Decolonizing the Universal Museum

10 minutes to read
Paper
Daniel Obubo
25/02/2022

Museums play an integral part in our present-day globalised world, they play a role that allows access to a variety of interesting objects transcending both temporal and spatial limitations. We have the ability to look into the past ways of being of a distant ancient civilization and through the manifestations in their art and artefacts learn about how they experienced life. In 2002, major museums of the global north signed the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’; most of the museums that signed this declaration were western English-speaking museums. This Declaration gave birth to the notion of the ‘Universal Museum’ which is a museum holding a broad all-encompassing exhibition of cultures from every continent. The guiding principle of the Universal Museum is the concept of universality which is a notion that encourages collection and display of artefacts from all over the world (Adams, 2022). This concept of the Universal Museum has garnered a plethora of backlash and criticism: opposers argue that Universal Museums perpetuate imperialist ideals and maintain the hostage status of artefacts rightfully owned by others.

The Universal museum and the colonial status quo

This article will argue whether the concept of the universal museum is a tool to maintain the colonial status quo, by focusing on the signatory Museums of The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, The British Museum and using the Nigerian Benin Bronzes that are kept within its African exhibitions as a case study. This article will look at the concept of globalisation and art through a decolonial lens. Decolonial cultural sociologist Rolando Vazquez explains that decolonial thought starts from the awareness that there is no possession without dispossession, there is no claim to universality without erasure (Vazquez, 2020). Using a decolonial approach to understanding museums and the concept of universality, this article discusses how the presence of stolen artefacts and the museums unwillingness in repatriation dialogues exemplify a continuation of the colonial status quo.

Globalisation is indeed a contested subject, it can be explained as the convergence of time and space, the shrinking of our world figuratively. Globalisation is not a new concept of the modernised world and has existed since the first civilizations began to communicate and trade amongst themselves. Globalisation brings homogenisation as cultures and ways of life begin to meld. An interconnected world also allows us to communicate and share ideas at an instant pace through digitisation in the late 20th century and the birth of the internet. This is not to say that globalisation does not come with its own set of complex issues and technicalities, globalisation comes with the mcdonaldization, commodification of cultures, linguistic extinction and a clash of civilizations (Nederveen Pieterse & Rehbein, 2011). The power dynamic in a global context is disproportionate, as western cultures position themselves as dominant and aim to supersede and silence other cultures. Thus, dominant cultures have more bargaining power in a globalised world and have the ability to spread their influence globally and reposition their local cultures as the norm. 

This article focuses on the concept of globalisation through the perspective of the clash that occurs between civilizations, the on-going discourse between the global north and south within the broader context of museums and decolonisation. 

The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ came into being in 2002. The Declaration affirms the Universal Museums’ duty to educate the world through its multicultural artefacts. It argues that artefacts that were bought or gifted over the course of time have now become fundamental pieces of the museums that housed them and therefore a move to repatriate some of these artefacts will in fact disrupt a legacy that these universal museums have established. The declaration alludes to the importance of Greek sculptures and their impact on art and architecture in both Europe and North America by stating that the popularity of Greek artefacts was made so by and through the Universal Museums that hold pieces of Greek history (Kaplan, 2022). 

Custodianship and curatorship of artefacts belonging to other cultures implicates the Universal Museum in the continuation of colonial logic of ownership, whereby the Universal Museums that house these artefacts view themselves as the worthy disseminators of knowledge regarding these stolen artefacts.

The language used in the Declaration is cleverly tailored to support a narrative that Universal Museums are a necessity to a certain way of life, and without them the popularity and interest of artefacts would not be as prominent if they were not kept within Universal Museums. Within the declaration, we come across words that are used to gloss over the damage, pillage, and erasure of cultures of societies where these artefacts were created. The declaration mobilises a narrative that reproduces a colonial way of thinking, in which the global north superimposes its knowledge of the world, speaks on behalf of other cultures, and does not take into account how other cultures can be misrepresented through inaccurate meaning-making of Western custodians of art.

The declaration states: 

“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” 

“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.” 

Custodianship and curatorship of artefacts belonging to other cultures implicate the Universal Museum in the continuation of colonial logic of ownership, whereby the Universal Museums that house these artefacts view themselves as the worthy disseminators of knowledge regarding these stolen artefacts. Vazquez (2020) argues on the importance of academic and culture institutions to address how narratives of the global south are being retold through these institutions that proclaim a ‘global’ perspective but in fact contribute to making other voices invisible and erasing the knowledge around these artefacts from the cultures in which they rightfully belong. 

The clever use of the ways the artefacts could have come to Universal Museums is blemished in vagary; it serves to fit the narrative that Universal Museums are a necessary good that legally and ethically acquired artefacts in good faith. This is a convenient omission of artefacts acquired through pillaging and unethical forced sale. An example can be seen in the Parthenon Marbles which were chiselled from the Acropolis, and that the British Museum has refused to return. The British Museum is a signatory of this Declaration. 

The term ‘Universalism’ is a term that only has power depending on who makes the declaration. The directors of the signatory museums are all white men in positions of power, this enables them to coin new terms like ‘Universality’. The Declaration speaks to the paternalistic approach by imperial countries when dealing with difficult and sensitive issues that require transparent, uncomfortable and many times painful dialogue to be had. The paternalistic aspect is accentuated by the fact that countries are not allowed to have their artefacts back until they can prove that they can take care of them. 

