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The Universal Museum

The argument for displaying antiquities outside their country of origin is that these pieces are part of our shared, universal, cosmopolitan culture. Does it matter if archaic Athenian funerary sculptures are displayed in Manhattan? South Italian pottery in Melbourne? Roman imperial portraits in Malibu? Greek architectural sculptures in Munich? Egyptian funerary portraits from the Faiyum in Manchester?

Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities can be enjoyed, appreciated, and discussed, whether they are in Cairo, Athens, Istanbul, Rome, or indeed Paris, Berlin or Boston. Indeed they have the power to inspire new generations of students and scholars who have the enthusiasm to engage with their subject. How many students in Cambridge during the 1920s and 1930s were drawn into the study of the prehistoric Aegean by the Prehistoric displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum designed by Winifred Lamb? The pioneering careers of Robert Carr Bosanquet (Palaikastro), Alan Wace (Mycenae) and John Pendlebury (Crete) started with the study of this major university collection.

Then there are the national “universal” collections. From the hub of the Great Court of the British Museum it is possible to gain access to major masterpieces from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, and mainland Greece. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to see the finds from Ur, the Rosetta stone, or the reliefs from that wonder of the ancient world, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. The collections are accessible (and free)—so long as you have a visa to get to the United Kingdom.

How were these collections formed? For the British Museum, the pieces come from a range of sources: from private collectors to expeditions. Grand Tourists acquired Roman copies of Greek sculptures discovered in the remains of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli from the antiquities dealers of eighteenth century Rome. Sir Charles Newton had the vision to explore the classical sites around the shores of the Aegean as part of the great competition to develop the holdings of “national” collections. (British excavators on the island of Melos in the mid-1890s were able to pinpoint the spot where the Aphrodite [“Venus de Milo”] had been found.) Excavations at Naukratis in the western Delta provided a range of archaic Greek pottery.

Is the concept of the universal museum under threat? Items from the historic collections are on the shopping list of countries: the portrait of Nefertiti in Berlin, the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum. This is not to diminish the cultural claims of Egypt or Greece. There is a strong argument for the display of fifth century BCE Athenian architectural sculptures in a gallery that makes a direct visual link with the Parthenon.

But should the internationally important holdings of archaic funerary sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, many of them acquired by Gisela M.A. Richter, be returned to Athens for display alongside similar pieces in a national archaeological collection? As far as I know there has been no such suggestion and I would not expect there to be.

So why is the concept of the universal museum on the agenda? The successful pursuit of antiquities by the Italian Government has unsettled museum curators. Will cultural property claims remove treasured items from their holdings?

But I do not believe the aim of the Italian Government is to strip all international museums of their holdings of archaeological material that could have been discovered in Italy. We are unlikely to see tens of thousands of Apulian pots, Etruscan mirrors, or Roman sculptures being returned.

The Italian Government is sending out a clear signal that museums need to develop responsible acquisition policies that do not encourage the industrial-scale looting of archaeological sites. Would any curator recommend the acquisition of another “Sarpedon krater” if the museum faced the potential return of the piece (and thereby gaining adverse publicity)? And the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) responded positively to this challenge in June 2008 by reaffirming the importance of checking that antiquities being considered for acquisition had not been looted in recent decades.

Any close observers of the recent return of antiquities to Italy will have noticed that not every piece identified by the Polaroid photographs seized from Giacomo Medici has been requested or returned. Museums have negotiated a short-list of finds to the satisfaction of both sides. There are, of course, high-profile pieces such as the “Sarpedon krater” but there are lesser pieces that emphasise the network of dealers and middlemen that supplied the appetites of the collectors. Patterns are beginning to emerge with the names of particular dealers, galleries and auction houses (from both sides of the Atlantic) appearing time and again. Responsible curators in these universal museums will be checking the histories of “ancient art” acquired since the 1970s.

The concept of the “universal museum” is not dead, but institutions that aspire to that title need to acquire and borrow with a more developed sense of ethical responsibility. Some North American museum directors have been making a case for the development of a “licit market” in antiquities drawing on the reserve collections of museums in Italy, Greece and elsewhere. It is suggested that the revenues raised could help for the display and conservation of the remaining collections. But should tomb-groups held by archaeological museums be broken up merely for the enjoyment of the visiting public? A more creative approach would be to develop a scheme of short- and long-term loans of archaeological material. Museums directors are, perhaps, less keen on this idea, as the antiquities will not in the end be “owned” by their institutions. Yet for the visiting and viewing public, such loans would broaden their enjoyment and understanding of the ancient world.

Universal museums are not dead. But they are seeking a new role in the 21st century. And part of that task is to reaffirm the importance of archaeological context to help with the interpretation of the material culture of the ancient world.


Should you not also mention how the Benin bronzes ended up in the British Museum and elsewhere or is this not important? You mention Egypt but,as you know, other African countries have also been deprived of their antiquities by the so-called universal museums. Kwame Opoku.
David Gill said…
I do discuss the Benin bronzes here, and I will be discussing them in my review article of James Cuno's Who Owns Antiqiuity? which is now in press.

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