Monday, February 8, 2010

The Universal Museum: time for a rethink?


I have been re-reading the essay, "The Universal Museum: a special case?" (ICOM News 1, 2004), by Geoffrey Lewis, the chair of the ICOM Ethics Committee.
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.
His comment was on the "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums" (December 2002). The declaration included this statement:
Calls to repatriate objects that have belonged to museum collections for many years have become an important issue for museums. Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation. Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. Each object contributes to that process. To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors.
It was signed by:
  • The Art Institute of Chicago; 
  • Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek); 
  • State Museums, Berlin; 
  • Cleveland Museum of Art; 
  • J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; 
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Louvre Museum, Paris; 
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 
  • Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; 
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art; 
  • Prado Museum, Madrid; 
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam;
  • State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; 
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; 
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 
  • The British Museum, London
It is perhaps telling that since the declaration five of these universal museums have handed antiquities over to other coutnries. These include:
These were all objects acquired since 1970. Such repatriations perhaps demonstrate the flawed thinking behind the "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums". 

Has the time come for these major museums to review their policies? Is the declaration now worthless? 

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1 comment:

DR.KWAME OPOKU said...

Although the main spirit behind the Declaration and probably the drafter of the text, the British Museum was not a signatory. Kwame

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