An article critique – “Universal Museums, museum objects, and repatriation.”

The problem of repatriation is especially sharp in the modern globalized environment. There are different views on how museums should handle different cultural objects. The scientific community still argues about the most efficient ways of protecting different parties involved in the repatriation process. The article “Universal museums, museum objects and repatriation” was written while the author was keeping in mind different controversial views on repatriation. The problem of repatriation is quite complex because it involves historical, cultural, traditional, legal, and other aspects. In this article, Neil G. W. Curtis provides an overview of repatriation in the modern world and different solutions which can be used to satisfy as many parties as possible. This article has numerous interesting ideas and ideas that are quite subjective and not supported by any facts or objective information.


Nevertheless, this article is valuable in understanding tensions within the museum community related to the issue of repatriation. Due to numerous points of view and new tendencies to consider cultural objects as property, numerous people are disappointed and want to change the status quo. However, indigenous communities and supporters of repatriation ideas don’t have enough power and resources to oppose Western governments and universal museums.

Defining repatriation of museum objects

Before discussing the different points presented in the article, it is important to define the repatriation process. During the process of repatriation, museums return different objects from their collections to the place of their origin. Objects are returned to specific organizations, indigenous tribes, and museums that are culturally affiliated with these objects. The main problem of repatriation is to define who has the right to be a recipient of repatriated material. (Peers et al., 40). Therefore, during the repatriation process, conflicts may arise and directly influence relationships between countries or between the source community and the museum. Universalists think it is impossible to avoid such conflicts; therefore, according to the declaration, they put the interests of the international community over those of certain nations (Curtis, 2003). In other words, the modern tendency shows that most museums don’t support repatriation because they stick to universalist thinking.

Universalists believe it is important to make universal collections of objects from different cultures. They argue it will provide a more “insightful perspective on objects than would be possible if objects were only displayed with material from a museum’s locality” (Curtis, 2003). They think it is important to consider the interests of the international community rather than those of certain nations. This position is manifested in ‘Declaration on the importance and value of universal museums.’ The most popular museums with collections of objects of diverse origins have signed this declaration. The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has claimed that “This declaration is an unprecedented statement of common value and purpose issued by the directors of some of the world’s leading museums and galleries. The diminishing of collections such as these would be a great loss to the world’s cultural heritage” (Curtis, 2003). Claims made by MacGregor are quite doubtable because British Museum was established in 1953 by an act of Parliament as a national museum (Geismar, 2008). All these contradictions and double standards led to the fact that some people still think that concept of universal museums is unfair because these museums belong to the Western community, which is the most powerful nowadays. Therefore, this community can impose its interests and ignores the needs of people in the rest of the world. Curtis suggests that it is important to make more effective methods to satisfy the interests of the biggest museums and people interested in repatriation.

The article is focused not on justifying universalism but on claiming that it is important to reconsider the attitude toward repatriation. In the context of this article, repatriation is considered a method of restoring historical and cultural justice. According to Simpson, the repatriation of museum objects “is their return to the place of origin where the intangible aspects of heritage provide meaning and where the objects themselves may stimulate renewed activities of the intangible aspects of culture” (2009). Repatriation may lead to discoveries and a better understanding of different cultures at different times. Therefore, the author believes that the interests of source communities should be protected. Unfortunately, it is not possible because the interests of universal museums are ensured by money and power. Governments of developed countries protect the interests of universal museums because they have a role as sources of income. Therefore, as imagined by Curtis, effective repatriation can’t exist in modern society. Of course, it is still possible to repatriate things of low aesthetic and cultural value; however, museums won’t allow them to repatriate valuable and expensive things.

Sometimes, the situation may be quite absurd when a person cannot get remnants of his relative. Thus, one of the most widespread problems is the inability of museums to give clear definitions of human remains. Some human remains are considered artifacts, while others can be returned to source communities. Museums also regulate the process of repatriation of human remains. According to DCMS’s Code of Practice and Human Tissue Act 2004, source communities can repatriate human remains in the case if they are less than 100 years old and a genealogical descendant has made a claim for repatriation. In addition, source communities can claim for repatriation when the claim is made through the national government or agency.

Moreover, this claim must be supported by facts proving that repatriation is more important than the public interest (Flessas, 2008). Museums are doing everything to make the process of repatriation very difficult. Theoretically, in some cases, source communities can return their cultural objects; however, practically, it is difficult and almost impossible.

Arguments for repatriation

Curtis provides some interesting arguments that he considers very important in proving that the current state of things should be changed. For example, he argues that the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of universal museums” is focused on deceiving people. There is almost nothing about “heritage” in the declaration. However, there are a lot of words describing museum objects as art objects. Instead of considering objects as heritage important for source communities, objects are considered a part of global culture. Curtis claims that universal museums use certain double standards. For example, they claim that museum objects shouldn’t be considered commodities that can be bought or sold; however, at the same time, museums rely on property law to resist claims of repatriation (2006). Curtis deliberates that universal museums act in the national interests; therefore, they will oppose any attempt to make the repatriation process easy and convenient for source communities. These double standards empower universal museums and violate the rights of source communities. Thus, repatriation is the only method to restore justice.