Furthermore, the artistic authority resides with the Museums in the global north, all the signatories are museums in North America and Europe. There is also a lack of understanding that not every artefact was made with the intention of serving an artistic purpose. An example can be seen in the importance of the Tangué which is a figurehead on traditional boats. Locally the Tangué connects the tribes in Cameroon with the water spirits (DW, 2020). The Tangué was stolen by German colonists and now resides in Germany as an artistic exhibition, when in fact it bears a functional use. 

The Declaration closes with the following: 

“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.” 

While acknowledging that repatriation is an urgent and necessary topic, the Declaration falls back on the notion of Universalism which increases the sentiment that museums serve people of every nation. Accessibility to museums that are all in the global north raises questions as to just how democratised and truly universal these museums are if a large portion of the world does not have the means to ever visit them (Kaplan, 2022). Exhibitions of colonial spoils without indigenous people able to give valuable context to the artefacts perpetuates a eurocentric affirmation of whiteness through a spectacularization of the other (Vazquez, 2020). 

The Case of the Benin Bronzes

Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes is a collective term used to describe cast metal sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, in present day Nigeria. They were reportedly looted from the King of Benin’s palace during the British invasion of Benin in 1897. About a 1000 pieces were taken by force in the 20th century during the infamous Scramble for Africa. 900 pieces reside in the British Museum ("Benin Bronzes", 2022). Others were sold to various European Museums. The royal palace in Benin has requested the return of their artefacts and the British Museum has opened dialogue with the palace for their return. The British Museum's plea to the royal palace was that the artefacts acted as cultural ambassadors of the Benin Kingdom when displayed globally. 

The local context of the Benin Bronzes are not similar to the context they are given in the British Museum, they are not items to be observed as artistic artefacts but rather serve a functional purpose determined by the people of Benin. The bronzes are used to honour ancestors and royalty as well as to officiate coronations of new kings. Additionally, the bronze plaques are known to have visually depicted the encounter with Portuguese traders. These bronze artefacts held stories of the Benin people. The fact that they are taken out of context highlights the eurocentric idea that all artefacts belong in a museum to be viewed. Vazquez (2020) argues that the displacement of artefacts has further reduced the works of the formerly colonised to mere objects that are now subjected to meaning through the colonial gaze.   

Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor has been outspoken about the presence of Benin bronzes in Europe as a symbol of exploitation (Phillips, 2021). Further, Ehikhamenor also expresses that replication of Benin artworks in Europe signifies profiteering from the violent past of the colonial invasion, and alienates the Benin people from their culture and artefacts native to them. In an interview, Ehikhamenor makes a remark about being proud of the artistry of his ancestors, but displeased about the displacement of these artefacts, questioning the concern the viewing public has for the present day people of the Benin Kingdom or its King. These sentiments expressed by Ehikhamenor disprove the mission of the Universal Museum that seeks to make visible artefacts from cultures far removed from the museums in which these artefacts are displayed. 

Ehikhamenor also recounts an incident that occurred when Nigeria was to host the FESTAC ‘77, a festival that celebrated Black arts and culture in Lagos, Nigeria. The Nigerian government had requested to borrow an ivory mask which depicted the head of Queen Idia, a Benin Queen, but the British Museum did not honour the request and the festival had to go on without this vital cultural piece. The British Museum refused to give Queen Idia ivory mask on the grounds that ‘its conservation could not be guaranteed’ (Phillips, 2021). This incident illustrates the reproduction of colonial ownership, inferiorizing of other peoples and their ability to determine the terms through which they and products of their culture can exist. 

Queen Mother Idia Mask

The Universal Museum as a concept is a product of a destabilised power dynamic between the global north and south, that allows the North to maintain their colonial spoils of war with impunity under the guise of universality. The act of keeping other cultures’ cultural artefacts against their will is indicative of the political power imbalance that certain countries have in the west and the clash of cultures that is occurring globally. So much so that even in Europe there is a divide between the bargaining power of the United Kingdom and that of Greece. This is evidence that museums are a cultural as well as political place. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums conveniently glosses over the cultural and political trauma and seeks to remedy the situation by accepting the status quo for what it is: an immovable monolith. The Declaration seeks to keep an appointed group of Museums as the gatekeepers of global culture by empowering them to maintain the spoils of their colonial history, while attempting to placate original creators of these artefacts with the notion of Universality. Convincing the robbed to accept their plight is a clear indicator of the perpetuation of the colonial status quo. 

References

Adams, G. (2022). Does the argument that museums hold collections on behalf of the world still stand? - Museums Association. Retrieved 21 January 2022

The British Museum. “Benin Bronzes.” . Retrieved October 31 2021

DW Documentary. (2020, September 2). Stolen soul: Africa’s looted art [Video]. YouTube.

Kaplan, I. (2022). The Case against the Universal Museum. Retrieved 21 January 2022

Nederveen Pieterse, J., & Rehbein, B. (2011). Globalization and emerging societies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Phillips, B. (2021). Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes. [S.l.]: ONEWORLD PUBLICATIONS.

Vazquez, R. (2020) Vistas of Modernity - Decolonial aesthesis and the end of the contemporary. Prinsenbeek, The Netherlands: Jap Sam Books