The 2002 Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums has been increasingly called into question over the past few years, most recently on the new BBC Radio 4 programme Curating the Future, which aired this week.
Signed by world museums across Europe and north America, the declaration advocates for museums as universal institutions that hold artefacts in one place on behalf of humanity, stating: “We should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”
It is an argument that has often been cited as justification against the restitution of cultural heritage.
In conversation with Apollo Magazine’s Fatema Ahmed this week, the programme's presenter, Victoria and Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt, asked whether the declaration that museums hold their collections “for the good of mankind” can still stand in an era where questions are growing around repatriation, restitution and the relationship between the global north and the global south.
Ahmed replied that the declaration’s premise is becoming “quite hard to maintain”. She added: “I think the claim to universality isn’t the strongest claim that a museum can make because to some extent it retraces some of the language of colonialism – that the coloniser is universal but you are specific.”
However, the sentiments found in the declaration continue to be echoed by museums today. Later in the episode, the British Museum director Hartwig Fischer described how the institution’s collections present a “wide panorama of human history” to the global public, pointing out that 75% of its visitors come from abroad. At the same time, he added, the institution is “reaching out and working with institutions and communities on all continents”.
As the discourse around decolonisation and repatriation grows, is it time for museums to abandon the universality argument?
The 2002 declaration in full
The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged.
We should, however, recognise that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.
Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.
The universal admiration for ancient civilisations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artefacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums.
Indeed, the sculpture of classical Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting. The centuries-long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity, was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas.
Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world. Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilisations.
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.