Kanishk Tharoor ('Museums and looted art: the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures' Guardian Monday 29 June 2015) asks "how can western ‘universal’ museums acquire and display artefacts without stoking the illegal arts trade and reproducing colonialist narratives?"
The ongoing destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State has galvanised the case for the universal museum, with advocates like Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, arguing that only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Isis’s cultural atrocities “will put an end to the excess piety in favour of the repatriation model”, he told the New York Times. From another perspective, that defence smacks of western privilege. “Colonialism is alive and well in the art world,” Davis said. “So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice, a western luxury. The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but those of Phnom Penh? Never.”But what, preecisely do commentators such as Vikan mean by "the repatriation model"? This is the effect of a mental shortcut which sees the end result as the whole. Objects which are repatriated (sent back to the source country where this can be identified) are seized because there is evidence, or a presumption that is not challenged, that it is in some way where it is illicitly (looted, smuggled etc). This is why "repatriation" happens, but before that is a whole series of investigations, and maybe a court case. Is Vikan saying we should from now on waive all concerns about how an object comes onto the market?Mr Vikan, the world's heritage are the mosques, tombstones - some of them not particularly old, and all of which would not be particularly welcome in or around the Museum of Baltimore if magically transported there intact by some culture-loving dzjinn. Museum curators using such arguments are ignoring what is actually being destroyed and simply rubbing their metaphorical hands in glee that they can have an 'excuse' (note it is a Two Wrongs argument) to get their hands on some nice statues, manuscripts, carved stones, a few coins maybe to beef up the range of their display. And of course hang onto it, avoiding it getting back in the hands of all the 'Ignorant Brown Folk Abroad'. Indeed, colonialism of the worst kind.