In favour of a ‘universal’ heritage

My not-so-secret dream job is to work for the British Museum in London. This is not hugely surprising given my interest in art, museums and all things heritage. Since, in the manner of dream jobs, this is impossibly beyond my reach at the moment, I settle for visiting the Museum, physically and virtually, every chance I get. And I have yet to be disappointed.

Not everyone is a fan though. In fact, the British Museum remains the target of a polarising global debate on the “rightful” ownership and value or utility of cultural heritage, facing, as a result, much criticism and vitriol. Given my almost embarrassing awe of the place, I felt compelled to dig deeper into this heated debate and found – absolutely – in favour of the Museum and the stand it represents. Your first instinct might be to disagree with the position I take; but, hear me out (or read me through) and then, of course, feel free to argue back.

This debate is centred on the issue of cultural heritage repatriation vis-a-vis an elite group of self-styled, universal museums defined by encyclopaedic collections of enormous temporal and geographic scope. Simply put, museums full of objects originating from cultures, living and dead, across the globe. The most famous examples include the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York; together they are the focus of conflicting ideological positions for and against repatriation – the return to places and peoples of origin those objects in universal collections to which they lay claim. Think Greece’s repeated demands that the British Museum return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

Before I proceed, a few clarifications. This post is not an investigation into individual repatriation claims; however, such claims will be referenced to the extent that they help illustrate its central arguments. Further,  the repatriation of war loot, and the ritual and human remains of indigenous societies, are recognised to be separate issues, subject to different laws, contexts and conventions, and are, therefore, not included in this analysis.

The debate, then, broadly positions an internationalist perspective on the ownership, value and preservation of cultural heritage against a vision of cultural heritage as national cultural patrimony. Briefly, cultural internationalism considers cultural heritage – the products of human creativity, past and present – as belonging to all people, but “owned” by nobody in particular. This perspective, therefore, defends the continued right of universal museums to acquire, hold, preserve and display the common cultural heritage of mankind, in trust for all people of current and future generations.

Ranged against this view is the demand for recognition of the greater right of certain people – as citizens of particular nations and, by extension, their state or government – to their cultural patrimony. All cultural heritage found within the borders of a modern nation-state is defined as its cultural patrimony. Importantly, cultural patrimony is understood to comprise both the products of a particular living culture, as well as those products of past cultures to which modern nation-states consider themselves heirs. Example: modern day Egypt’s claim to the civilisation of the ancient Egyptians. The debate surrounding universal museums is centred on this claim to the products of antiquity. And cultural nationalism, in short, demands the repatriation of national cultural patrimony “wrongly” located in universal collections.

The most famous repatriation claims demand the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria and the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, all from the collections of the British Museum. The underlying argument is that these objects are the cultural patrimony of, and belong to, the people of Greece, Nigeria and Egypt respectively; they are vital to their national identity and should, therefore, be returned to them. As long as the objects remain at the British Museum, they represent enduring symbols of colonial injustice. Repatriation, then, is an effort to regain possession of a nation’s cultural heritage and right the wrongs of colonialism. Moving stuff. Indeed, the perception of enduring colonial injustice, in the loss of cultural patrimony located in universal collections far away, deeply and emotively influences this debate.

The internationalist perspective contests the legitimacy of national ownership of cultural heritage. Particularly (and convincingly) refuted is the claim to objects of antiquity as part of the cultural patrimony of modern nation-states i.e. the concept of national cultural patrimony encompassing the products of past cultures and civilisations with which modern states share a common geographical area, and little else. Can the products of a culture that predates the establishment of a modern nation-state be legitimately claimed as its exclusive property, vital to its national identity? The Rosetta Stone, for instance, has oft been described as “the icon of Egyptian identity” but is this justifiable, particularly given the divergence between modern Egypt’s predominantly Arab-Muslim culture and that of the Ancient Egyptians?

The Stone’s continued presence in the British Museum has been declared a mark of shame for Britain. However, demands to redress colonial wrongdoing through the repatriation of cultural property overlook the undeniably different circumstances within which it was obtained, and ignore a long history of imperialism accompanied by the looting of defeated cultures… whilst not denying the often-dark history of colonialism, with respect to repatriation of cultural property from universal museums, the fundamental question is how far back are we to look in attempting to redress the wrongs of history, as they are perceived today?

