Mon, 19 Jan 2009 Feature Article

Thomas Gaetgens on “Challenging the Encyclopaedic Museum - Berlin's Museum Island” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thomas Gaetgens on “Challenging the Encyclopaedic Museum - Berlin's Museum Island” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I listened with great interest to the lecture by Thomas Gaehtgens on Challenging the Encyclopedic Museum - Berlin's Museum Island at the Art Institute of Chicago.

His performance was quite remarkable. Even though he mentioned that the Russians had taken away artworks from Germany and that this constituted a problem between the two countries, he was silent about the artworks that the Germans had taken from other countries, such as Poland and the Benin Bronzes stolen from Nigeria by the British and sold to the Germans. Did these not constitute a problem for the Germans and for the “universal museum” or the “encyclopaedic museum” about which he spoke so eloquently? Obviously, he wasted no time on Nazi-looted art. Are the museums in Berlin not confronted with this problem?

Gaehtgens spoke briefly about non-Western, presumably
excluding Egyptian art which he obliquely referred to by mentioning, without naming, Nefertiti. Does the presence of stolen artworks in Berlin constitute no challenge for the concept of “universal museum”? The Babylon exhibition in Berlin had shown the extent to which Western countries had systematically deprived the Middle East of many of its valuable cultural artefacts and monuments. Should thought not be given to returning a few of these objects?

It is remarkable that Gaehtgens spoke on “Challenging the Universal Museum” at the Art Institute of Chicago, introduced by James Cuno, but did not find it necessary to refer to the greatest challenge to the concept of “universal museum”
namely, the demand of the non-Western countries for the restitution of their stolen/looted objects that are now in Western museums. James Cuno has written a whole book about this issue, Who owns Antiquity? Moreover, there has been a great exhibition in 2008, Benin: Kings and Ritual s- Court Arts from Nigeria which started in Vienna, went to Paris, proceeded to Berlin and concluded in the Art Institute of Chicago where Gaetgens was speaking. That exhibition had generated a lot of discussion on restitution of the Benin objects of which there are some 400 in the Field Museum Chicago, 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago and 580 at the Ethnology Museum in Berlin. Moreover, the Benin Royal Family has recently asked the museums to return some of these objects.

Gaetegens appears to see the challenge facing the concept of “universal museum” at the Berlin Museum Island, only in the undoubtedly difficult task of putting together or connecting museums built in different époques and with different objectives. Can one seriously say that this is the major problem facing the “universal museums” in our days?

Gaehtgens and the supporters of the “universal museums” now re-baptised “encyclopaedic museums”, may chose to ignore the greatest challenge the concept is facing but the demands of those who have been deprived of their cultural objects will not disappear.

Kwame Opoku. 19 January, 2009.