September 15, 2007

Behind the scenes at the British Museum

Posted at 1:51 pm in British Museum

In a look at what is happenening at the British Museum, there are some odd issues raised. After discussions with Haida Indians, it has been decided to move a totem pole to a location where it can be revealed under a different quality of light – an example of the contextual understanding that seems to be completely lacking from any of the Museum’s statements about the Elgin Marbles.
Furthermore the Prime Minister reflects on the Museum’s Britishness – a peculiar Britishness which seems to stem from having few artefacts within its walls that are actually British.

Financial Times

Monday Sep 17 2007
Behind the scenes at the British Museum
By Neil MacGregor
Published: September 14 2007 15:20 | Last updated: September 14 2007 15:20

Though the British Museum, founded by Parliament in 1753, is, in fact, the first public institution to be called British, there can be no other national museum that has a smaller percentage of its own history in its collections. In almost every country, the national museum tells the national tale. The British Museum, by contrast, was from the beginning intended to be not the story of these islands but a way of thinking about the world. This week, we seem to have been thinking almost exclusively about the Pacific.

Our current debates about national identity are as nothing compared with what the Japanese went through after the catastrophe of 1945. Deciding to highlight what they made, and had always made, the Japanese devised in the mid-1950s the system of designating craftsmen in ceramics and lacquer, textiles and wood, as Living National Treasures. These supreme practitioners are celebrated for making something exquisitely new while staying entirely faithful to tradition. Our current loan exhibition, Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan, which closes next month, celebrates 50 years of Living National Treasures, presenting some of the greatest things made in Japan since the war, which are being shown abroad for the first time.

I find it a very moving exhibition. It is impossible not to be left with a profound sense of a continuing dialogue with the far past, and the still presence of a nourishing tradition. An aesthetic convention where the principal desire is not to innovate but to excel. Could the same kind of thing be done in this country with, say, gardening or choral singing? Or does Japan have an access to its artistic past that eludes us? Next month we are holding a public symposium – with several Living National Treasures present – which may help us to find out.

I walk from the Japanese show to a small room by the front door where we are finalising plans for a small object-in-focus display around the Moon Jar, one of the stars of our Korean collection, which will open next week to coincide with the Korean autumn harvest moon festival. There are only 20 or so of these huge, spherical, white porcelain jars in the world, all made around 1700, and hauntingly beautiful. We have decided to show our jar, which was acquired from Lucie Rie.

Rie, a distinguished potter from Austria who had emigrated to England in 1938, had been given the jar for safekeeping during the second world war by the great English potter Bernard Leach, who did so much to awaken British taste in Japanese and Korean ceramics. Gina Ha-Gorlin, our Korean-born curator of the show, has included in the exhibition a photograph of frail, tiny Lucie Rie standing beside the potent, swelling moon jar.

Another part of the museum’s collection is about to be given new prominence, but this time permanently. For more than 100 years, the British Museum has held one of the finest totem poles from the Pacific coast of Canada. This magnificent carving, more than 30ft high, by an unknown artist, has Haida crests and tells the tale of a wicked woman, tricked by her son-in-law.

It has long been shown in a stairwell (one of the few spaces in the museum high enough to house it) but the light has never done it justice. After discussions in London and in British Columbia with the representatives of the Haida, it has been agreed that we should re-install it in the Great Court. There it will hold its own in the soaring space beneath Sir Norman Foster’s glass roof and the strong sunlight will reveal the deep carving of the cedar and the artist’s close observation of the animals represented.

Raising a pole of this height has been a technical challenge: few London crane-operators, we discovered, had much totem-pole experience. But we found a skilful team, who hoisted it into place during a solemn and somewhat apprehensive ceremony.

Three Haida representatives had travelled from British Columbia to be present. They told their story and that of the pole, and recited a prayer. Once, in British Columbia, raising a pole of this size would have been celebrated with a riotously extravagant potlatch, sometimes lasting several days.

We, more reserved, had coffee and biscuits with our Haida guests and the Canadian deputy high commissioner.

The museum’s Pacific week has, of course, been dominated by The First Emperor exhibition, featuring China’s Terracotta Army. Weeks ago, the warriors were unpacked after their flight and their condition checked. They are now safely in position, a happily large percentage not in glass cases but open to view. We had to tweak lighting and security arrangements before opening the exhibition to the public, and the previews produced a wonderful variety of responses. Morgan Stanley, which has backed the show with the largest sponsorship given to a British exhibition, seemed pleased by the worldwide media attention. The local Chinese community vociferously welcomed the transformed Reading Room as a theatre of Chinese history. The continental press were beguiled by contemporary political parallels and problems – how did China manage a common currency, harmonise laws and weights and measures, and establish one language of administration, in 220BC? And what does the comparison say about Europe – and China – 2,000 years on?

On Tuesday evening, when Gordon Brown formally opened the exhibition, the prime minister talked about the need for a far greater public understanding of China’s history and traditions. He reflected on the museum’s particular Britishness – a Britishness that has for centuries been open to the entire world. And, in conclusion, he performed a very un-British ceremony, painting red dots into the blank eyes of a huge slumbering Chinese pantomime lion. The lion leaped into life. Drums pounded. The exhibition was open and another week at the museum was over.

Neil MacGregor is director of the British Museum.

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