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Update on the Declaration of the Universal Museum

In “The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?“ published in 2004, art historian Tom Flynn notes that since the declaration was issued, the question of the’universal museum’ has been subjected to renewed scrutiny, widely debated at industry conferences and in the media. As far as can be established, however, it is yet to receive a formal critical response from the International Council of Museums (ICOM), from the UK Museums Association (MA), or from any other national or international museum body.

“One notable aspect of the recent declaration was its implicit assumption that an idea born during the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment can be reconciled with more recent scholarship in fields such as postmodernism, post-colonial theory, and the so-called ‘new museology’ in order to function as a viable philosophical framework for the world’s museums in the future. Whether the Enlightenment model of the universal museum currently being promoted by some museum professionals is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the competing semantic claims made on today’s museums by diverse communities and interest groups remains a matter of conjecture. What seems certain is that the increasingly combative postures adopted by a number of European and North American museum directors can only exacerbate the problem, although this is how things are currently developing.”

Selinunte, Sicily (More)

Flynn also points out that the book of essays edited by director of the Art Institute of Chicago James Cuno (“Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust”, Princeton University Press, 2004), “emphasises an ever-deepening rift within the international community.” He continues, “Conscious of museums being pulled in a number of irreconcilable directions, Cuno invited a select group of colleagues to express their personal vision for the future of art museums and how they might honour the public trust. The consensus that emerged in the book was above all a desire to revive the museum as a sanctuary of absorption and repose, a still point in a turning world.”

“For many of Cuno’s colleagues, their institutions took on a healing role following the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Hence the urgent need, according to some of the book’s contributors, to protect museums from “theorists” disseminating malevolent doctrines of relativism and fundamentalism, which apparently threaten that therapeutic function. A consistent subtext throughout the book is that museums are imperilled by a creeping postmodern liberalism whose proponents are in thrall to nebulous notions of globalisation and social inclusion and actively hostile to traditional criteria of quality or value. As James N. Wood, former director of the Art Institute of Chicago, puts it, “These writers, many of them French, found particularly fertile ground in the United States, where the ideals of democracy are more freely applied to the artistic realm and aesthetic elitism grates against egalitarian convictions.”

Flynn points out that those criticising the Declaration “argue for the construction of a more internationalist, collaborative approach that restores the importance and value of context to an object’s meaning and identity.

“Few critics of the universal museum wish to see major collections dispersed or are seeking the return of all cultural objects to their countries of origin. Such aims would be unnecessary and damaging and this perhaps explains why conservative museum directors persist in falsely ascribing those aims to museum reformists. Certain cases do, however, demand more expansive consideration for the manifold cultural benefits that would ensue. The Parthenon Marbles remains the outstanding instance.”

Flynn observes, “Throughout 2003, in a series of well-orchestrated anniversary celebrations, exhibitions, and media events, the British Museum sought subtly to reinforce its original eighteenth-century Enlightenment identity as a’universal museum’ – a panoptic chamber within which the finest achievements of world civilisation might be surveyed as a grand historical narrative. Neil MacGregor’s centralising vision involved gathering those parts of the museum’s collections then dispersed around London in order to reunite them with the main collection, much of which, as the New York Times helpfully pointed out, had been collected during the glory days of the British Empire. “We’ll be back to 1753,” said MacGregor, “with the whole world under one roof.”

“The British Museum’s recent energetic revival of its Enlightenment origins as a universal museum can be interpreted not only as an elaborate act of birthday self-congratulation, but also as a coordinated attempt to counter increasingly frequent claims for the repatriation of key objects in its collections.”

In a footnote to the presentation Flynn observes, “Whether the signatories to the declaration considered how their joint utterance might be received by the international cultural community, or the extent to which it might polarise museum professionals remains unclear. However, it is hard to see how a potentially divisive and provocative policy document could have been constructed with such scant disregard for the broader museum community, which was not consulted.”


Today’s average museumgoer is a modern day flâneur, strolling rather aimlessly through the corridors, partaking of the visual pleasures in a random way, looking at objects, looking at other people, looking at other people looking at other objects, perhaps pausing occasionally to marvel at something that asserts its individuality from within the panoply arrayed before him. Tom Flynn, 2004


Flynn concludes, “Today, as successive polls demonstrate, the most profound challenges to the more anachronistic aspects of the museum’s inheritance come not from theorists or the academies, but from the museum’s core constituency – its visitors, its public. Whether the’universal museum’ will succeed in honourably discharging the public trust on the critical issues remains the great unanswered question facing the profession.”

Flynn’s article has some very interesting comments on related matters. Here are some excerpts:

“[The] ideal visitor, endowed with a sufficiently sophisticated visual awareness to grasp the finer nuances of formal stylistic development across cultures, is a myth propagated by museum curators out of touch with their audience. In fact, the evidence would suggest that such art historical subtleties are beyond the average visitor. As Louvre Director Henri Loyrette recently told a conference at the British Museum, “Most of our displays mean nothing to people.” Indeed, a survey of Louvre visitors revealed that 67% of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period.

