What would happen if universal museums disappear?

In my last post, I discuss why I think that universal museums should disappear: because they represent a culture of colonialism and the domination of the West on the rest of the world. Let’s just do the exercise of imagining a world where this actually happens. Let’s imagine that universal museums around Europe and the USA give the collections they have that were taken from other countries because of war, steal or colonialism, back to their countries of origin. And let’s imagine that it happens without regards to what the countries plans for the objects once they receive them are. What would happen then?

Well, there would be countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America with big collections they do not have today. The first question would be: what would they do with them? The answer to this is entirely – should be – theirs. The museum being mostly a western creation, we can imagine diverse scenarios: they could sell the collections to international buyers, they could decide to keep it and put it in a special facility, they could destroy them, … But let’s say, for the sake of this post, that they would put their collections in cultural institutions like museums. Collections around the world would be spread in museums more equally than they are today. A lot of countries which do not have great museums today would maybe be put on the map. And maybe, the most visited museums in the world would not be 90% located in Europe or the USA.

Great! We would have a lot more places to go visit for their museums and collections. But that’s not all. If there are great museums with great collections everywhere, spread equally on the five inhabited continents, the international cultural landscape would be quite different. We can at least say that great museums around the world would all have equally valuable collections from an archaeological, historical and artistic point of view. It would mean a better understanding of countries’ cultural roots, a better grasp of countries’ contemporary culture and a presentation of these controlled by the people whose ancestors created the objects. Countries which, today, do not have power onto some objects created by and for them, would at least be able to decide what to do with them and how to present them. Everybody would have the possibility to tell their story their own way.

On the long term, we can assume that the cultural power would also be spread more equally. Meaning: the cultural supremacy of the western world would not exist as much as it does today and the planet would be full of diverse cultures with equal importance. I am not going to go into the economical power influencing the cultural power of countries or into larger debate on how the cultural power is today spread over the world and why. This is only from a imaginative museum’s point of view. We all know it’s not the only thing to work on. However, a change of policy that would result in giving back museums’ collections would be the sign of a step into the right direction in regards to agreeing that we can’t hold power onto another culture that is not our own. It would be a sign of change: of giving power back to countries which do not hold power on their history today. It would be agreeing that these collections are the results of a list of mistakes and a first step to apologize and (try to) fix the past.

If universal museums disappear, the concept of a universal museum, the dream represented by the cabinet of curiosities, would die and be a thing of the past. With it, the material proof of colonialism would disappear (this is still from a museum’s point of view only) and with it, we can hope for a change of people’s mentality and attitude. And with no universal museums left, a new definition of a museum would rise. A museum that would be more equal, more just. A museum for all (really).

It would just be one stone in the big construction that is building a more equal world. But isn’t it a beautiful dream?

Maxime Laprade


  1. Indeed, it is a beautiful dream. I do not think it a good idea to do away with all proof of colonialism. Much like the Gas chambers of Dachau, which are today part of a project that allows visitors to see the spaces and tools of a horrific past so as to make sure it never happens again, so too in the case of the colonial past. Keep the proof, lest we conveniently forget and history repeats itself. What I suggest is active engagement with the colonial past, show it in all its horror and shame. Only then can we move forward


    1. Luan, thank you for reading and for your comment!
      I for sure agree with you. The proof of the past needs to be kept to remember the past, educate and build a better future. But how do we make things better without ‘fixing’ the mistakes?
      Active engagement, you are absolutely right. And I also agree with you on the fact that if the past is forgotten, it will repeat itself and that material proof helps with that. However, I sometimes thinks that if things are kept the same, the situation will never change.
      Museums, places… all of this can be used to remember the horrors of the past but I still believe that the objets themselves need to be given back. The question would then be to find a way of telling the story differently. And the story would need to be told in a collaboration between countries, all of them.


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