The dream of a “universal” or “encyclopedic” museum was born centuries ago as a product of the Enlightenment. During the 1700s, in a burst of noblesse oblige, many art collections were moved from private drawing rooms into public spaces, where they theoretically could be appreciated by all. The grand institutions that were built over the next century to house them were established on the notion that access to the world’s art and artifacts would foster an enlightened, democratic culture — and, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that only institutions in the West could properly preserve, protect and study the world’s great wonders.
The Enlightenment led into the age of empire, and these new museums were quickly filled with plunder. Thomas Bruce (a.k.a. Lord Elgin) whisked sculptures from the Parthenon away to London. “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” landed in the Louvre. The “Benin Bronzes” were dispersed around the globe, including to the Met. Egypt’s Nefertiti bust was shipped off to Berlin.
At the time, many considered this kind of acquisition to be benign, even necessary, arguing that the museums would be suitable curators and custodians of the objects. That view is still invoked as the rationale to keep vast collections of antiquities in museum storerooms now. In 2002, more than a dozen leading museums, including the Louvre and the Met, signed on to a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” partly as a retort to Greece’s nagging claims for a return of the Parthenon marbles in London and to the growing criticism that these museums embodied a colonial view of culture that needed correcting.
“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,” the statement read. “To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors.”
But the theft of objects from the bowels of the British Museum put the lie to that threadbare view: If these institutions fail at the fundamental task of physically protecting the treasures they are supposedly preserving, how can they justify keeping things they themselves have taken from other societies?