January 16, 2004

Neil MacGregor & the Enlightenment

Posted at 1:51 pm in British Museum

Neil MacGregor wants the British Museum to be seen as a Universal Museum. The rest of the world’s opinions should also count for something though.

Financial Times

The Revolver: Enlighten up
By Peter Aspden
Published: January 16 2004 16:47 | Last Updated: January 16 2004 16:47

There is a new T-shirt on sale in the British Museum shop. The slogan it bears – “If I am not better, at least I am different” – is cleverly modulated to reflect the tone of our age: a hint of narcissism (I need to tell you something about myself on the front of my T-shirt) tempered by a fashionably relativist conclusion (I am equal to you but not the same. God bless humanity, in all its shapes and forms).

But the most striking thing by far about the slogan is the name of its author. Forget Moschino, Katharine Hamnett and Dolce & Gabbana. Stick to slumming it in the Guggenheim and the Royal Academy, Mr Armani. It seems the fashion world is finally ready for the Jean-Jacques Rousseau revival.

And T-shirts are just the start. A whole range of merchandising has been devised to mark the opening of the museum’s new Enlightenment gallery, housed in what used to be the library of George III.

It is as if an entire intellectual era had stepped into a Soho advertising agency demanding to be rebranded for the new millennium. “We feel the Middle Ages has stolen a march on us, and romanticism has always had superior pulling power. We want to be out there. What can you do for us?”

In the case of the British Museum, quite a lot. The new, permanent exhibition in the King’s Library – “Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century” – does much more than celebrate the achievements of an age; it is nothing less than a restatement of the British Museum’s very raison d’etre.

Here was an archetypal Enlightenment project: to establish a universal repository of objects from all over the world that would better enable us to understand the common bonds of humankind. The movers behind the project were generally broad-minded, tolerant idealists who suffered few qualms of conscience about bringing the world to Bloomsbury.

It was, they argued, only through the careful comparative study of alien objects and customs that one could establish universal truths. Reason would be their guiding light; progress, freedom and justice the end result.

The British Museum’s new gallery, short on textual analysis, big on atmosphere, attempts to bring that flavour of discovery and wonderment back to the fore. It has been the personal mission of its director, Neil MacGregor, to remind us of the nobility of the institution’s founding aims, and not to rest complacently on reputation.

When I argued with him last year in these pages that the Parthenon Marbles would surely better tell the story of the birth of democracy if they were situated in their own Athenian birthplace, he forcefully rebutted that the part they played in the story of the Enlightenment, which venerated the art of classical Greece above all other, was of no less significance.

It is an intellectually bold claim, not least because MacGregor knows he is swimming against the tide of post-colonial, politically correct theories of cultural patrimony. After all, not everyone has such a rosy view of the Enlightenment.

For the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, it is a “conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for western imperialism”. And there are plenty more who question the arrogance of a British institution holding the art of the world, for the world.

But MacGregor has an answer here, too. In his more subtle reading of the founding of the British Museum, it was created not merely to provide its visitors with information about the outside world. It also became, in his words, “a machine to generate controlled dissent”.

Forget the search for universal truth: it was by the careful classification and juxtaposition of competing faiths, laws and habits that people would understand that all truth was relative, that identity was complex, and that none of the grand certainties, be they religious or political, was worth taking lives for.

The universal museum became a “house of provisional truth”, a temple in which the devotional idol could lie next to the secular artefact, precisely to show that the religious and the aesthetic could peacefully co-exist.

You don’t have to mention September 11 to understand why that message is highly palatable right now. Museum curators all over the world testify to the fact that their Islamic collections and galleries attracted increased numbers of visitors in the wake of the attack on New York, in a conspicuous attempt to comprehend something of the enormity of that dreadful day.

Here, a good couple of hundred years after the prattling of the periwigs, was a true and renewed search for enlightenment, a way out of the darkness; and one that arguably could not have taken place in a church, or indeed any religious institution, because that terrible mantra of my God being better than your God had finally exhausted itself. We’ve been there, done that, and we desperately need some new T-shirts.

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