When I was a 10-year-old tourist visiting London's museums, I had a nationalist episode. It began, somewhat narcissistically, with the coins of Kanishka, the ancient king after whom I and all the world's Kanishks are named. Something stirred in me. "Why are they kept here and not in India?" I asked my mother (never mind that the historical Kanishka hardly ever set foot in what is now India). I marvelled at the curving sword of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, austere and proud, reduced to forlorn captivity in the display case. "Why is it here?" I trembled. And then I found Tipu Sultan's tiger, a fierce mechanical beast engineered to ravage a wooden British soldier. That was the final straw. The very symbol of Indian resistance to British conquest now lay caged in London as an eternal reminder of our defeat. Quaking with rage, I approached the nearest security guard. "Give it back!" I yelled. "Give it back!" He refused to oblige me.
But my childish protests augured the changing spirit of the times. A rash of similar demands - more sophisticated and reasoned than my own - prompted a group of agitated museum directors to issue a defensive proclamation in late 2002. Dubbed the "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums", it united venerable institutions in cities across Europe and North America, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The directors responded to what they perceived as a fundamental threat to the existence of their museums: the righteous calls and legal attempts to "repatriate" artefacts.
The success, for instance, of Turkey in forcing the return of the "Lydian Hoard" (hundreds of stunning objects smuggled illegally from Turkey's Usak province during the 1960s) from the Metropolitan Museum caused a panic among curators whose collections kept countless objects of dubious provenance. What else could they lose? The Greeks clamoured for the Parthenon Marbles, those ancient statues and friezes that British antiquarians happily gathered from Athens in the 19th century, when bagging antiquities was one of the more benign pastimes of European tourism. A slippery slope yawned perilously before the museum directors. If it's Greek busts today, would it be African bronzes tomorrow, Indian mechanical tigers next week?
At stake, in their view, was the very possibility of a museum that sought to house the cultural heritage of the globe. Yes, the directors acknowledged, the world's treasures had tumbled into their holds in often unscrupulous ways. But over time, these objects had "become part of the museums that cared for them". The museums themselves offered "a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source". This context was what mattered. The directors argued that by bringing together such a wide range of cultural artefacts under a single roof, the "universal" or "encyclopaedic" museum created a unique laboratory for the imagination. Within its hallowed halls, visitors could assess the world's differences and similarities, ultimately reaching finer understandings of what it meant to be human. The directors concluded grandiosely: "Museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation."