When Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries established their grandest museums, each building meant to unite the world’s cultural heritage under a single roof, they had no doubt as to who should explain it all: themselves. They took a Eurocentric view, categorizing the spoils of colonial enterprise by nation and region, splitting art from craft, and nature from culture.

How much has really changed in this so-called postcolonial era? Apologies are made for the pillaging; diverse populations are invited to “respond.” But the museums’ old assumptions, their methods of classification and display, remain largely untroubled.

How might you reorganize a universal museum for the 21st century, an age of migration and of perpetual exchange? One of the boldest answers yet is to be found in “Mobile Worlds,” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in the northern German city of Hamburg that has a similar standing to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

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