These double standards exist because of the imperfection of the legal system. The value of art objects differs from that of material objects with no cultural value. Usually, value is defined by objective criteria such as the price of material, the sizes of objects, the complexity of the mechanism, and others. The value of art objects is purely subjective and is defined by people themselves. The value is formed by different factors, such as the artist’s popularity, the artwork’s popularity, and its history. Therefore, it is wrong to consider art objects only in the context of property law. Therefore, museum art objects have dual nature; they can be protected by property law and can’t be bought or sold. Curtis (2006) sees these double standards but doesn’t see the roots of these double standards. In addition, it is important to add that nowadays, everything is being transformed into a global form. However, the law is still national, and no effective laws could act globally and regulate the repatriation process. Consequently, ideas of universalism will become more and more widespread in the future, and such double standards will likely be eradicated.

It is impossible to deny that repatriation has numerous positive effects. According to Curtis (2006), repatriation “leads to increased knowledge and understanding rather than destruction. This can be manifested in numerous aspects. For example, repatriation reinforces political relations between countries. Therefore, repatriation is often used as a political instrument. There are numerous well-known cases when one country has returned objects of cultural heritage to another country. Moreover, in some cases, source communities often think that their rights are violated by museums holding objects of their cultural heritage. Therefore, their negative attitude towards museums can be projected onto the country. Repatriation may change relations between museums and source communities (Peers et al., 2003).

Moreover, museums may have some sacred objects, which are very important for source communities. These objects can’t be replaced with others because they are considered “artifacts” and are unique. Thus, such museum objects may be more important for source communities than museums. For example, some of the artifacts belonging to the Sugpiaq community were rediscovered in European museums. These artifacts were returned to Kodiak Island, where the Sugpiaq community has given them a “second life.” They translated these artifacts and acquired knowledge about the traditions of the past. This repatriation has positively affected their cultural identity and provided knowledge about their culture to the global community. (Silverman, 5)

Curtis claims that the declaration uses only one example of Ancient Greek culture to show its importance to the international community. People who signed the declaration agreed that Western culture was greatly influenced by Greek culture; therefore, it is wrong to consider Greek sculptures or other art objects as belonging to only one nation. However, the declaration forgot to mention other cultures, which had almost no impact on Western Culture. Curtis (2003) claims that universal museums try to justify their actions by persuading others that Greek culture is an integral part of international culture. Nevertheless, objects belonging to different cultures, alienated from European and American culture, are still exhibited in universal museums. UNESCO and International Council on Museums (ICOM) have criticized the declaration because it is too radical and violates the rights of indigenous people. Instead of trying to find a common language, museums use their power and influence. They became some kind of monopolies having universal rights for different art objects. Maurice Davies, Director of the UK’s Museums Association, has also criticized the declaration because it doesn’t solve repatriation problems (Curtis, 2003). It can be said that the radical style of declaration provokes indigenous people and is focused on creating even more problems instead of solving old ones (Abungu, 2008).

Another weak point of the declaration is that it uses the term “international public” but fails to clearly define it. Source communities also belong to the “international public.” In most cases, these source communities think that universal museums violate their right to acquire cultural heritage. Thus, it can’t be said that universal museums are unable to secure rights and protect the interests of the international public. Directors of universal museums believe that the international public consists predominantly of Europeans and Americans. According to Abungu (2008), it is a global misconception that the world is equal between Europe and America.

Curtis (2003) also claims that universal museums are focused on providing information about how art objects were collected instead of describing them in a cultural context. Therefore, the meanings of these objects can eventually change to contradictory, and people won’t be able to understand their real meaning. Therefore, the only way to preserve this real meaning is to give these objects cultural context by returning them to source communities. Nowadays, art objects in universal museums emphasize the power and greatness of Western culture instead of trying to give objects their real meanings. Universal museums are used to promote the Western world’s dominance and create “a monopoly of interpretation over other peoples’ cultures and colonization. (Abungu, 2008).

It is important to mention that, in some cases, powerful universal museums have unique artworks and cultural objects. For example, the most famous work of Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, is located in Louvre. However, Italians are not able to repatriate this painting. It may indicate that in most cases, countries with the right to claim for repatriation cannot repatriate objects. Of course, there were some attempts; however, most people did not support them. This can be explained by the fact that the repatriation process is too difficult and should involve governmental agencies or the government itself.

Finally, some indigenous people consider museums as establishments reminding them about the colonial past. Museums may harass their feelings, and it may be difficult for them to accept that things that belonged to their ancestors and were taken by white colonizers are now exhibited so everyone could see them. In other words, they experience long-lasting effects of post-colonial trauma. According to Simpson (2009), numerous studies have shown that repatriation has great positive effects on the lives of indigenous people. Indigenous people often lose cultural continuity, leading to stress and various unhealthy behaviors. For many people, it is impossible to assimilate because they respect their traditions and culture. The inability to find cultural identification may make them feel alienated from society. Therefore, the only is to provide source cultures with the ability to repatriate objects of great cultural value because it will reinforce their cultural identity.


