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Nail MacGregor’s vision for the British Museum

Yet again, the British Museum’s director is trying to re-interpret the museum [1], claiming that the fact that it is full of imperial trophies is an oversimplification which should be looked at differently. Calling something by a different name though does not necessarily change any of the underlying facts.

Guardian blogs [2]

The world needs new histories
Neil MacGregor explained his vision for the British Museum to a Hay audience – and we should change the way we see the institution ourselves.
May 29, 2007 10:30 AM

There’s an easy – and lazy – tradition of thinking about the British Museum. It casts the museum, in spite or because of all its glories, as the quintessential imperial institution, looting the world and acquiring the trophies of global power for the glorification of Britain. It feeds into a generally guilt-driven view of the Bloomsbury museum and the belief that almost everything within it, from the Elgin marbles downwards, is illegitimately possessed and ought to be “returned”.

Neil MacGregor has used his years as director of the museum to confront and combat this tradition. But not in a reactionary way that would cede the terms of the argument to the museum’s opponents. MacGregor does not deny the museum’s place in history. He just refuses to oversimplify it. His view, expounded with great brilliance at Hay on Sunday, is that the museum was, from the start, an enlightenment institution. It was a practical affirmation of Addison’s vision of Londoners as citizens of the world. It set out to show that other peoples were like us. It was an embodiment of Lockeian toleration. And that’s how it ought to be today.

For that reason, says MacGregor, there is no unique or coherent narrative within the museum. Imperialism is certainly part of the Bloomsbury story. But the collection of 7 million items now in the British Museum has to be constantly reinterpreted and reconnected. In MacGregor’s narrative, such virtuosic intermingling is a permanent obligation. Connections and digressions – if the museum was a book it would not be an encyclopaedia but a novel like Tristram Shandy, MacGregor says – are everything. The museum must contain and present the complexity and beauty of the whole human world.

MacGregor’s connections and digressions are certainly thrilling. At the heart of MacGregor’s Hay narrative was Africa and what he called the unintended consequences of European invasion. His audience actually gasped when he showed that the Ashanti kings of the late 19th century Gold Coast had a collection of objects which included a pitcher manufactured in 14th century England. How do we understand such a fact? The pitcher was traded by land across the Sahara centuries before the European discoverers and slavers arrived in the Gulf of Guinea.

Reconnections and new connections are the warp and weft of MacGregor’s radical vision. The world needs new histories, MacGregor asserts, and it is the museum’s role to be an arena in which those histories can be assembled and articulated. He is trying to change the way that we think about one of the great British institutions. It is a change that is long overdue and it is a liberating mental experience to witness him doing it.