The Universal Museum – a valid model for the 21st century? Introduction In October 2002, the International Group of Organisers of Largescale Exhibitions, also known as the Bizot Group — a forum comprising directors of 40 of the world's major museums and galleries — gathered in Munich for their annual informal discussion.1 The meeting was convened specifically to address the problem of how to confront the growing number of requests for repatriation of objects from ‘universal’ museums and in particular the increasingly political nature of the international movement to reunite the Parthenon Marbles. The outcome of the Group’s deliberations was the publication of a united ‘declaration’ promoting the “importance and value of universal museums.” Significantly, although the British Museum was not among the original signatories, the declaration was circulated through the British Museum press office and the British Museum has subsequently become its most vocal proponent.2 Despite the declaration’s claims to principles of ‘universality’ and its insistence that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation”, not a single museum outside North America or mainland Europe was included as a signatory. The declaration condemned the illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects, but insisted that, “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era.” The declaration went on to outline what its signatories perceived to be “the threat to the integrity of universal collections posed by demands for the restitution of objects to their countries of origin.” Since the declaration was issued, the question of the ‘universal museum’ has been subjected to renewed scrutiny, widely debated at industry conferences and in the media.3 As far as can be The Bizot Group — named after Irène Bizot, the former head of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, who founded the group — convenes annually to discuss issues of concern to the museum profession. 2 ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ signed by the directors of 18 European and American art museums. See Appendix 1 3 Whether the signatories to the declaration considered how their joint utterance might be received by the international cultural community, or the extent to which it might polarise museum professionals remains unclear. However, it is hard to see how a potentially divisive and provocative policy document could have been constructed with such scant disregard for the broader museum community, which was not consulted. 1
established, however, it is yet to receive a formal critical response from the International Council of Museums (ICOM), from the UK Museums Association (MA), or from any other national or international museum body.4 One notable aspect of the recent declaration was its implicit assumption that an idea born during the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment can be reconciled with more recent scholarship in fields such as postmodernism, post-colonial theory, and the so-called ‘new museology’ in order to function as a viable philosophical framework for the world’s museums in the future. Whether the Enlightenment model of the universal museum currently being promoted by some museum professionals is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the competing semantic claims made on today’s museums by diverse communities and interest groups remains a matter of conjecture. What seems certain is that the increasingly combative postures adopted by a number of European and North American museum directors can only exacerbate the problem, although this is how things are currently developing. A recent book of essays edited by James Cuno, former director of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and now director of the Art Institute of Chicago, emphasises an ever-deepening rift within the international community.5 Conscious of museums being pulled in a...
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