July 12, 2008

The greatest museum on earth

Posted at 6:34 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The British Museum is currently riding high on a wave of optimism created by rising visitor figures, James Cuno’s book & the news that MacGregor will stay for a further four years. The opening of the New Acropolis Museum later this year though & the unrelenting moral arguments for the return artefacts will still remain as issues that the museum has to confront well after the time when these current issues have become old news.

The Times

From The Times
July 9, 2008
Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth?
It is Britain’s top cultural attraction, a great new exhibition is on the way and its director is not off to the Met in New York after all
Damian Whitworth

In an age when it can feel as if trash is about to breach the levees and flood the entire cultural landscape, two announcements have offered evidence of the surprising healthiness of the nation’s appetite for the highbrow.

The first was that the British Museum has overtaken Blackpool Pleasure Beach to become Britain’s most popular cultural attraction. In the past year 6.04 million visitors crossed the threshold, trumping Blackpool on 5.5 million and Tate Modern with 5.23 million.

The second piece of news was even more important for staff at the museum and those who care about its fortunes. Neil MacGregor, the director and the man who has overseen the transformation of its fortunes, confirmed that he would not be leaving to head the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Such a move had been widely feared. For more than a year there were rumours that he would leave to replace Phillippe de Montebello, who is retiring from the Met. MacGregor insisted that he already had “the most interesting job in the world” but doubts persisted, especially once the American media started pressing him. He declined to comment and the saga began to look like the museum equivalent of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s tug of love over Cristiano Ronaldo.

That he has opted to stay shows that he really does believe he has the best job in the museum world, presiding over the most extensive collection in an institution that is staging the most interesting exhibitions, in Britain and globally. To some it is also a sign of the strength of interest in our cultural heritage.

Melvyn Bragg, whose meaty programme about history and ideas, In Our Time, has become required listening and one of Radio 4’s greatest hits, describes as “received ignorance” the idea that we are surrounded by trash culture. “We are not dumbing down; we are going in the opposite direction,” he says. “Tate Modern gets more visitors than go to the Emirates to see Arsenal in a season. There’s a change in the culture.”

The historian Andrew Roberts says simply that MacGregor is a genius: “He has the intelligence and the wit and a feel for the big – the big historical themes, and getting things that are big. He has an ambition for the museum that is very attractive.”

For the First Emperor exhibition MacGregor negotiated to bring over the largest collection of terracotta soldiers from the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi to leave China. That attracted more than 850,000 people and many others had to be turned away, despite viewings until midnight. During a day of events to mark Chinese new year, the crush was so intense that the gates to the museum had to be shut. That afternoon, as harassed staff tried to corral the crowds, I bumped into MacGregor in a corridor, looking thrilled if a little stunned.

This month Hadrian: Empire and Conflict arrives in the Reading Room where the warriors were such a draw. Some 12,000 advance tickets have already been sold. Even small exhibitions are doing unprecedented business, such as American Scene, a display of prints that has attracted 170,000 visitors. MacGregor says that eclipsing Blackpool is astonishing and very pleasing: “It must mean we are attracting many new people, and a lot of people who haven’t been in a museum since they were much younger and are rediscovering it.”

Bragg, who was in the museum last Saturday “to catch up with the Elgin Marbles”, says that he loves the easiness of being in the Great Court under the roof designed by Norman Foster. “It was heaving, like walking against the tide, on Oxford Street but I didn’t find that at all worrying. There were a lot of young people and a feeling of excitement. Neil has the touch, the imagination and flair.” The Hadrian exhibition is perfect timing, he says. “We are all talking about boundaries and empires and walls all over the place now.” Some commentators have criticised the blockbuster approach to exhibitions, but Bragg says that The First Emperor was “very well done. They are not dumbing down.”

When MacGregor moved from the National Gallery to Bloomsbury in 2002 the museum had a dusty image, was carrying a £5 million deficit and unhappy staff had gone on strike for the first time over proposed cuts. MacGregor had to make the redundancies, then set about restoring morale. He did so by becoming intimately familiar with the work of staff throughout the museum, inviting them to weekly breakfast meetings where they could chew over the wider work of the museum.

