The British Museum is 250 years old. In the time since it opened, a lot has changed – the means of acquiring artefacts, which were once acceptable, are no longer seen in the same light.
Perhaps now, in celebration of this anniversary, the time is right for the British Museum to re-invent itself, but repatriating the disputed artefacts in its collection, by negotiating new deals & exchanges, by looking forward rather than backward.
In praise of the British Museum
Saturday June 7, 2003
This nation has too few monuments to the mind. Quite the grandest can be found in the capital – the British Museum, which is 250 years old today. A project of the 18th-century English enlightenment, it offered an education to the masses at a time when the country’s monarch, and much of its ruling classes, were indifferent to the public’s need for scholarly nourishment. It took an act of parliament to set up, was paid for by a public lottery and was founded in Bloomsbury in 1753 where it still stands. The first national public museum in the world opened for “all studious and curious persons” two years later. Dickens, Marx and Orwell all passed through its neo-classical portals in the pursuit of knowledge.
The British Museum made its name by collecting and cataloguing the world. It has sensibly abjured the trend for many public places to be an arm of the entertainment industry. This can be deeply unfashionable, but there is a place for it – highlighted by the need to repair Iraq’s cultural heritage, a task which the British Museum’s curators and conservators are uniquely equipped to help. Of course one person’s accumulated wealth can be viewed as another’s loss. Plunder may have brought the Elgin Marbles to Britain, but it is undeniable that they remain free for anyone to see. These arguments should be put to one side today. The British Museum’s repository of knowledge instead should be celebrated.
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