In October 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French forces attacked the Summer Palace near what was then Peking. Built of jade and marble and filled with treasures crafted exclusively for the imperial family, it had been described as a “dazzling cavern of human fantasy”. Three days of looting left it a smoking ruin. Eyewitnesses told of soldiers carrying off strings of pearls and pencil cases set with diamonds. The empress’s pekinese was also taken and, tactlessly renamed “Looty”, presented to Queen Victoria.
Keeping Their Marbles – ‘an outstanding achievement… wide-ranging and incisive.’
‘Courageous and well argued.’ Henrik Bering reviews Keeping Their Marbles
But what concerns Ms. Jenkins is not so much the legal arguments but something deeper: From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story. Thus the Enlightenment espoused the notion of a common civilization of mankind— Voltaire saw man as being “always what he is now.” It is this idea of universalism, the museum as a place of shared experience, that has come under attack.