INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE REPORT: ‘NOTIONS OF UNIVERSALITY IN UNIVERSAL MUSEUMS’

15th–16th June 2018, Musée des Arts et Métiers

The international conference was held at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Across the two days, the conference was divided thematically between ‘The universalities of Western museums’ and ‘Modern museum universalities’, reflecting the project’s overarching aim of reassessing nineteenth-century museology from twenty-first century global perspectives.

 

15th June, The universalities of Western museums

Yves Winkin, Director of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, welcomed participants, and noted the timeliness and importance of the conference theme for the future of his own and other museums. He stressed the importance of challenging definitions of universality and examining the kinds of knowledge and perspectives that universal museums project and sustain. He looked forward to the critiques of nineteenth-century universalities and debates about renegotiating how identities and cultures are constructed and perpetuated through the development of collections and the ways in which they are displayed.

Hervé Inglebert (Université Paris Nanterre), Project co-investigator, opened the conference with polemical speculation on the relations between universal and global histories in light of the  western notions of universality embodied by contemporary universal museums. Kate Hill (University of Lincoln) charted the turn towards the self and nation across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the creation of historically-based identities through commemorating memories on smaller, local scales. Hill illustrates the ongoing tensions between the ‘universal’ and the particular, and questioned where this leaves museums in the twenty-first century.

The next panel responded to the re-emergence and redefinition of universal museums in the ‘Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ (2002) as an embodiment of Enlightened and liberal ideals of scientific objectivity, cultural internationalism and individual freedom, promoting reflection and tolerance. Both François Mairesse (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3) and Mark O’Neill (University of Glasgow) critiqued early twenty-first century claims for universality in wake of post-colonial contexts and repatriation claims. Focussing on Middle Eastern and Islamic collections, Mirjam Shatanawi (Metropolitan, Louvre, Tropenmuseum) assessed the ongoing impact of nineteenth-century display practices which separated western and non-western objects on definitions of identity and culture. Shatanawi called for a deconstruction of the dichotomy underpinning exhibition display in order for museums today to re-present them to, and engage, twenty-first century audiences.

After much food for thought and intense discussion, we took a break for lunch and an opportunity to explore the exhibitions of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and in particular to see Foucault’s Pendulum,  which was on display in the central hall – one of the objects which features in our case studies.

The two afternoon panels concentrated on ‘Traditional museum universalities’ and ‘The universality of anthropology’ and repeatedly illuminated the fertile cross-currents between historiography, institutional identities and the display of material and visual culture in reassessments of nineteenth- and twentieth-century universalities.

Marie-Sophie Corcy (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers) kicked off the afternoon session with a fascinating presentation on the evolution of museum identity as she traced the history of the Musée des Arts et Métiers from an institution promoting national industry, to a museum of technology, to its current incarnation as a global museum. Corcy identified key moments, such as the bicentenary of the Conservatoire and the renovation of the museum in the 1990s, as catalysts to create new research initiatives which in turn refashion institutional identity. Françoise Mardrus (Musée du Louvre) moved across Paris to the Louvre to consider the many factors which affect the writing and rewriting of its history. Mardus draws on multiple aspects of historiography, from the politics of the nation state to contemporary epistemology to post-colonialism, to critique the Louvre’s model of universality and ask whether the Louvre can recast itself in a ‘transnational’ dimension. Pascale Griener (Université de Neuchâtel) concluded the panel by offering a broader view of the genesis of the nineteenth-century universal museum in the age of European empire. Griener demonstrated how the universal museum became a feature and agent of empire, and deconstructed the ideological and historiographical principles upon which it was founded.

The final panel of the day, ‘The universality of anthropology’ advocated the significance of the study of material and visual culture to the investigation of museum universalities. Nélia Dias (Instituto Univeritário de Lisboa) examined the shared epistemic values and practices of ethnography, art and antiquarian studies in the nineteenth century, all of which were based on the study and interpretation of material objects. Dias used de Férussac’s proposal of a Museum of Monument of non-Western Peoples (1826) at the Louvre as a case study to examine the role of museums in shaping the development of these disciplines. The day concluded with Sophie Hopmier’s (University of St Andrews) presentation centring on the films made for the Musée de l’Homme. Hopmier drew attention to the ways in which hierarchies of technologies have been used to organise narratives about humanity in ethnographic museums and attempt to bridge cultural and temporal gaps between people.

 

16 June, Modern museum universalities

Our second day opened with a panel on ‘The question of global art’, chaired by André Delpuech, the director of the Musée de l’Homme and research partner on the Universal Histories project. Our three presenters were preoccupied with critiquing the kinds of universalities embedded within developing notions of the arts globally. Michael Falser (Heidelberg Universität) examined the colonial strategy of creating plaster casts of Asian architecture and installing these casts within European museums. Falser’s presentation explored how such displays contributed to a ‘universal’ notion of art and architecture. Turning to the twenty-first century, Eva-Maria Trolenberg (Utrech University) shined a spotlight on contemporary arts practice in Palestine in order to challenge the concept of the museum as a global institution. Finally, Thierry Dufrêne (Université Paris Nanterre) described the ways in which the contemporary arts and the digital revolution are challenging and fragmenting nineteenth-century Eurocentric notions of universality. By generating dialogue and encouraging pluralised perspectives, contemporary arts force twenty-first-century museums to redefine and reconceptualise what ‘universal’ means in the context of the museum.

Our two afternoon panels examined contemporary practice and reconfigurations of universality within European museums and museums across the globe.

Our first panel,  ‘New projects on the universalities of Western museums’, concentrated on three European ethnographic museums, the new ways in which they are organising and displaying their collections and how these are redefining notions of universality, the human condition and the place of the museum in the twenty-first century. Christian Schicklgruber (Weltmuseum, Wien) described the arrangement of the new permanent exhibition at the Weltmuseum by creating a sequence of stories and scenes to emphasise the relations between cultures. He considered the impact of multi-perspectival approaches upon the visitor in an age when museums can no longer present a singular and authoritative explanation of the world. André Delpuech charted the new direction of the Musée de l’Homme after the transfer of several collections to the Musée du quai Branly in the early twenty-first century and its reopening in 2015. The museum seeks to create a new universality by transcending temporalities and disciplinary boundaries in its focus on the contemporary and future challenges facing humankind and human societies. Anette Loeseke (New York University in Berlin) reflected upon debate surrounding the opening of the Humboldt Forum in 2019 and its positioning as a ‘universal museum for the 21st century’. Using the Humbolt as a case study, Loeseke identifies key areas which European museums need to address concerning the provenance of their collections and questions of ‘shared’ and ‘contested’ heritage. Going forwards, Loeseke argues, museums need to be more transparent about the way historical notion of universality have shaped collections and displays, and more reflexive upon their own role in producing cultural heritage.

The final afternoon panel, ‘The question of universality in museums across the globe’ turned to directions for new museums emerging in twenty -first century global hubs, e.g. the rapid development of UAE and China into economic, cultural and global centres. Jean-François Charnier (Louvre Abu Dhabi) considered the challenges of creating a new universal museum while initially unaware of the ethnocentric and imperialist associations of the term in Europe. Instead, Charnier demonstrated the ways in which the Louvre Abu Dhabi is grounding the notion of universality in humanism and creating a ‘borderless museography’ by joining-up different museum departments and bringing together works from different cultures. In the final presentation, Elizabeth Lawerence (Ball State University) considered the potential of Chinese universalism (the notion of tianxia) as an alternative to the hegemonic encyclopaedic model of Western museums. Focussing on the history of vernacular museums in China, Lawrence demonstrated that these nineteenth-century institutions, advocating intangible heritage and blending preservation with commodification, anticipated the characteristics of twenty-first-century museums. She argued that we need an alternative history of museums that takes seriously Chinese and other non-Western practices of collecting and display.

Principal Project Investigator Sandra Kemp concluded the conference by taking questions from the floor and chairing a debate which drew together the conference and project themes. Discussion centred on ways of fostering inclusivity within ‘universal’ or ‘encyclopaedic’ collections by expanding the range of the collection itself and deconstructing traditional taxonomies, chronologies and cultural geographies. Ensuring careful and ethical research is undertaken into the provenance of objects within collections, and offering greater transparency to visitors about their provenance were key topics for debate, as was using plural perspectives to open up spaces for marginalised voices, histories and possible futures, and increase engagement with diverse publics.

Kemp thanked participants for their contributions and noted that the next stage of the project, currently under development, would extend the study to other museums in Europe and internationally.

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