He dislikes hearing his project called a rebranding, preferring “refocusing on the founding ideals”.

The museum was a creation of the Enlightenment, founded in 1753 by Parliament. It was meant to be a museum for the world – and MacGregor has pushed that hard. “Mini-British Museums”, or small touring exhibitions, are sent far and wide and, in return, treasures from other museums are leant to the British Museum to complement its collections in exhibitions.

MacGregor believes passionately that such cultural diplomacy can bring nations together by enhancing wider understanding of a country beyond modern-day politics. Museums have a mission to help us to understand ourselves. A great exhibition should make us “a little more questioning and uncertain” about our society. “As well as being interesting in themselves, the collections raise questions about us and about now.”

It is MacGregor’s eye for an exhibition with modern resonances that has made the British Museum such a storming success. The First Emperor got in early on the China boom that has preceded the Olympics and introduced a towering historical figure of whom most of us had never heard; a man who united modern China, lending his name to a country that has lasted until today.

Hadrian will feature a huge number of objects borrowed from Italy and around the world, as well as artefacts from the museum’s own collections, to tell the story of a man known to most of us only because of the wall that he constructed from the Tyne to the Solway to mark the northernmost boundary of his empire.

When MacGregor was looking around for an exhibition to follow the terracotta warriors into the Reading Room, Hadrian seemed ideal. He wanted a figure who was still the subject of continuing archaeological discovery, whose story is being rewritten, who had a lasting impact politically and culturally. Hadrian will be followed by exhibitions about Shah Abbas the Great, the Persian ruler, and Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor at the start of the Spanish Conquest. Examining these reigns will, says MacGregor, “explore history that most of us don’t know and raise key questions about the exercise of power, what you need to run an empire – what it means to exercise power over hundreds of millions of people”.

MacGregor is a skilled political operator, a confidant of Tony Blair, who invited Gordon Brown to open the First Emperor exhibition and has secured Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London and a classicist, to open the Hadrian exhibition.

The director is also a polished cultural diplomat and media performer. Next year he will present a history of the world through 100 objects for Radio 4. But more than any of those roles he is a teacher – the BM’s headmaster. He has little interest in the trappings of the position. He became the first director not to live in an apartment on the premises, owns few paintings himself and turned down a knighthood – an episode that he declines to discuss. Friends say that he sees the job as reward enough, and as a civic duty.

Sceptics have reasoned that the visitor figures are meaningless because the British Museum is free and some other museums and galleries cannot compete because they charge. “They might be people getting out of the rain,” says one commentator. But it seems likely that they will keep flocking. In 2012 a new development in the north west of the museum site will provide bigger space for exhibitions and new research laboratories.

Although MacGregor is too discreet to discuss any dealings that he had with the Met, it is understood that he made it clear from the beginning that he would be staying in London and discussions never reached the stage of the job being offered. The Met has an enormous amount of private money behind it, but MacGregor is wedded to what he calls “a great public institution for the world”. What the British Museum can do in terms of taking its vast collections to that global audience is, he says, “limitless”.

War, politics and oil: sound familiar?

A charismatic young political star becomes the leader of the Western world. Faced with turmoil in the Middle East, he decides that his predecessor has been guilty of imperial overreach and decides to pull his troops out of Iraq. A brutal military leader and a sophisticated aesthete, a clever political operator and an unhappily married gay man, Hadrian was an enigma. Emperor of Rome from AD117 to 138, he fits perfectly into the British Museum’s mission to explain fascinating historical figures whose lives resonate today.

It wasn’t just in Mesopotamia that Hadrian faced problems. There was turmoil in Judaea. The Jews revolted against Rome and Hadrian responded by mercilessly crushing the insurrection, killing almost 600,000 of the local population. To Neil MacGregor, Hadrian’s behaviour there poses uncomfortable questions for a modern museum visitor. “We are not used to thinking that brutality is a price of stability. We have lost the habit of thinking in politics that sometimes stability is built at the price of repression. That doesn’t mean butchery leads to stability.”