Equally fallible is the claim to more recent cultural products as national cultural patrimony, in light of the fact that art and culture are arguably often devoid of nationality. Does a work of art created by an individual of particular nationality automatically become the possession of that nation, part of its cultural patrimony and vital to its identity, with its export and movement unacceptable? What if the artist had travelled and lived all over the world, absorbing diverse cultural influences into his work? Innumerable questions such as these force us to reconsider the widespread notion of national ownership of cultural heritage, particularly in an increasingly globalized world. By extension, the claim that certain people, on account of their nationality, have greater right to access the same is equally problematic. What then of the harsh laws restricting the legal trade and movement of cultural property? (I underline here that this argument is concerned only with legal trade – and both recognise and support efforts by governments and international bodies to curb the growing illegal trade in cultural objects.)

The internationalist argument against the concept of national ownership is convincingly linked to the preservation of cultural heritage. Proponents stress the manner in which the construction of national identity and culture often involves the denial of cultures, past and present, which do not conform to national interests, and the direct and dangerous impact this has had on the preservation of cultural heritage. The destruction of pre-Islamic art in Afghanistan by the Taliban is an obvious example of the danger in vesting all rights to the ownership and protection of cultural heritage with a temporal national government, and it is just one of many.

National laws and international conventions restricting current and future trade in cultural property have also been justly criticised for placing considerations of ownership above those of preservation. By denying even licit trade in cultural property, such laws encourage the hoarding of cultural objects, which, in source countries with limited resources, is often detrimental to their preservation and care. Equally, this threatens the preservation and advancement of knowledge associated with cultural heritage. Instead, the internationalist perspective prudently seeks the protection of the world’s cultural heritage on the basis of “trusteeship” or “stewardship” rather than “ownership”.

Fundamental to this position is the unique educational value of encyclopaedic collections. By preserving and displaying objects whose origins lie across the world and in different time periods, universal museums provide access to the great diversity of the world’s artistic and cultural production. Through such cross-cultural engagement, it is argued, universal museums enable visitors to comprehend a dynamic, differently ordered world with diverse cultures that have, however, always been connected, and influenced each other in countless ways. The resulting appreciation of difference yet connectedness is considered particularly vital in a contemporary world connected as never before, but increasingly divided in political, ideological and cultural conflict.

Critical to this educational mission is the ability of universal museums to reach a global audience, both on site and online. This educational potential was recently exhibited in the British Museum’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, broadcast to listeners across the world by the BBC. Taking this quintessential encyclopaedic collection far beyond its walls, the programme narrated two million years of human history using 100 objects to highlight lesser known stories and connections between peoples and places, and was widely commended for its presentation of a more accurate version of history. In the potential of universal museums to inspire new thinking, and the redefinition of conventional histories and accepted ideas of “other” cultures, lies their greatest worth; such is the promise of universal museums.

The debate on the value of universal museums is also concerned with the interpretation and representation of the meaning of cultural heritage. Indeed the ability of these museums to represent a “universalist” perspective is questioned, with the very validity of the universal museum – with its roots in Enlightenment ideals promoting the modern, the national, and the imperial, in a post-modern, post-colonial world – refuted . A more moderate opinion, upholding the unique potential of encyclopaedic collections to foster universal understanding, argues that this remains unrealised as the museums focus primarily on refuting repatriation claims. In doing so, they present an interpretation of objects and their histories that is weighted in favour of Western values and ideas. These are worthy critiques and it is vital to consider whether claims to universality by museums, which by their location, contexts and histories are also leading “national” museums, subject to national laws and interests, can be achieved in practice.

It could alternatively be suggested that the museums’ very redefinition of a universal purpose, premised on the continuous reinterpretation of the past for all people, is a significant attempt to do just this. With reference to the British Museum, the target of the above critiques, we might consider its extensive efforts to reinterpret its collections and provide access to the world’s heritage to people everywhere, through programmes like the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ and travelling, collaborative exhibitions with shared curatorial control, as some evidence of the credibility of its universal ambitions. Indeed, the challenges of “authentic” representation face all museums, universal or otherwise, highlighting the need for constant reinterpretation of their collections and purposes but not the complete disavowal of their utility. It may be equally prudent to question whether a blanket acceptance of national ownership of cultural heritage, reinforced by nationalist interpretations of the past, is more accurate or beneficial.

Finally, the movement for repatriation and restriction is underscored by the conviction that an object is best understood in its original context. This argument has, for instance, been used to support the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles to the New Acropolis Museum, where, it is argued, they would be better understood in proximity to their original context than in their de-contextualised display at the British Museum . The significance of original or archaeological context in highlighting meaning is not in question. However, it is important to recognise the multiplicity of meaning – aesthetic, social, historical – embodied in an object, particularly those that have long been de-contextualised and traversed great distances, like the Marbles. The histories, uses and trajectories of objects give them meaning. There is merit then in the position that display within an encyclopaedic collection at the British Museum highlights equally important meanings, and a more complete history, of the Marbles.

