual and moral innovations still define the shape and ambition of the universal museum. This period witnessed the emergence of some of today’s great institutions, including the British Museum in London, “the first true public encyclopaedic museum”. While its counterpart in Paris, the Louvre, began life as a nationalist museum committed to presenting a vision of French history and culture, the British Museum looked outwards. The museum embraced an optimistic Enlightenment faith in individual reason and scientific progress. It hoped to organise and display for the wider public the history and culture of the world. Its founders were mostly private citizens, including the relentless collector Hans Sloane. At his death, the contents of Sloane’s collection ranged from “a device made from elephant bone with which the women of the East Indies scratch their backs” to “the stuffed skin of a rattlesnake” to “an Egyptian mummy”.

Over subsequent decades – and as the collections of European museums swelled with the spoils of 19th and early 20th century empires – the British Museum and its equivalents proliferated departments and divisions. According to Cuno, the Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge remained the museum’s guiding ethos. Cuno insists that while today’s universal museums undoubtedly carry the “legacy of empire,” they were at no point the “instruments of empire”. He is sorry for the excesses of western colonialism and aggression in the last 200 years, but he will not apologise for the grandeur of the West’s museums.

Responding to various academic critiques, Cuno argues that universal museums are not ideological. They do not force a single argument upon visitors. Instead, they foster a secular spirit of “non-dogmatic” debate. Universal museums provide visitors with a diversity of possible experiences and interactions – from ogling Japanese woodcuts to shying away from Viking swords – but they do not direct visitors. They do not inexorably tell you what to think. Anybody who has spent significant time in such sprawling museums knows this to be mostly true. Impatience as much as intellect controls the way we tour the galleries. As the art critic Adam Gopnik has observed, “It seemed to me that your experience of walking through the museum was that you made up your own story and you did it simply by not paying attention to things that didn’t interest you.”

Of course, Cuno does believe universal museums have a consistent effect on their visitors. The museum-goer’s trip through the halls is a kind of sweeping journey, which opens “one up to a greater appreciation of unity imagined among different peoples and cultures”. The world becomes smaller as we study the illuminated manuscripts of cloistered medieval monks and those of dreaming Persian ateliers, or as we contemplate the poignant solemnity of Mesoamerican and West African sculpture. Other places seem less distant, other people less fundamentally “other”. In modest and less modest ways, we accumulate knowledge, we light our imaginations, and we change.

This certainly can happen while navigating museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum. But one of the great charms of visiting these museums is not embracing human “unity”; it is instead the impression of awe at the unfamiliar, the wonder of difference, whether simply the difference of the past, the difference of elsewhere, or both. There isn’t anything unfortunate about sensing this gap between us and others. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the renowned philosopher of society and “cosmopolitanism”, recognises that “people are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences”. Cuno sees the universal museum as a cosmopolitan space, broadly inclusive but still perplexing and provocative enough to foster curiosity, debate and learning.

When art is displayed through a nationalist framework, it does none of this. The objects appear simply as footnotes to the story of the nation. No comparisons can be made with others, no connections drawn. Visitors imbibe a sense of the particularity of a single culture, not the dynamism and openness of all culture. Cuno fears a future of neglected and maligned universal museums, when people around the world might consume art and history only in so far as it serves a national narrative.

He recognises that globalisation in the 21st century is a complex process. On the one hand, buoyed by urbanisation and expanding telecommunications, new robust nationalisms are on the rise in many countries, including China and India. On the other, the accelerated movement of people, ideas and material around the world has little respect for borders. According to the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai – who Cuno quotes religiously – globalisation unsettles national identities and encourages “post-national social forms” in all walks of life. Cuno believes that even though it predates the modern nation state, the universal museum best embodies this aspect of our times. It is a space that is open, diverse, argumentative, and ever in flux.


How many museums fit the bill? How many would Cuno be happy to describe as “universal” or “encyclopaedic”? He never tells us exactly, but it is clear where most of them are (or at least most of the ones worth mentioning). They are in Europe and North America, in old imperial capitals like St Petersburg, Paris and Berlin, world cities like New York and London, and in lesser metropolises such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto. Cuno defends the right of these museums to be as they are, to remain the inheritors of a bygone era when the West indisputably dominated the world. But even Cuno would admit that with America fretting about (and Europe convinced of) decline, the future of the encyclopaedic museum lies elsewhere.

Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi will offer one glimpse of the possible evolution of the universal museum. Where museums normally arrange objects by civilisation, region, period, or some other such category, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will adopt a “museographic approach”. It will display all its objects and art in chronological order, so that a visitor might find, for instance, medieval Indian bronzes near Byzantine Greek icons, or beside Chinese paintings. According to the curators of the museum, this scheme “will make the museum truly universal, transcending geography and nationality” as it presents all human culture in one seamless continuum.

In Museums Matter, Cuno applauds the arrival of the Louvre and bats away suggestions that the museum veils the aspirations of French foreign policy. “Whatever the French state’s political ambitions,” Cuno writes, “in my experience the state is absent from one’s experience of the Louvre and its collections. It is the objects that hold one’s attention.” Given the museum’s novel curatorial order, I expect visitors will experience its contents comparatively, exploring how cultures overlap, exchange, merge with, and diverge from each other.

It can only be a good thing if venues with similar offerings develop elsewhere in the world. Cuno suggests that museums always reflect their settings; New York’s sprawling and diverse Metropolitan Museum echoes the tremendous cosmopolitanism of the city itself. As metropolises in other continents grow into the 21st century’s world cities, Cuno imagines that the likes of Sao Paulo and Mumbai will develop the worldly museums to match their global swagger.

In this way, the Louvre Abu Dhabi represents a phenomenon that Cuno hopes becomes more common: ambitious, innovative universal museums outside the West. This will only happen slowly. I cannot envision a time in the near future when any institution in the former “developing world” will rival the great museums of the West. There will be no return to the ease with which the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum and others built their collections in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to cultural property regimes enshrined in international law, it is that much harder now for objects to cross borders. Gone are the days when intrepid and arrogant European collectors could stride about the world, taking whatever they liked for the edification of those at home.

Nevertheless, universal museums – however modest – are emerging in what were once peripheral or colonised parts of the globe. With greater access to the joys of such collections, the heritage of the world will increasingly be for the world, and not simply for those able to visit old centres of power in the West. Cuno, too, hopes for such an outcome, but he is more interested in checking the scourge of his nemesis, nationalism. “The collective, political risk of not having encyclopaedic museums everywhere possible – in Shanghai, Lagos, Cairo, Delhi, and all other major metropolises,” he writes, “is that culture becomes a fixed national culture, with all the dangers entailed.” There seems to be little risk of this happening in Abu Dhabi, where the Louvre will encourage a fluid, global vision of culture, one that complements the diversity of its host city.

Kanishk Tharoor is a “Writer in Public Schools” fellow at New York University.