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Raana Mohyee
Professor Ann Matchette
14 September 2015
Original Context and the Universal Museum: A Critical Review of the British Museum
In the last few decades the British Museum has faced a number of demands for the
repatriation of certain iconic artifacts, including those of Greece for the return of the Parthenon
Marbles and those of Nigeria for the return of the Benin bronzes. Many prestigious names in the
museum world faced similar claims and criticism, prompting them to ban together under the
leadership of the British Museum to publish the Declaration on the Importance and Value of
Universal Museums in 2002. In this declaration, the museums put forth a number of principles
in defense of their purpose and role in the art world and, more specifically, why they would be
justified in rejecting such repatriation claims as those previously mentioned. The museums
emphasized two ideas in particular; first, they argued that the original context of an artifact is
overemphasized, and that museums provide a valid and important context for those artifacts.
Second, they stress the cultural importance of the universal museum, an apolitical, neutral
museum that displays the art of the world, for the world, as the world perceives it. These two
claims share a latent connection in which the universality of the museum depends upon the
objectivity and completeness of the context that the museum provides for a given artifact.
In the declaration published, the British Museum claimed that it is their goal as an
institution to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation (Declaration 1).
This verbiage is reminiscent of the American scholar Stephen Greenblatts treatises on the
philosophy of New Historicism. Greenblatt defines New Historicism as an assessment of a work

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of arts historical background as an interaction between the past and present, a context in which a
works meaning should be analyzed. Though Greenblatt originally developed this approach for
the analysis and evaluation of literary texts, he suggests in his book Exhibiting Cultures: The
Poetics & Politics of Museum Display that, applied to art museums, the same approach would
reinforce the attempt to disclose the history of their appropriation and the circumstances in
which they come to be displayed, to restore the tangibility, the openness, the permeability of
boundaries that enabled the objects to come into being in the first place (Greenblatt 43).
Examined in light of Greenblatts projection, the British Museum succeeded in providing
detailed context for their display items, but in many ways, their exhibits lacked objectivity and
The Parthenon Gallery is clearly special to the British Museum. There are a couple of
rooms dedicated to ancient Greek artifacts, but this one room is dedicated almost exclusively to
the display of the Parthenon marbles. The room is long and rectangular with columns, a vaulted
ceiling, and detailing that echoes the architecture of the Parthenon itself. The marbles are even
arranged in a ring around the room as they would be in the Parthenon itselfexcept in the
British Museum they are situated at eye-level for the viewers sake. The first thing you see upon
entering the gallery is the acknowledgement of its donation to the museum by the Lord Duveen
of Millbank. Great detail goes into the description of each individual piece; where there is
uncertainty, the museum staff have enumerated the possibilities of that which could be depicted.
One plaque described the image of two women carrying a tapestry probably to the Temple of
Athena in the Panathenaic festival procession; alternatively, it could be a depiction of
tradeswomen to match the other marbles depictions. The museum knows enough to accurately
predict the possible explanations of that which the images and archives cannot elucidate. While

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these descriptions effectively communicate the content and context of many of the pieces in the
room, from the deliberate construction of the physical space to the detailed plaques by each
marble, the broader picture is underrepresented. To their discredit, the museum nowhere
acknowledges the controversial history of their possession of the marbles. Nowhere do they
acknowledge that the marbles were purchased as stolen goods nor the repatriation demands of
recent years. While many would not expect the museum to dwell on that which sheds them in
unfavorable light, the avoidance of this topic takes away from the universality and objectivity of
the gallerythe museum has failed to represent the history of the appropriation of the piece,
has only presented one perspective on the marbles history. This fails to meet Greenblatts
standards of universality, and, I daresay, most other standards as well.
Where the Parthenon gallery is mostly about the artifacts, the enlightenment gallery is
mostly about the context and history of the artifacts. The walls are lined with old sarcophagi,
bronze busts, ancient pottery, old, old books, and hundreds of other relics. But the museum only
provides context for a select few. The room is structure to chronologically map the progression
of intellectual pursuits during the Enlightenment era. As you walk the length of the room, you are
told of the rise of archeology, studies of the arts, classification processes, the study of religion,
and the influence of trade and discovery. Within each of these contexts, a few artifacts are
introduced that encapsulate the topic at hand. Many plaques with eloquent descriptions
accompany this display. This room tells the story of the Enlightenment from the perspective of
the main actors in the scene, the Europeans. Perhaps here the lopsided presentation of the history
of the artifacts can be forgiven; but just next to this gallery, you may find the Collecting the
World exhibit. This room is particularly controversial in terms of my analysis in that the very
purpose of the room addresses the practices of acquisition and therefore the historical contexts of

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many of the displays in the museum. But, again, the gallerys representation of the topic is
largely one-sided. The room presents brief biographies about famous collectors and their
collections throughout British history. In the biography of Sir Augustus Wallaston Franks, the
museum greatly emphasizes the benefits of the exploration of Africa, a part in which Franks took
during his collecting years. The museum addresses the time period, but it takes previous
knowledge and a skeptical mindset that what is termed exploration in this biography is the
exploration with the intent and practices of colonization that took place in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Franks biography conveniently glosses over this. To achieve their desired
status of universality, it is incumbent upon the British Museum to acknowledge the controversy I
their history in the gallery displays. By effectively presenting the parts of the story that favors
themselves, they reveal an insecurity of having erred in the pastsometimes greatlybut they
forget that misrepresentation of such errors will not garner forgiveness on the part of the rest of
the world.
I leave the consideration of the Africa galleries to another occasion. Though much may be
said about the Eurocentricity and incompleteness of such a displayas indeed it has been said
many times beforeto my point it is of particular interest to highlight the incomplete coverage
of that which the British Museum is expected to know well: European history. In the Europeancentered displays like the Parthenon gallery, the Enlightenment room, and the Collecting the
World exhibit, they have failed to attain universality. It cannot be reasonably expected then for
them to have represented a complete and objective context for their African artifacts. If the
British Museum cannot attain a reasonable degree of objectivity in their European-focused
galleries, they are far from achieving their self-professed status of universality.

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Works Cited
Greenblatt, Stephen. Resonance and Wonder. Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of
Museum Display. Ed. Ivan Karp, Steven D. Lavine.Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian,
1991. Web.
Abungu, George, Peter-Klaus Schuster. Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal
Museums with Commentary by Peter-Klaus Schuster and George Abungu. Committee
for Cultural Policy. Committee for Cultural Policy, n.d. Web. 14 September 2015.