Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?

Mark O’Neill


This article tests the case set out by the 2002 Declaration, signed by many of the great museums of the world, and elaborated by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum (BM), that these are universal institutions whose displays enable visitors ‘to see the world as one’ and hence promote a more tolerant society. I argue that while a universal museum could be invaluable in a world full of conflict and misunderstanding, the credibility of the idea is undermined by its being deployed chiefly as a defense against repatriation claims. MacGregor’s accounts of the Benin Bronzes, the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone are examined as to whether they provide historical, ethical or epistemological support for the idea of the universal museum. I review the current display practices of ‘universal museums’ and argue that they are as likely to confirm prejudice as to promote tolerance. I conclude with an alternative view of what a universal museum might be – one which is open about the conflicted histories of some objects, which acknowledges historical context as well as aesthetics, explores violent as well as peaceful cultural encounters and reveals the Imperial as well as the Enlightenment history of collections.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Mark O’Neill

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360