Friday, June 6, 2008

"Terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art": the encyclopaedic museum comes of age


The Art Newspaper has just published an interesting piece by Kavita Singh (left), an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?).

In her article, Dr Singh describes extraordinary rumours circulating in 2007 prior to a planned exhibition of ancient Indian art from Bangladesh at the Musée Guimet, Paris. The museum was allegedly planning to under-insure the travelling objects, 'lose' them, pay the small insured sum and then clean up on a black market re-sale. In the event, a case of objects did go missing at Dhaka airport and the cargo-handlers confessed under torture and were prosecuted.

I can see a Hollywood script-writer reaching for his pen...

This is all very sensational, but what really interested me about Dr Singh's article was this paragraph:

The events and anxieties in Bangladesh tell us how Western museums are seen outside the west: as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums “build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding” would only provoke anger or derision.

Perhaps this partly explains the frosty reception given to James Cuno's new book on nationalist trends in cultural property retention (published today, reviewed below), in which he maintains: "Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures."

I wish that were the case, but the ignoble means by which many western encyclopaedic collections were formed during the age of Empire flies in the face of such lofty precepts. It is a history not easily forgotten by former subaltern nations and is now too great a burden for the encyclopaedic museums to bear.

One interesting thing about the current stand-off over museums and cultural property is the growing tendency by museum representatives to exaggerate the demands and aspirations of the opposing side in order to discredit them. This artificially increases the distance between the two positions and diminishes the likelihood of reaching a compromise solution.

Thus Kavita Singh is impelled to insist that, despite her reservations, "the universal museum is worth preserving, not because this kind of museum is essential for us to get to know one another, but because it is a significant cultural phenomenon in itself. If we dismantle these museums we will never again be able to make museums of this sort."

Who said anything about dismantling them? Nobody. But James Cuno, Neil MacGregor, Philippe De Montebello, et al, would have everyone believe that this is the primary objective of the museum's critics, thereby forcing Dr Singh to distance herself from such an irrational notion.

Finally, Dr Singh's suggestion that the encyclopaedic museum could never be made again is surely correct. This contrasts with James Cuno's sunny insistence that new encyclopaedic museums should be established everywhere.

In other words, the only way to defend your own unsustainable conspicuous consumption is to recommend that everyone else start consuming in a similarly unsustainable way.

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