In 1802, a marble procession of horses, humans and gods chiseled and sawed the pediments where they had long watched over Athens, and marched overland to the port of Piraeus to begin a forced odyssey from which they did not have not yet returned. In Alexandria, around the same time, a slab of igneous rock engraved with Greeks and hieroglyphs was loaded onto a 40-gun ship and designed to brave the waves of the Mediterranean. Later, a colossal pair of winged lions floated on rafts down the Tigris to Baghdad and eventually left the Persian Gulf, rounded the African Cape and headed for the Atlantic. In 1868, a giant head with thick eyebrows undertook an even longer journey, from Polynesia to London, to converge with these other ancient travelers inside a single building called the British Museum.
When the British Museum opened its doors to the public in 1759, it was a novelty to the world. Museology specialists have since given it a name: an “encyclopedic museum,” an institution that attempts to tell the entire history of human culture through a single collection of objects. The British idea gained ground. After the fall of the Bastille, the Jacobins transformed the royal palace of the Louvre into a museum with equally broad objectives. In the 19th and 20th centuries, American industrialists filled the Met and the Getty with encyclopedic collections.
The philosopher Ivan Gaskell described the entry of an object into these collections as a “secular consecration”, which distinguishes it from all other things in the world. But regardless of how these items were enshrined, many of them were acquired in improper ways – through extortion, for example, or through shady deals with grave robbers. Some are imperial remains, spiritual successors of the obelisks brought out of Cairo and Karnak and erected in the squares of Rome. Over the past few decades, museum directors have been asked probing questions about the legitimacy of these deals and whether they should be reversed.
It is not easy to go back on acquiring an ancient artifact. The original parties are long dead. Ancestry claims are rarely straightforward. Curators fear entrusting a priceless object to perhaps poor conservation standards, or into the private collection of a greedy royal family. They fear it could disappear completely during an invasion or civil war. Despite these complexities, there is no doubt that at least a few, and perhaps many objects in encyclopedic museums should be returned to their original communities or rightful successors. What’s happening After was the forced migration of the stone canceled? Could there be a new encyclopedic museum, and if so, what should it look like?
I asked Erich Hatala Matthes, a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College who has written extensively on cultural heritage, to imagine that humanity’s most precious cultural objects have all been returned to the nation states where they been manufactured. In this scenario, there would still be national museums, perhaps modeled on the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City or the new Grand Egyptian Museum outside Cairo, where curators would display artifacts in the context of their landscapes original. But the encyclopedic museum as we know it would disappear. What, if anything, would be lost?
Matthes groaned. A world where objects were sequestered in monocultural museums seemed impoverished to him. For one thing, cultures are not easily carved into distinct, bounded sets, he said. They are connected and museums are well placed to demonstrate these connections. At the British Museum, you can surround a Ming Dynasty porcelain vase, admire its white and blue brilliance from every angle, and then, a few rooms away, you can see how it inspired a Delftware plate from Amsterdam of the 17th century. .
These connections can add up to something bigger. The philosopher David Carrier has argued that museums offer visitors a kind of mystical experience. By encountering the physical manifestations of different cultures, a person’s self-concept can extend into the deep past, forming new memories that are shared, in some sense, with people who lived long ago. In an encyclopedic museum, these expansions of self and memory can extend across the entirety of interconnected human history. Classicist Mary Beard, trustee of the British Museum, told me that an encyclopedic museum is a way for the world to represent itself. has himself.
In a world where repatriations were the norm, how could a museum still offer this experience? Any reconstituted encyclopedic museum should constitute its collection by consent. I imagine an international trust, whose collections would be composed only of objects that have been freely lent by the nations of the world. Just as UNESCO World Heritage site designations are highly coveted and often lobbied for, national governments might eventually want their artifacts included in an international museum of this type, especially if it is the alone to tell the story of humanity on such a grand scale.
This arrangement could help the trust avoid some of the presentation errors made by Western museums in the past. Members of the Native American Zuni tribe carved elongated figures from lightning-struck pine trees and placed them some distance from their pueblos, where, according to custom, they slowly disintegrated in the sun, wind and rain. Matthes told me that tribal elders were dismayed to find them intact and on permanent display in many Western museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. In an international encyclopedic museum, the nations that provide artifacts could set the terms of their display. Even then, Beard said, we should be careful not to impose on the world the Western model of the museum, which could itself be a kind of imperialism.
I asked Nana Oforiatta Ayim, a Ghanaian art historian and repatriation advocate, if she could imagine an encyclopedic museum reconstituted by consent. “One hundred percent,” Ayim said, but only if the very idea of an encyclopedic museum had been taken apart and put back together according to new principles. “Like many of these museums, the British Museum was created as an ethnographic museum to study the other,” she said. “The West was the center and the subject, and everyone was an object. Once we start to take different approaches to objects and different approaches to heritage, we will truly start to have an encyclopedic museum.
But where should such a museum be located? A museum that aims to tell the story of all humanity makes its case by opening its galleries to as many of humanity as possible. In 2002, the directors of the Louvre, the Met and 16 other institutions made precisely this argument in a joint statement this justified their continued possession of objects acquired “in earlier times,” when “different sensibilities and values” reigned. “Universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be as deeply rooted today,” they asserted, if the objects in their collections had not been made “widely accessible to an international public.” As Hartwig Fischer, until recently director of the British Museum, said, his institution was “a museum of the world, for the world”.
Encyclopedic museums are more accessible than the royal collections that preceded them, but they are certainly not accessible to the entire world. As many critics have pointed out, they are virtually all located in Western cities, in countries that are home to less than a tenth of the world’s population. But existing encyclopedic museums display less than 5 percent of their collections; they have more than enough artifacts to tell an encyclopedic story about humanity several times over. Those of the future could be spread over several sites, with at least one on each continent. Shanghai, Mumbai and Jakarta would be excellent candidates as host cities. Just like Lagos, Kinshasa and São Paulo, transit hubs in the countries of the South where at least 100 million people live within a day’s journey by train.
Other, less tangible goods could be redistributed within the framework of this system. When Chile agreed to host some of the largest and most sophisticated observatories on the planet on the high plains of the Atacama Desert, its government negotiated 10 percent of each instrument’s “telescope time” for local astronomers . As a result, the country’s astronomers have published numerous papers in recent decades. Wherever a new encyclopedic museum establishes its outposts, local curators will reap similar benefits. They would no longer need to travel around the world to work in museums with the largest collections.
In the scenario I describe, the previous generation of encyclopedic museums – in London, Paris and New York, for example – could adapt to play a role. Their curators have accumulated expertise that would be useful to an international institution like the one I imagine. Their buildings could even serve as European and North American outposts. This evolutionary change could be as ennobling as the transition of the Louvre from a palace to a place of public education. “We’re in a real disaster if encyclopedic museums can’t be part of the solution,” Beard told me.
This vision is, at best, very distant; negotiations for the repatriation of a single artifact can sometimes take decades. In the meantime, these institutions will make thousands of decisions. The British Museum has a major one coming. On August 26, Fischer, its former director, resigned from his position, citing his lack of attention to a light-fingered conservative who had allegedly stole thousands objects from the museum, selling some of them on eBay. Critics in China, Nigeria and Greece pounced, pointing out that the museum had often cited its superior security as a reason for keeping its precious artifacts. Its administrators will soon appoint a new director to get the museum out of this scandal. Their choice will give us an indication of whether they are satisfied with the encyclopedic museum as it exists today, or whether they are beginning to move toward a museum that is truly of and for the world.