Bringing proper peace to Palestine eluded Hadrian, as it has many others for almost two millennia. “Hadrian’s achievement was to establish a stable and prosperous empire that lasts for a long time,” says MacGregor. But “the one problem he never really resolved was Palestine”.

His brilliance as a political strategist was nowhere clearer than in his dealings with the recalcitrant Greeks. He has always been depicted as philhellenic, but this exhibition suggests that his enthusiasm for Greek culture was more pragmatic. Expressing his passion so strongly that he was called “the Little Greek” was “like Kennedy saying, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,” says MacGregor. Or “the equivalent of George Bush speaking Arabic or writing Arabic poetry. The brilliance of his achievement was to make Greeks feel like Romans and defend and protect the Roman empire; they are part of the great imperial enterprise. This is their empire.” In effect, the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine empire that would last until the sacking of Constantinople in 1453, begins with Hadrian. “The amazing political coup of making them feel responsible for the Roman empire works for 1,300 years.”

The Greek love of his life was a young man in his entourage called Antinous. In Ancient Rome their relationship would have caused hardly a raised eyebrow. But Antinous’s mysterious death in the Nile caused Hadrian such shattering grief that he showered his dead lover with honours and constructed numerous monuments to his memory, fuelling a posthumous cult of Antinous. Travelling with MacGregor and a team from

the British Museum to Italy as they prepare for the exhibition, it becomes clear how hard it is to understate Hadrian’s contribution to Western art. Tivoli, his summer palace in the foothills of the Tiburtine mountains outside Rome, was the largest imperial palace that we know of. It had some 900 rooms, stuffed with sculpture, its walls encrusted with frescoes and paintings. Much was plundered and destroyed but much survives and fabulous sculptures, including a bust of Hadrian and a playful satyr in red stone that was a favourite of visitors on the Grand Tour, will feature in the exhibition.

The Pantheon, still hulking in the centre of Rome, is one of the world’s most iconic buildings. The version we see was mostly created under Hadrian. A structure to humble any human, it has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. From this engineering masterpiece numerous other great buildings, including Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, the roofs of many of the great mosques and even the British Museum’s Reading Room, are descended.

Success in politics has always required financial muscle. To demonstrate this MacGregor led his team scrambling to the top of a substantial, overgrown hill in Rome composed of 25 million broken amphorae. Then, as now, politicians were obsessed by oil. For Hadrian that was olive oil. Hadrian’s family was from Spain and they had amassed a fortune in olive oil that contributed to the amphorae mountain. To Hadrian’s clan, olive oil was “what the stock market was to Joseph Kennedy”, MacGregor says.

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  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    07.14.08 at 3:29 pm

    Panic and Panegyrics: Comments on “Songs of Praise” for the British Museum.

    We have had within the last few days a spate of articles, all praising in fulsome language the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor. One article, “Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth” written by Damien Whitworth, appeared in the Times on 12 July. Another sycophantic article, by Ben Macintyre in The Times of July 10, 2008, is captioned, “Let’s all have tickets to the universal museum”, arguing that “It’s pointless trying to work out who owns ancient art objects. We need to share them around the world”. A third article, by Tristram Hunt, “The British Museum is now our top attraction. If only others would shrug off their deadening ways and follow its lead”, appeared in The Observer on Sunday July 6, 2008.

    It can be assumed that the publication of these article within such a short period is no sheer coincidence but part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to boost the popularity of the British Museum and the prestige of its director, But why now? We have no obvious explanation and can only speculate on the motivation behind these panegyrics in respectable British media.

