February 16, 2003

The Universal Museum – a reckless approach to international cultural relations

Posted at 8:29 am in British Museum, Similar cases

The declaration on “Universal Museums” has been met with trepidation by many, who think that it exhibits an out of date approach to cultural property & international diplomacy.

The Art Newspaper

“A George Bush approach to international relations”
ICOM and lobby groups react with hostility to appeal by leading museum directors to view collections acquired in earlier times as important to “universal museums”
By Martin Bailey

LONDON. In our January issue we published the declaration on “universal museums”, signed by the directors of more than 30 of the world’s greatest museums. These included the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Berlin State Museums and the Rijksmuseum (The Art Newspaper, no. 132, January 2003, pp.1,6).

The statement argued that “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.” Despite demands for repatriation, the directors stressed the importance of the “universal museum”, where world culture is on display.

The international group of directors had wanted to spark off serious discussion. Not surprisingly, those critical of the declaration tended to be first off the mark.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) had reservations about parts of the statement. “Repatriation of objects is an issue that should be very carefully dealt with. Wise and thoughtful judgement is necessary. Unnecessarily strong judgements or declarations should in any case be avoided.” It also cited the ICOM code of ethics, which says that over repatriation claims “museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues with an open-minded attitude based on scientific and professional principles.”

Greek Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos responded strongly, well aware that it was his country’s claim for the Parthenon Marbles which had sparked off the declaration. “Our request for the return of the Marbles is not in any way connected with any other claim for the return of cultural assets…The Parthenon Marbles form parts of a standing monument. This monument is under constant preservation and restoration, while the Acropolis Museum is the museum of a specific archaeological site.”

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles was equally critical. “Such unilateral, absolute ‘declarations’ are not sustainable in the modern world… If any declarations of this kind are to be made, they should be the outcome of discussions with a range of governmental and other bodies outside the small circle of museums that made the recent ‘declaration’.”

The UK Museums Association is unhappy with the declaration. Deputy director Maurice Davies described it as “a George Bush approach to international relations… It is a very crude statement that doesn’t give credit to the subtlety of thought that many museums give this issue.”

The association Museums Australia was also critical. “There are positive ways of managing the claims related to appropriated cultural material that can build relationships between museums and communities.”

The Association for the Return of Ethiopia’s Magdala Treasures took a tough line. Chairman Professor Andreas Eshete declared that the universal museums statement is “no more than Eurocentric special pleading”. “Few of Ethiopia’s 60 or so million inhabitants can visit the great museums of Europe or US to inspect their heritage.”

Beijing-based Cultural Heritage Watch spoke out in strong terms: “The directors of European and American art museums go too far! They are impolite and unjust… If objects were acquired under colonialism, invasion, war or other unjust means, could the museum which holds them say it serves every nation? Such acquisitions are illegal whenever they happened, decades or centuries ago.”

Museum Security Network website moderator Ton Cremers normally publishes, rather than pontificates, but on this occasion he commented: “The standpoint these museum directors take towards the return of the Parthenon Marbles is very much against the ICOM code of ethics, and besides, it is extremely undemocratic.” He castigates part of the declaration as “outright cultural colonialism”, saying that “there are even recent examples of illicit traffic in which museums participate.”

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