For some time now, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has argued the concept of a universal museum. It is a concept dating to the age of enlightenment & the founding of the British Museum. He uses this argument to justify the retention of a large number of disputed artworks from around the world, while ignoring the notion that there are other museological paradigms as well as that of the universal museum. The universal museum should not be somehow sacred above all other modes of operation. The world has moved on in many ways since the age of enlightenment, but many of the world’s museums seem reluctant to move with changing times. Why shouldn’t they instead be the first to lead the way, to create a new era of co-operation between museums, of a networked knowledge & co-existence in much the same way as the internet has transformed the ways in which academic institutions can now work together (although we should not that all to often, as with museums, this is merely the potential, rather than what necessarily happens).
Moreover, although the British Museum might be seen by MacGregor as a universal museum, at present there is little in the way of guidance there to help the visitor to understand it in this way, rather than as a series of unrelated galleries.
Saturday July 24, 2004
The whole world in our hands
Controversy over ownership of its treasures obscures the British Museum’s purpose. By offering everyone insights into cultural history, argues its director Neil MacGregor, the museum promotes a greater understanding of humanity
For many, the icon of the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone, that administrative by-product of the Greek imperial adventure in Africa. But I want to begin with an object from the other end of the continent. It is a chair, pieced together from fragments of weapons decommissioned in Mozambique after the amnesty that ended the civil war in 1992, by the artist Kester as part of the project Transforming Arms into Plough Shares. It’s almost the first thing the visitor now sees when entering the Africa Gallery at the museum and it is, I think, for any viewer, a disconcerting and thought-provoking object.
Read the rest of this entry »