    In about the same period, we know that Egypt has made in June an official request for a loan of the Rosetta Stone, that Marbles United has appointed a Campaign Director (Thomas Dowson) on 9 July, and that the Benin exhibition has opened on 10 July in Chicago giving further impetus to discussions on the restitution of the Benin bronzes. There have also been recently several instances of returning cultural objects to Greece, Egypt and Italy. Could these separate but not unrelated issues have thrown somebody at the British Museum into panic and caused him or her to seek the support of leading British newspapers to prepare public opinion for any eventual discussions and disputes?

    As readers know, a nightmare of the museum director (and perhaps also of his loyal staff) is to wake up one morning and find that the Rosetta Stone, heavy as it is, the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, as many as they are, and the Benin bronzes have all disappeared from the museum! In reality this will not happen over night but who knows how all this works on the minds of those under constant attacks and who are aware that the whole world is against them in this respect? It should be recalled that it was panic by the British Museum, under increasing political pressure by the Greeks for the return of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles that led to the British initiative to draw up the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums in December 2002, signed by all the important museums with the notable exception of the British Museum, the champion of the “universal museums”. The leading museums, mostly European and North American, informed the so called “source countries” that they had no intention of returning any of the cultural objects that had been wrongfully taken away in the past.

    Whatever the motive for this spate of praise songs for the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor, we need to look carefully at the ideas they contain. We have commented elsewhere in detail on two of the praise songs and wish briefly to comment on the article by Damian Whitworth, “Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth?

    We may all agree that the British Museum is a great museum but whether it is the greatest museum is another matter. For some people, a great museum must be a specialized museum concentrating on a few subjects, such as art or fashion for others, a great museum can only be a “universal museum”. Obviously Whitworth is in the second group although he does not explain his criteria for greatness which will allow the determination of which museum is the greatest. He assumes that Great Britain must have the greatest museum.

    The greatness of the British Museum lies largely in the presence of a huge number (some estimate 13 million) objects of all sizes from all parts of the world assembled there. But these collections or rather confiscations constitute a clear evidence of the violations and denials of the individual and collective rights of freedom of religion and culture. They also evidence a violation of the right to self-determination of peoples since these objects should have been returned to the various counties of Africa and Asia when they gained formal independence from the former colonial power, Britain. These objects constitute a permanent and constant reminder of the continued violations of these human rights. Whether greatness based largely on the violations of the human rights of others, greatness linked to the suffering and massacres of many peoples in various parts of the world deserves our admiration, is matter of conscience and morality. Some Europeans may admire the destruction of other cultures through the colonial expansion and aggression but they surely cannot expect Africans, Asians and others to share this admiration.

    That MacGregor is not leaving the British Museum is presented as if he had rejected an offer to become the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It is even stated that the American media pressed him to state whether he was leaving or not. One can only reject an offer if it was ever made. When you look at the reports from the USA, it is clear that he was never offered the job and could therefore not have refused it. Lee Rosenbaum who knows more about such matters than most of us wrote:

    “This headline on Bloomberg sure got my attention this morning:
    British Museum’s MacGregor Was Asked to Run the Met, Said No
    Who knew? But the much more carefully phrased article by Farah Nayeri seems to indicate that no such thing may have actually occurred. Nayeri writes:
    British Museum Head of Press Hannah Boulton…said, “He [MacGregor] was approached by them, he had a conversation with them, but in the course of that conversation he ruled himself out of the job of running the Met.”…

    Asked today if he was offered the Met job, MacGregor said only that the Met’s search committee had “a very large number of conversations with people who were not candidates” about the Met’s future”. CultureGrrl. http://www.artsjournal.com

    The presentation of this matter by Whitworth reminds one of a practice which used to be current in the then West Germany. Professors who were well-established in their positions would set in circulation rumours that they were planning to leave their posts and some even organized to receive in fact offers from other universities only to reject them later. This strengthened their bargaining position as regards their employers. But does MacGregor really need this?

    We leave uncommented Whitworth’s statement” the saga began to look like the museum equivalent of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s tug of love over Cristiano Ronaldo.”

