Thu, 19 Jun 2008 Feature Article

A Satirical Approach to the "Universal Museum"

A Satirical Approach to the

There has been a lot of publicity these last days for James Cuno's book, Who owns Antiquity? Including several radio discussions on the British radio station, BBC where the author presented his views and was questioned by expert participants. Cuno repeated his well-known views about antiquities belonging to all and his criticism of those he calls “nationalist retentionists”. The tone of the discussions was very polite but it was also clear that most of those who spoke were not fully convinced by the arguments in his book. Some referred very briefly to the demands for the return of the cultural objects taken during the imperial days - Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, Benin Bronzes and the Rosetta Stone. Indeed, a former museum director expressed the view that it was time to return some of these objects. He also remarked about the fact that some museums bought objects without asking too many questions about their provenance. Despite Cuno's insistence that the speaker mentions specific institutions known for such a practice, the participant remained unspecific. But it was clear to all that the prestigious museums involved in deals with looters are too well-known and did not need to be mentioned in the small circle of discussants.

The concept of “universal museum” was questioned by one speaker who pointed out that it was not easy for the British to understand how it feels to have your cultural icons under the control of a foreign country. He asked how the British would feel if most of the cultural icons were under Chinese control.

During this same period I came across a satire on the “universal museum” which I felt I should share with other readers-Universal Museum Starter Kit Those who may not have the time or energy to read lengthy articles may find it useful to look at the article which is reproduced below. It demonstrates in a drastic way the implications of the suggestion by Cuno that we need more of the “universal museums”. The piece puts in a nutshell the formidable obstacles on the way to the establishment of such a museum. How many African countries can afford the financial implications? In a few weeks, Cuno's Art Institute of Chicago will be hosting the Benin exhibition which will be attended by representatives of the Nigerian Government as well as members of the Benin Royal Family. I wonder how the Nigerians will receive this suggestion from Cuno.

Once you have read the piece below, you may start wondering whether Cuno's suggestion is itself not a satire on our times: if they do not have enough of their own cultural objects because they are now in the British Museum, let them create “Universal Museums”.