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.
The staff are dedicated to maintaining, exhibiting and studying the objects in their care. In doing so they allow the public to better understand the past – and how the present came into being. This is not to say that the museum has not modernised. Its nod to cultural tourism, which sells the experience as much as the historical interest, is witnessed by the British Museum’s new stunning glass-domed Great Court. In the global, information age museums still have a vital role to play: ensuring that understanding remains the main attraction.
BBC News 
Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Big year for the British Museum
By Helen Bushby
BBC News Online entertainment staff
The British Museum is celebrating its 250th anniversary, but it is also hitting headlines for aiding post-war Iraq as well as enjoying an unexpected upturn in its finances.
As the world’s oldest national public museum, its 250th anniversary is a celebration of its vast collections, which span two million years of human history.
Millions of visitors from around the globe have visited it since 1753 to see treasures including the controversial Elgin Marbles, Egyptian mummies and drawings by Michaelangelo and Leonardo.
Its birthday exploits include music from around the globe and a show called Museum of the Mind, a look at “art and memory in world cultures”, to celebrate its 250th birthday on Saturday.
But the museum can also celebrate a turnaround in its much-publicised financial difficulties.
Last year its outgoing director, Robert Anderson, told BBC News Online the museum needed £10m to boost its ailing finances.
But the museum says this has all changed – recent cuts, including 75 voluntary redundancies, have resulted in a “very good” financial situation.
“The cuts are starting to pay off,” a spokeswoman told BBC News Online. “Our director Neil MacGregor is hoping to balance the budget by the end of the next financial year – it certainly is a turnaround.”
But despite all this good news for the museum, Mr MacGregor has found himself somewhat preoccupied with Iraq.
He has been a key player in helping his colleagues at Baghdad’s national museum, following extensive post-war looting from the thousands of ancient artefacts stored there.
He said that ultimately, helping Iraq and insisting that tanks protect its national museum was more pressing than the British Museum’s anniversary.
“This is much more important,” he told the New Statesman recently. “It is more urgent and the stakes are higher.
“Reminding everybody what the British Museum is for is very important, but the survival of the great museums of Mesopotamia is of a different order of importance.”
Baghdad museum’s head of research, Dr Donny George, described the looting as “a loss to mankind”, and experts believe may have been down to organised gangs of international art traffickers.
Mr MacGregor headed the UK’s help effort, saying he alerted the government to the problems when the looting began, insisting that tanks be sent immediately to protect the museum.
“The loss and smashing of the iconic objects are catastrophic,” he said, adding “it looks as though all the records of the Ottoman period and centuries of Ottoman administration have been destroyed”.
The British Museum has the largest Mesopotamian collection outside Iraq, meaning it can offer the world a great deal of expert knowledge.
With the approval of Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural agency, Mr MacGregor took a team of experts from some of the world’s most famous museums to Iraq.
After assessing the damage, they later met at the British Museum to discuss how best to deal with such a huge problem, pledging to offer continuous help and expertise.
They called on the United States to secure the borders of Iraq to prevent further export of looted items.
And they also called on the United Nations Security Council to impose a ban on all international trade on Iraqi cultural heritage.
Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also said the UK Government would do all it could to help restore Iraqi heritage.
As well as its vital work with Iraq, the British Museum will also have exhibitions next year which include one on Kingdoms of the Ancient Nile as well as a tour of a “virtual mummy”.
Visitors will be able to experience an X-ray tour of an Egyptian mummy, by “diving in” and exploring inside the mummy, finding out what happened before its death.
And, of course, the row about the Elgin Marbles – housed in the British Museum since the 19th Century – is likely to continue.
The museum is standing firm in the face of calls to return them to Athens, although the Greek government regularly demands their return, with the backing of a group of British celebrities and politicians.
Pressure is also being exerted on a global level, as calls are increasingly being made by countries including Egypt and China, which say antiquities should be returned to their homelands.
The British Museum’s 251st year will undoubtedly be another busy one.
Museum boss sees hope after Iraq artefact looting
By Jeremy Lovell
LONDON, June 6 — Few people took any comfort from the destruction of the world’s tallest Buddha by the Taliban two years ago or the looting of Baghdad Museum in April.
But strangely enough, the director of the British Museum was able to see a positive side.
The outrage generated by the two events shows there is hope for the future, Neil MacGregor told Reuters on Friday.
”We all felt these belonged to us,” he said. ”We all felt an outrage and were diminished by it.”
Speaking on the eve of the museum’s 250th anniversary, he said: ”It makes clear that there is this concept of world citizenship. There is a growing consciousness that we are in one indissoluble community, one indivisible community and that these are not national problems.”
MacGregor, who took over the British Museum last August in the middle of a financial crisis, said the outrage proved the need for a museum such as his.
”That is the spirit that makes this kind of institution so important,” he said.
The museum, founded by King George II on June 7, 1753, is celebrating its quarter millennium under the title ”The world under one roof.”
”It seems to me that is very, very important that there be places where you can look at the great achievements of the whole of humanity together,” MacGregor said.
But that is not a view likely to appeal to those countries who resent the museum keeping their national treasures, especially Greece.
Athens has long demanded the return of the famed Elgin Marbles but has been consistently denied, both by the museum and the British government.
”Half of the Parthenon sculptures are already in Greece and the other half roughly are here,” MacGregor said. ”That seems to me a happy result.
”You can see half of them in Athens where they were made and half of them in the context of the world out of which they came and which they influenced.”
He is also proud that the museum remains free to enter.
”The point of the British Museum was the belief that every citizen had the right to understand the world, that only an informed spirit can be a free spirit — the 18th century equivalent of free access to the Internet,” he said.
”It is to show that no culture is self-standing. That all culture is interdependent,” he added.
Financial woes now behind him after having to sack some 150 staff to tackle a widening budget deficit, MacGregor is now looking ahead. Two new galleries open this year and a major Internet programme will explore the collections.
”We have to make a reality of public ownership by the whole world, to make the collections usable, studiable by anybody anywhere,” he said.