The last decade, however, has seen the emergence of a new and notably more articulate generation of museum directors, confident of the historic mission of their institutions, and, in consequence, able to offer a coherent and intelligent response to their critics. In the US, the most articulate of this new group of museum directors has been James Cuno, currently the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the editor and inspirer of this series of essays: Whose Culture?
In many respects, the essays-and not least the editor's fine introduction-develop and amplify themes first advanced in Cuno's book, Who Owns Antiquity? published last year. In this, Cuno excoriated nationalist claims to proprietorship over ancient works of art advanced by, for example, the modern-day Greeks and Turks, pointing out that the intervening centuries of conquest and migration meant that there was usually the most tenuous of connections between the people who had actually produced the objects in question and the modern-day population in whose name governments were asserting rights of ownership over them. Indeed, he went further, arguing that these products of antiquity were part of mankind's common patrimony, and therefore beyond any modern nation-state's claim for their repatriation.
In this new collection of essays, Cuno has also assembled a group of broadly like-minded colleagues, both museum curators and academics, all of whom affirm, from a variety of perspectives, why great encyclopaedic collections can, and ought, to exist.
Perhaps the most effective and broad-ranging contribution is from Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, whose essay offers a powerful reaffirmation of the Enlightenment values which inspired his institution's foundation, and an effective case for their renewed - indeed heightened - relevance in a globalised world. From the outset, MacGregor argues, the British Museum's collections were assembled as "a path to the better understanding of the world", and as a way of creating "a new kind of citizen for the world" (a phrase he adapts from Diderot). In the sheer diversity of its collections - be they Roman, Chinese, or Maori - the encyclopaedic, all-inclusive museum exists to foster an appreciative understanding of a common humanity that unites the peoples across continents and across time. Trusteeship of such a collection, MacGregor believes, therefore imposes a corresponding obligation: to "send exhibitions...around the world, to allow the whole world to have access to a world's collections".