    Whitworth is free to describe the job of Director of the British Museum as the best job in the museum world. Not all of us will agree with this assessment. Some of us world not sleep well, knowing that our museum has stolen artefacts from the whole world and that the Cambodians, Chinese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Greeks, Indians, Japanese, Nigerians, and Peruvians all have claims against the objects in our museum. Sleepless nights would become normal. This is a matter of belief and individual conscience. If you take the injunction “Thou shall not steal” seriously a museum like that is hardly the place for you. Many Europeans seem to believe that that moral prescription does not apply to art and artefacts. On the contrary, they believe they have a right and duty to seize such objects to preserve them in the interest of mankind, including presumably the peoples they are robbing.

    The British Museum may be a creation of the European Enlightenment but the realization of that idea was only possible during the colonialist and imperialist period which enabled the British Government to amass those huge and varied objects from all over the world. Small and weak countries, lacking in a strong army and a powerful navy could never have established a museum such as the British Museum. The colonialist were strengthened in their devastating attacks on innocent and unprepared Africans and Asians but the moral support they derived from the writings of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. These philosophers were of the opinion that the colonial peoples were not really human beings and in any case were at the bottom of the ladder of evolution. The Europeans on top had to “civilise” them even if these attempts involved the use of force and violence.

    Macgregor is quoted by Whitworth as saying “that such cultural diplomacy can bring nations together by enhancing wider understanding of a country beyond modern-day politics. Museums have a mission to help us to understand ourselves. A great exhibition should make us “a little more questioning and uncertain” about our society. “As well as being interesting in themselves, the collections raise questions about us and about now.”

    Despite all the exhibitions that have been presented at the British Museum, there does not seem to be any sign that the institution is working for a wider understanding beyond modern-day politics nor have the collections raised much question about the British and their society, at least from the point of view of the British Museum. The museum and its director do not show any sign that they have doubts about the legitimacy of their possession of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and the Benin bronzes.

    Whitworth can praise MacGregor as much as he likes. He even cites a British historian who is alleged to have described MacGregor as a “genius”, a description most of us would use with the greatest caution. None will doubt that anyone who can run a big enterprise such as the British Museum must be a person of great ability but a “genius”? Or is this part of the inflation of words, almost endemic on the other side of the Atlantic that is now reaching this side of the ocean?

    As for the British Museum being “a museum for the world” or “a museum for mankind”, could we kindly ask these writers to spare us the pain in tracing the creation and expansion of this museum? The British Museum is a British Museum, created by the British Parliament by the British Museum Act of 1753, financed by the British with a Board of Trustees appointed by the British Sovereign and the British Foreign Secretary. Does this sound like an institution for mankind? The fact that the museum contains confiscated materials from all over the world does not make it a museum for the world. As for the entrance to the museum being free of charge, one can only add that yes, it is free of charge provided one can go to London where the museum is situated. How many can afford the trip from Africa or Asia to London? Would the Africans and Asians who seek to visit Bloomsbury in order to go to the “museum for mankind” even obtain a visa if they advanced such a visit as the reason for their travel to London?

    I start wondering when I read the following statement with regard to Hadrian: “Expressing his passion so strongly that he was called “the Little Greek” was “like Kennedy saying, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,” says MacGregor. Or “the equivalent of George Bush speaking Arabic or writing Arabic poetry “.
    Should we take all this seriously?

    Kwame Opoku, 14 July,2008.

  2. dene said,

    07.16.08 at 9:29 pm

    Breathtaking piece of work, what more can be said?

    well done!

  3. Daniel said,

    09.30.09 at 4:56 am

    Without the colonialist lootings you so detest, Many of these objects would be ruined beyond repair or worse destroyed.. The nations they were taken from had little interest or knowhow in regards to there preservation. They were taken in a period of european enlightenment from places that only now show an interest. The fact that the British Museum has preserved them is something they should be proud of and long may it continue.

  4. Matthew said,

    09.30.09 at 12:44 pm

    But the colonial lootings were never made with the intention of preservation. A later fortunate accident can not be used as a post-rationalised justification for earlier immoral actions.

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