The demands of the repatriation of objects from foreign museums is wound up in the contested histories of colonialism and national identities. The establishment of museums and collections emerged during the age of Enlightenment. The collecting of the “other” was a product of imperialism and colonialism. In the Post colonial period, this kind of collecting has been questioned and has come to the forefront with the repatriation debate. Communities and nations have asked for the repatriation of objects that have been collected since colonial times.
While these claims can be understood through the lens of national identity one can also think of cultural property in the contemporary as part of world history. Here, the idea of ‘global museums’ emerges as a solution to the question of repatriation. Global museums can be seen as physical spaces that promote ideas of plurality, diversity and multiculturalism. Ideas of cosmopolitanism can be reflected in such museums that are not defined by their borders. Institutions such as these preserve and present examples of global cultures and offer their viewers to experience the world in all its diversity. In doing so they advance the idea of openness and inclusivity.
Global museums have an advantage of presenting art and artifacts in a thematic and multidisciplinary manner regardless of their place of origin. For example, if one was to curate a collection of artifacts from China, Central Asia and West Asia. A global museum would link artifacts by a theme as that of the Silk Route instead of confining the objects to different galleries. This kind of fascinating curation enables a viewer to think of heritage more holistically.
The relevance of where a nation’s heritage is located should not be a factor that hinders the development of museums. Museums should encourage understanding the interwoven nature of diverse cultures that are more similar than distinct and are the product of centuries of contact through trade, pilgrimage, and conquest. This gives form to the way civilizations can be defined in the contemporary.
In academia today the concept of distinct civilizations, each with its own designated territory, single prevalent language, and dominating religion, has largely been abandoned. Territorial control, linguistic usage, and religious practices are continually evolving. The lens of understanding cultures can be from both local variables and cross-cultural interaction.
Civilisations should be examined as a permeable, continuing process relying heavily on various exchanges to emerge. No civilization can ever be considered an island unto itself. This interconnectedness shapes heritage and must be reflected in museums. In this global world, cultural narratives are also being woven by the emergence of immigrant communities bringing their own heritage to national identity. Their identity would be integrated in national cultures and heritage. Sensitivity and inclusion of various narratives and cultures should be kept in mind when museums are curated.
Heritage is influenced by factors other than the nation state it originated from. India’s ancient history, tradition, heritage and civilisations should not be seen as a monolithic narrative bound by the geography of the modern nation state. It is important to broaden the scope of museum curation by moving away from narrow confines of viewing heritage solely belonging to nations and nationality. Cultural property can be acknowledged as the legacy of humanity. Rather than engaging in the tussle of undertaking the responsibility of having an asset in possession. It would be beneficial for nations to seek the knowledge an asset dissipates and try to have an equal partnership in the preservation of heritage.
The dismal state of Indian museums is no secret. UNESCO published a report citing various issues with Indian museology in terms of theory, knowledge and management. There is little importance given to archiving and maintenance of a database that subjects collections in museums to theft and manhandling. The apathy of state run museums in India is reflected by its most pronounced issues. To name a few, archaic policies, very little autonomy and skilled manpower. Museums in India have been subject to years of political and ideological neglect.
Scholars believe there is a dearth of incentive given by the government to develop museums. Various directors of museums have to say that the government fails to pay professional salaries or spend money on training and preservation. Therefore, museums are unable to develop as places that disseminate knowledge and provide entertainment.
Museums in India behave as mere closed-door caretakers of artifacts rather than a facilitator in disseminating knowledge through artifacts to a wide audience in an appealing and knowledgeable manner. The fact that Indian museums are unable to preserve and present artifacts in possession in a manner that ignites curiosity is itself proof enough that they are a step away from becoming global museums. Indian museums possess a rich collection of heritage, however, they are lacking in various aspects to present it in a comprehensive manner. The government needs to balance autonomy and accountability to make museums in India successful, sustainable and dynamic. The global museum model is equipped to suit India’s evolving socio-economic and political climate.
While the claims of repatriation are relevant, this problem can be assuaged a little through a new area of virtual knowledge access. The relevance of where assets are physically located is further reduced with virtual access provided by museums. The space for virtual engagement has presented new avenues of knowledge sharing and collaborations from around the world. With data sharing, open access to collections and archives museum spaces have become more inclusive. This kind of virtual knowledge exchange enables people from all over the world to access what was only limited to the physical before. Moving from offline to online allows people from various races, communities and nationalities to engage more effectively in building a sense of community and collective heritage. This might also provide people a sense of belonging that is larger than just to a group. A global museum helps a community and an individual become more aware of their evolving identity.
Museums are a recognition of not only our culture but the multitude of cultures that we influence and are influenced by. It is important to understand the message a museum communicates. It isn't simply about the objects it presents, rather it is a mediation between the past and us. In a globalized world, this needs to be reflected through diverse narratives being presented in tandem with each other. It would be beneficial to understand history not in isolation rather from a dynamic perspective. Representation and presentation of many cultures and communities should be done in a multilayered manner. This would perhaps diminish the importance placed on the location of objects. This move towards global museums could be the next essential step to our understanding of our collective heritage.