“Today’s average museumgoer is a modern day flâneur, strolling rather aimlessly through the corridors, partaking of the visual pleasures in a random way, looking at objects, looking at other people, looking at other people looking at other objects, perhaps pausing occasionally to marvel at something that asserts its individuality from within the panoply arrayed before him. To state it in this way is not to patronise the visitor, but to acknowledge the nature of the modern museum experience. Moreover, while the majority of today’s museum visitors may not have grasped the dramatic changes in the representation of the human body that marked the transition from the Archaic to the Classical in Greek sculpture, the majority has nevertheless registered the equally dramatic shift from a colonial to a post-colonial world. Hence the unequivocal majority vote for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece every time a poll is undertaken. Museum visitors, if not museum directors, seem to have benefited from the true legacy of the Enlightenment although clearly on this issue the opinion of what James N. Wood describes as the “unindoctrinated public” matters little to the museum.”


Gareth Binns of the British Museum in an education conference presentation of June 2006 asserted that ‘Universal Museums’ are agents in the development of culture, creating knowledge through the continuous process of reinterpretation. He continued, “At the British Museum, we have reaffirmed our founding principles of the museum as a museum of the world for the world; a collection held for the benefit of all the world, present and future, free of charge; a forum where many different cultural perspectives can be expressed; a place to embrace the whole world and to increase understanding of the links between and influences across different societies; a place where the UK’s different communities can explore their inheritances; a place where people can address questions on contemporary politics, religious diversity and international relations.”


In Museum Management and Curatorship (Vol 21(2), 117-127) for June 2006, Neil G.W. Curtis of the Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, considers the Declaration and its contribution to the debate about repatriation and notes “the implications of its emphasis on art, the heritage of museums and objects, along with its focus on the sculpture of ancient Greece and the enlightenment origin of museums such as the British Museum.” He argues that “it reveals an essentialist approach that derives from a particular Western perspective, rather than being truly’universal” and points to this being a problem similar to many of the arguments about repatriation. Curtis shows that repatriation can “result in an increase in knowledge and understanding, rather than its destruction, and so meets the declared aim of the Declaration to’foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation'”


Bernice Murphy (currently National Director, Museums Australia and Chair of the ICOM Ethics Committee, former Vice-President of ICOM (1998-2004) wrote of the controversy surrounding the illegal removal of cultural items from Italy and their sale to the Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in a recent issue of Museums National (published by Museums Australia). The article, entitled “Museums in court: ethical perspectives on collections, illicit traffic and ownership of cultural property”, had a number of things to say relevant to the basis of the Universal Museum Declaration.

“In the last twelve months, public awareness of the provenance of objects entering some of the world’s most prestigious museum collections has been galvanised by events surrounding the Italian state’s legal actions against looting of classical antiquities from its historic archaeological sites. This first caught public attention when Roman prosecutors opened proceedings last year against the J Paul Getty Museum, foreshadowing similar actions against a number of other high-profiled museums and private collectors (often themselves institutional donors) in the United States.

“The LA Times’ unremitting investigations eventually compelled a series of high-profiled departures: of curator Marion True; of a Getty trustee – a major collector-donor and, more problematically, vendor of antiquities to the museum, and (True’s undoing) source of a housing loan on a Greek villa to the antiquities curator who, at the same time, processed gifts and purchases from the trustee’s and husband’s private collection). Following a board investigative committee’s review, the CEO-Executive President resigned in February 2006. Most recently, the Getty Trust’s Chairman has stepped down. The remaining board, despite presiding over a US $7 billion endowment [according to LA Times reporter Christopher Knight,’the largest art philanthropy in the United States’], has only narrowly retained the institution’s non-profit status against state and federal investigations for profligacy and betrayal of public trust, on which charitable foundations depend for their privileged tax position.

“The forensic disclosure of the Getty’s failure in governance, professional and ethical standards will provide an enduring case-study of how a distinguished cultural institution can let its ethical consciousness lapse at all significant levels of its operations, overriding the integrity of beleaguered staff unable to prevent the dissolution of probity controls. It also reveals how public scrutiny may eventually bring an institution to account, with resignations at all key professional and governance levels being the price for misconduct.

“Meanwhile the Italian state’s ongoing actions turned attention to other museums and high-profiled directors in the United States, and the world’s media focus shifted beyond the Getty. Since November 2005, a spotlight has been turned on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the negotiations taken up in Rome by the Met’s Director, Philippe de Montebello”¦

“Most famous of the Met’s controversial acquisitions was the superlative 6th century BC ‘Euphronios krater’, a banquet wine-mixing bowl acquired in 1972 from dealer Robert Hecht (currently a co-defendant in the trial of Marion True). One of the finest Attic vases in any museum, delicately painted with Homeric scenes and signed by the most famous Greek vase-painter of the age, this pivotal work in the museum’s collection had been queried publicly since 1973 as to its provenance.” Former Met Director Thomas Hoving had earlier said he believed antiquities dealer Robert Hecht , had nefariously obtained the vase, then sold it to the Met. The Euphronios krater became a focal point in the Italian quest to quarry the Metropolitan over acquisitions believed to have been looted from Etruscan tombs near Rome and a Sicilian site.