Arguments against repatriation

Interestingly, Curtis uses certain irrelevant and subjective arguments focused on proving his point of view. For example, he claims that the museum acquired some of the museum objects because of war or in other illegal and inappropriate ways. Of course, it is impossible to deny that during wars, countries seek the possibility to get culturally important objects from enemy countries because they are of great cultural and material value. The position of the largest American and European museums is clearly stated in a declaration. According to it, “The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones” (Curtis, 2003).

Moreover, some of the objects are considered world heritage. Therefore, it is not important where exactly the object is stored; more important is how many people can see this object. Storing objects in different countries will make it difficult for people to see them conveniently. Tourists must travel huge distances and visit numerous museums instead of one place.

Numerous authors and literature support the ideas spread by Universal museums. They create new justifications and new categories, allowing denationalizing of cultural heritage. Universal museums have created a new category called cultural property. Geismar states, “ideas about world heritage, world museums and the benefits of a free market bolster the notion of cultural property as a global category” (2008). The idea of cultural property became widespread because of the book “Cosmopolitanism” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, who addressed the dilemma of repatriation. He claimed that the free market should regulate cultural property because it will distribute this property in the most objective form. Therefore, he claimed that it is wrong to consider art objects as the cultural heritage of certain nations. Opponents of the universal museum concept claim that this point of view puts source communities at a disadvantage. Source communities are often not integrated into the global market, therefore, don’t have any material and economic levers. This situation is unfair because museums act unethically and consider power as a main lever defining rights for cultural objects. Museums ignore ideological, national, and spiritual relationships to artifacts because they are driven by profit and the desire to collect (Geismar, 2008).

It is also important to note that globalization highly influences modern society. Nowadays, ideas of global culture, global economy, and global traditions are becoming increasingly popular. Ideas of cosmopolitism influence numerous people and believe society should be diverse because this is the only way to avoid numerous ethical and cultural conflicts. Geismar states, “Ideas about world heritage, world museums and the benefits of a free market bolster the notion of cultural property as a global category” (2008). Therefore, universal museums are places where people can observe diversity in art. As mentioned above, numerous people think it is wrong to claim that museum objects of high cultural and material value belong to a certain country or to a certain person. Such objects should belong to humanity, and the best way to ensure it is to store these objects in places with high security and the possibility of providing a place for thousands of people wanting to see these objects.

The concept of the Universal Museum is not that bad. However, it was introduced at the wrong time, when relations between countries were based on politics and power. (Abungu, 2008). There is a too huge gap between developed and developing countries. The colonial past influenced this gap, and now the domination of developed countries reminds developing countries about past times. Therefore, the concept of the Universal Museum has numerous opponents thinking that it serves for interests of the richest instead of protecting the cultural and national interests of source communities. It is almost impossible to find a solution suitable for everyone; therefore, Curtis provides four different solutions. The first solution is to adopt a “keeping place” approach, so museums can divide their collections into groups controlled by representatives of source communities. Unfortunately, this approach will lead to the restriction of information, which is unacceptable to the international community.

Moreover, this approach can be used only in museums close to the source community. According to Skrydstrup (2008), “Across the world, many of the best examples of repatriation practice have been where there is a strong link between a museum and a particular group of people living near the museum, such as in Australia, New Zealand and North America, ensuring that such bilateral relationships can flourish.”. The second option is to divide collections into different categories; however, it will also negatively influence the informational aspect of museum objects, posing a challenge to analyzing the meaning of the material. The third approach is “the universal museum” As mentioned, this approach gives full authority to the museum and ignores repatriation. Finally, it is possible to use a case-by-case approach by using different strategies in different situations.

Works cited:

Abungu, George O. “Universal Museums”: New Contestations, New Controversies.”” Mille Gabriel & Jens Dahl (red.): UTIMUT. Past Heritage–Future Partnerships. Discussions on Repatriation in the 21st Century. IWGIA og The Greenland National Museum & Archives, København (2008): 32-42.

Curtis, Neil GW. “Universal museums, museum objects and repatriation: The tangled stories of things.” Museum Management and Curatorship 21.2 (2006): 117-127.

Flessas, Tatiana. “The repatriation debate and the discourse of the commons. “Social & Legal Studies 17.3 (2008): 387-405.

Geismar, Haidy. “Cultural property, museums, and the Pacific: reframing the debates.” International Journal of Cultural Property 15.02 (2008): 109-122.

Peers, Laura Lynn and Alison Kay Brown. Museums and source communities: A Routledge reader. Psychology Press, 2003.

Silverman, R. Museum as Process: Translating Local and Global Knowledge. Taylor & Francis, 2014. Print.

Simpson, M. (2009). Museums and restorative justice: heritage, repatriation, and cultural education. Museum International61(1‐2), 121-129.

Skrydstrup, Martin. “Righting wrongs? Three rationales of repatriation and what anthropology might have to say about them.” UTIMUT (2008): 56.


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