I conclude, then, by emphasising the potential of universal collections in building bridges between people, by fostering mutual respect and understanding through the continuous reinterpretation of the past as we know it. Whilst this may remain an ideal at present, I believe it is a goal worth fighting for, particularly in the increasingly connected and conflicted world in which we live.

Useful sources:

Cuno, J. (ed) (2009) The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Cuno, J. (2008) Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over our Ancient Heritage. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Flynn, T. (n.d.) The Universal Museum: a Valid Model for the 21st Century? [online] unpublished article. available from <> [18 September 2011]

ICOM News [online] no.1. available from <> [18 September 2011]

MacGregor, N. (2004) ‘The whole world in our hands’. The Guardian [online] 24 July 2004. available from <; [18 September 2011]

Milmo, C. (2009) ‘The Big Question: What is the Rosetta Stone, and should Britain return it to Egypt?’. The Independent [online] 9 December. available from <> [18 September 2011]

O’Neill, M. (2004) ‘Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?’ museum and society 2 (3), 190-202

Opoku, K. (2008) ‘Benin to Chicago: in the universal museum’. Modern Ghana [online] 17 May 2008. available from <> [18 September 2011]

BBC’s A History of the World is available from


2 thoughts on “In favour of a ‘universal’ heritage

  1. hey.. it really is wonderful to see this piece. it’s brought together so many complex debates around repatriation, heritage and museumization that are of such contemporary relevance. if you’ll permit, i have a few bones of contention to offer.

    firstly, let me get this one little itch out of the way – to my mind, the British Museum [unlike many others of similar legacy] is singularly unique and notorious both with regard to international museum laws and acts, and in relation to this, its claims to retain many collections. this is unlike many other nation-states and their museums [national museums or otherwise] which especially in the case of the Elgin marbles have been greatly forthcoming in their support towards its repatriation…

    while you are right in that the de-contextualized and travelling histories of cultural objects such as the marbles do offer multiple meanings, histories and contexts, i wonder if it is possible at all to attain a ‘complete history’ of the marbles, regardless of their location. i would think that it is in this desire for ‘complete’ness in the context of discourses of museumization and heritage that one often overlooks the fact that these discourses are intrinsically tied to the idea of the ‘modern nation’, in its constitution of a public. [let us not forget that the Louvre was a private collection thrown open to the public following the French Revolution in its attempt at ‘making-bourgeois’ of its public].

    the discourse of heritage is very much part of the project of modernity, although it often is posited as contradictory. the question of cultural heritage repatriation arises, as you pointed out, in most post-colonial and post-imperial contexts precisely because these ‘universal’ museums emerged under contexts of imperialism and colonialism. and let us not forget also, that the discourse of modernity is very much nationalist; nationalist of the kind that claims universal validity. in fact, the claim for ‘universality’ has conventionally been the rubric within which colonialism, imperialism, and discourses such as orientalism functioned.

    can one put aside ‘particular’ claims to heritage in favour of the condition of modern nation-states? this then shifts the debate to one of ‘better preservation’, which, needless to state, is grossly flawed. [i refer here to your example of Egypt]. and it is not a matter of reversing a dark imperial or colonial past and their wrong doings, but of recognizing multiple and particular claims of heritage. [and yes, as much as I’m against ‘nationalist’ claims, these nation-states, in the context of the ‘universal’ claims made under imperialism and colonialism do become ‘particular’]. the travesty of heritage discourses is that the universal rubric of heritage tends to overlook the particular demands of heritage; in short, it claims itself to be the sole bearer of heritage, denying others a similar claim. and when the British Museum today claims universality of cultural heritage, it is doing so from a nation-state perspective, not some imperial or universal one.

    if the question of museums and heritage is not seen within the paradigm of nation-states, and in the context of repatriation within postcolonial and postimperial conditions, it would be very easy to make a claim for universal heritage.

    anyway, let me wrap up by sharing my experiences of when i visited the British Museum. it shattered me to the very core to see how it obstinately denied its imperial and colonial past under the shroud of universal cultural heritage. i’m no big fan of nationalist demands for repatriation. but i’m equally if not more sickened by the violence of denial of histories of imperialism and colonialism, of which the British Museum stands in glorious testimony to.

    this is an issue that cannot be ‘resolved’ through accommodations or name-changing, or even repatriation; but how long can we deny the legitimacy of particular demands, especially if the ‘particularity’ of those positions emerged precisely through the setting up of a ‘universal’.

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