Murphy continued, “There has been a long-standing disciplinary contest, in fact, between archaeologists and art museum curators undergirding the antiquities cases. The concerns of archaeologists in America are clearly stated.”

Murphy quotes Patty Gerstenblith, law professor and Chair of Archaeological Institute of America’s Cultural Legislation and Policy Committee in an Archaeological Institute of America press release:

“The need for museums to adopt acquisition policies that recognize the connection between their acquisitions and the problems of looting of archaeological sites is pressing. Sites are a non-renewable cultural resource. The looting of archaeological sites damages the heritage of both the country where the sites are located and the heritage of everyone.”

Murphy continued, “Even Philippe de Montebello, flamboyant in his hauteur towards archaeology – ‘the difference between a looter and an archaeologist is that an archaeologist keeps better records’ – remains unrepentant in his emphasis on prized objects versus sites. On the Euphronios vase:’How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole”¦it came out of? “¦Everything is on the vase.’

De Montebello believes that international cultural property laws have created a tighter situation which means that the amount of archaeological material acquired by American museums will become a trickle.

In early August the Italian Government announced that agreement had been reached with the Getty authorities. As a result civil suits against Marion True will be withdrawn. True still faces criminal charges.

In “Artwork returned, a partnership gained” (LA Times August 2, 2007), Christopher Knight writes, “The Getty will return a fine Aphrodite and other pieces to Italy, but in so doing gains a promised influx of loans of classical works. The Villa could benefit.

“The most dramatic outcome of Wednesday’s eagerly anticipated news of a deal between Italy and the Getty Museum over looted antiquities concerned the fate of Aphrodite. The monumental 5th century BC goddess, believed by many to be from the ancient Greek city of Morgantina on the island of Sicily, is easily among the greatest ancient sculptures in an American museum collection. Now it is among 40 works the Getty has agreed to return to Italy.

“The logjam in negotiations was broken when Italy agreed to take its demand for the 4th to 2nd century BC “Victorious Youth,” also known as the Getty Bronze, off the table. Both sides have postponed resolution of that issue until Italy finishes a new criminal investigation of it.

“Less dramatic – but potentially more far-reaching – is another aspect of the deal. Italy announced it would loan important works of ancient art to the beautifully refurbished Getty Villa, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the edge of Malibu. Collection sharing among art museums is an idea whose appeal has been growing. Agreements like this will only accelerate the interest.”


A discussion at UNESCO chaired by Deputy Director for Culture, François Rivière, took place in early February this year. It was attended by Neil Macgregor of the British Museum as well as directors of the Louvre, the Hermitage, the National Museum of the American Indian, and others including Alain Godonou, Director of the Ecole du patrimoine africain in Benin and Bernice Murphy from Australia. A French scholar, Mary Stevens, blogged her summary of the discussions. She noted four points about what’encyclopedic’ or’universal’ museums should be doing (and how UNESCO could help):

1. It is the duty of these museums to ensure their objects travel as widely as possible. Moreover, modern conservation techniques make this far more viable than in used to be. This allows these museums to engage in real cultural dialogue by stimulating unprecedented encounters.

2. Museums need to look at who chooses what travels i.e. they need to allow representatives from the borrowing countries to make their own selections. He illustrated this with an example of a visit of Kenyan curators to the British Museum; they spent a year in the collections, using items not just from Kenya but also to enable them to position Kenya in a broader narrative about cultural exchange around the Indian Ocean. We’ve come a long way from the days when Godonou was training as a curator in Paris and was only allowed to handle copies. World museums should, in MacGregor’s view, become libraries, whose contents are open to interpretation by all sorts of people.

3. They must all work together to address the crisis in Iraq. In addition to contributing its expertise the British Museum has been using its Mesopotamian collections to highlight the plight of the museum of Baghdad. UNESCO has as major role to play here too.

4. The division between’source’ and’host’ countries or communities is breaking down in the great world cities. There are no collections in the British Museum for which there is not also a corresponding population in London. Every exhibition that the museum stages is also, in some sense, a local exhibition, about local people and their cultural heritage.

It can be noted that little progress has been made by those advocating the return (now termed the re-unification) of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum. Indeed, the Museum appears to have strengthened its resolve. Meanwhile the building of the new Acropolis Museum continues with an opening expected 2008. Cultural journalist Lee Rosenbaum in her blog on July 27, 2007 entitled, “Parthenon Marbles: A Veiled Reproach from the New Acropolis Museum” reports on a recent slide presentation in New York of the current appearance of the new museum and renderings of what it will look like when it opens. Dimitris Pandermalis, president of the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, revealed a new approach to the problem of the missing marbles. “Instead of an empty space, the slide showed an image of one of the Greek-owned marbles chockablock with a copy of the British-owned slab that would have originally been beside it on the façade of the Parthenon. Together, they completed the relief of a horse. So that there would be no confusion between the original and the copy, the latter was veiled by a scrim, making it appear like a “ghost,” as Pandermalis put it.”

Tom Flynn has an interesting article on the Parthenon sculptures and the new Acropolis Museum; his article on the Declaration also contains substantial commentary on the sculptures.