We serve all cultures, say the big, global museums: World's leading institutions release a declaration on restitution

Including a reproduction of the declaration in full

The world’s leading museums have for the first time united to issue a declaration. Their statement on “the importance and value of universal museums” follows increasing concern about the politicisation of Greek claims against the British Museum (BM) over the Parthenon Marbles.

Although the declaration released on 8 December does not specifically mention the marbles, it points out that the acquisition of classical antiquities from Greece by European and North American museums “marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world.”

The thrust of the international declaration is that “objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era.” It points out that demands to repatriate objects which have belonged to museum collections for many years have now become an important issue for museums. “Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”

The statement followed the meeting in Munich last October of what is known as the International Group of Organisers of Large-scale Exhibitions.

Despite its uninspiring title, this is a powerful forum which comprises the directors of the world’s 40 or so leading museums and galleries, who meet annually to discuss common concerns. Insiders refer to it as the Bizot Group, after Irène Bizot, the former head of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, who years ago set up the first meeting. The gatherings are held on an informal basis, and so far the Bizot Group has kept a very low public profile, which makes its recent statement particularly significant.

The universal museums declaration has been signed by directors of more than 30 of the world’s major institutions, including the big five—the Metropolitan (Philippe de Montebello), the Louvre (Henri Loyrette), the Hermitage (Mikhail Piotrovski), the State museums of Berlin (Peter-Klaus Schuster) and the BM (Neil MacGregor). A dozen Bizot members had not yet formally signed when we went to press, but most are expected to do so, and the declaration does represent the views of the international group.

Mr MacGregor admits that the dispute over the Parthenon sculptures lies behind the declaration: “At our Munich meeting there was grave alarm at the way Greece was applying political pressure over the Marbles and the idea that one Western country could build a museum to house objects belonging to another.”

Other directors wanted to support the BM, but felt that it would be more positive to articulate the ideals of the universal museum, which is threatened by wider calls for repatriation. “So far the public debate has been conducted very much in terms of the value of restitution, but there has been much less debate about the importance of the context which a great museum offers,” Mr MacGregor explained.

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, told The Art Newspaper that the declaration had been “a European initiative”, which he had been happy to support.

One of the European museum directors at the Munich meeting had pointed out that the issue of repatriation claims was not going away, and there was a increasing move towards national and sectarian collections, so “it was time to issue a statement about the good of museums.” Mr de Montebello added: “If people stopped looking retrospectively at centuries ago, and moved forward, then everyone would be ‘on the same page’.”

Rijksmuseum director Professor Ronald de Leeuw told The Art Newspaper that nationalistic calls for restitution are having a one-sided effect and that “another voice should be heard”. He spoke of his own country, where Napoleon had robbed Dutch national collections in the early 1800s. “We see this as history and are not going to claim them back from the Louvre.”

Professor de Leeuw stressed that the declaration did not apply to more recent acquisitions. “Of course, we would not now dream of buying illegally exported antiquities or ethnographic objects, or of not returning a painting to a rightful Jewish owner.”

Professor de Leeuw said another reason for concern was that there had been a few recent cases of objects being returned, and questions had been asked at Munich as to whether this “had been premature, or perhaps done for emotional or political reasons”. He was unwilling to cite examples, but last month Italy returned a fragment of the Parthenon frieze—part of the figure of Peitho, from the archaeological museum in Palermo—to Greece on long-term loan.

As well as the BM, a number of other major institutions are facing restitution demands. Two Parthenon sculptures are being claimed from the Louvre. The Pergamon Altar, the highlight of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, has been claimed by Turkey. Nigeria has called for the return of Benin bronzes from dozens of museums. Egypt has made claims for major antiquities. US museums have faced calls for the return of pre-Columbian antiquities from Latin America.

The Bizot Group’s declaration on universal museums is an attempt to shift the focus of the debate over restitution, but inevitably it will spark considerable controversy and debate, particularly from countries which feel they have legitimate claims.

Declaration on the importance and value of universal museums

The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged. We should, however, recognise that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era. 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.

Over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or partage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.

The universal admiration for ancient civilisations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artifacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums. Indeed, the sculpture of classical Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting.

The centuries-long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity, was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world. Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilisations.

Calls to repatriate objects that have belonged to museum collections for many years have become an important issue for museums. Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation. Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. Each object contributes to that process. To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multi-faceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors.

The initial signatories are the directors of: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Louvre Museum, Paris. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, State Museums, Berlin, British Museum, London, Prado Museum, Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Rijks-museum, Amsterdam, Bavar-ian State Museums, Munich, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Museum, New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Art Institute of Chicago