Against the universal museum

For some time now, I’ve been fairly suspicious of arguments for the universal museum (the museums themselves I have no problems with). There has been some momentum in this area: James Cuno has been banging the drum for some time now, and he’s been joined recently by Tiffany Jenkins. The latter author’s work has been especially visible lately, both in articles written for the popular press and in reviews of her published book, most recently in the Wall Street Journal.

The argument, distilled down, goes something like this (this is taken from the summary of Cuno’s book linked above):

“Antiquities,” James Cuno argues, “are the cultural property of all humankind,” “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities–and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics.

The universal museum thus saves antiquities from nationalism by putting them into a global context.

My suspicion with this argument is simply that while it is happy to criticize others, it does not engage in a self-critique. That is to say, the politics of the universal museum are not something that is interesting to those who make these arguments. Indeed, the politics and the history are actively white-washed.

Take, for the example, the review of Jenkins’ book in the WSJ, written by Henrik Bering. He tells us that “From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story.” Perhaps. But he tells us this immediately after reporting that “when things started to show up in British museums a decade later [after the 2nd opium war, 1857-1860], curators chose to display them as loot rather than art in order to underscore the military might of Britain.” (Chris Lovell brought this contradiction to my attention).

Indeed, it seems odd to argue that universal museums like the British Museum are somehow immune from the charge of nationalism. After all, Croker argued in parliament that the Elgin Marbles should be purchased

for the benefit of the public, for the honour of the nation, for the promotion of national arts, for the use of the national artists, and even for the advantage of our manufactures, the excellence of which dependent on the progress of the arts in the country.

whereas Grant argued “that that would be a mistaken economy, as well as bad taste, which would deprive this country of such valuable works of art as lord Elgin had collected” (emphasis mine throughout). It’s not like the British government is immune from the nationalistic desire to keep cherished artifacts from leaving the country – as this government ban from the sale of the dagger and robes of T.E. Lawrence abroad shows. Or see this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Where is the criticism of the petty nationalism that seeks to deny Kelly Clarkson ownership of a ring owned by Jane Austen? The UK’s Culture minister Ed Vaizey said of the export ban that it “provides us with a ‘last chance’ to save treasures like these for the nation so they can be enjoyed by all of us.” (Emphasis mine).

It’s worth noting that British nationalism, or American nationalism, is never flagged as a problem by those discussing repatriation and the proper home for material culture. Instead, the nationalism problem is always framed as Us against Them. Consider the opening of Bering’s review, which begins as follows:

Pity the plight of today’s museum director: What used to be a quiet kingdom with creaky floorboards and sleepy custodians has become a raging battlefield where scarcely a day passes without a demand for the return of some of his treasures.

The Greeks have forever been clamoring for the Elgin Marbles,which have resided in the British Museum for two centuries. The Turks have their own list, including an ancient marble carving of a child’s head in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Egyptians want the Nefertiti bust from Berlin, and from Boston, the Nigerians want the Benin bronzes, sacrificial idols still “caked over with human blood” when taken by a British punitive expedition against the king of Benin in 1897.

The Greeks. The Turks. The Egyptians. The Nigerians. These are homogeneous national groups. But the other protagonists in this drama have names, identities, carefully thought out opinions. Thus the discussion is structured to oppose the museum curators with academic credentials and carefully thought-out opinions to anonymous groups who apparently all think alike along narrow nationalistic lines.

Finally, we are told that these parochial, nationalistic museums that want their treasures back reproduce an ethos that “resurrects racial ways of thinking” (Jenkins). Indeed, we are told that “far from tearing down walls between people, these institutions erect new ones.” This is the ultimate twist of the knife: the victims of imperialism and colonialism are now accused of “racial ways of thinking” whereas the poor, downtrodden curators of the noble universal museum (the real victims in all of this!) don’t see race. In this they are not unlike Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Instead, these brave men and women only see the grand sweep of the history of humankind. Yet neither do they see, for they choose not to see, their own past or for that matter their own present.


1 thought on “Against the universal museum

  1. Pingback: Friday Quick Hits and Varia | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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