Neil MacGregor talks about how the Parthenon Marbles can be part of a story in London & a different one in Athens. What he seems to completely miss is the fact that they were designed were part of one complete story, not the contrived justification of their expropriation that he thinks they now embody. Would anyone consider that splitting the pages of a book between two locations made more sense than having all the surviving pages in a single library?
The story of the marbles in the British Museum, is merely a small & inconvenient footnote at the end of a long life on the acropolis – claiming that it somehow now forms a new (equally important) story seems slightly ridiculous.
The Australian 
An object lesson in civilisations
March 29, 2011 12:00AM
NEIL MacGregor, director of the British Museum in London, had an unlikely popular success with his BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, followed by an engaging if sizeable tome of the same name. Bite-sized discussions about chiselled rocks, old coins and ancient scrolls, no matter how well researched, are not your usual hit-makers.
MacGregor tapped into a revival of interest in history, a thirst for cultural context at a time when we seem to value things being faster, smaller and disposable while, simultaneously, contemporary life is ever more frenetic and unexamined.
How we define ourselves in relation to our past has become important to us all, says MacGregor.
“That means that history has taken on a new place,” he says. “I think it’s probably fair to say that every country now has to think about how it presents, considers, addresses its own history, and how that relates to other people’s histories.”
MacGregor was in Australia last week on a flying visit to promote his book, attend a few functions, give a talk, and walk in the Tasmanian wilderness, a rare opportunity to recharge for the man who is chief custodian of up to 10 million rare and valuable objects (including the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles) and 1000 staff looking after up to six million visitors each year.
“So many of our experiences and systems are now universal and global and similar, that the need to remember what makes us us is more important,” he says. “And in London – but it’s just as true in Sydney or Melbourne – there is now an extraordinary world population, where people from all over the world come together, so you’ve got to think what you’re about and what they’re about and how those two connect. What used to be world history has now become neighbourhood conversation.”
MacGregor says national museums are places where difficult questions can be asked, and the answers debated. He points to a recent exhibition made in collaboration with the National Museum in Khartoum about Sudan, what he describes as “this extraordinary place that’s always been looking north to the Egyptian Mediterranean world and part looking south to the central African world”.
Sudan’s long civil war had just come to an end: “One of the things we wanted to do was to use that exhibition to raise the question: is Sudan one country, one culture? It seemed to us that conversations about the big contemporary politics of fighting in Sudan should be discussed in the context of the long history, and to look at the fact that if you go back thousands of years there’s also this division between the north and the south.”
The Middle East – the cradle of civilisation – naturally features prominently at the British Museum. Discord across the region, from the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones to the civil unrest in Egypt and elsewhere, gives MacGregor cause for concern, for buildings, objects, and friends. “We’ve been very closely in contact with our colleagues in the Egyptian museum, of course, because we have very long friendships,” MacGregor says.
“At the moment they are trying to sort out what has happened at museums outside Cairo, but there is such expertise in Egypt itself, that whatever needs to be done they can do better than anyone else.”
Now showing at the British Museum is Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World (which will come to Australia in 2013). “Around that exhibition we are organising public debate on how the inheritance of Afghanistan can be recovered, and be made good or renewed if lost. That same conversation will be had [in Australia]. It allows people to discuss a hugely important topical issue in a long historical perspective.”
He is enthusiastic about the anticipated blockbuster Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs opening at the Melbourne Museum on April 8. Such an exhibition, he says, encourages visitors to reassess contemporary Egypt and what Egypt has meant to the rest of the world.
“The discovery of Tutankhamun was a world sensation, and it is also a reminder that this is the oldest continuous civilisation [with China]. This exhibition allows you to address some big questions: what was it about that political arrangement that enabled Egypt to survive for 3000 years, an amazing achievement.
“Also, what’s the relevance now? I don’t think people like us, brought up in the English-speaking world, would imagine that ancient Egypt does actually have a continuing meaning in the political development of Egypt today, but it does of course. As well as the obvious things of being proud of your civilisation, and tourism, and all the rest of it, there’s this idea of how you think of your state as something your ancestors had been doing in this continuous way, while our ancestors were skipping around painted blue,” he says with a laugh. “Mine certainly were.”
One commentator accused MacGregor of turning the museum’s objects into sacred relics in his book. “Quite the reverse,” MacGregor says, quite sharply. “The point of a relic is that you accept it and venerate it. The point of a museum object is that you question it. And the result of the questioning may be that you discover it is not what it’s said to be or that different people will assert that it’s different things.
“And that’s important to remember: that different objects mean different things in different arguments to different people.”
He also maintains that objects that have survived for thousands of years give perspective to contemporary debate: “It makes it easier to have a less heated conversation. There’s a level of behaviour that the objects impose, that is remarkable, striking. We found that in the debate about Sudan, there were people in the audience from different parts of Sudan, and each side had had family killed by the other side, and there were some very difficult conversations, but the key thing was it was possible to have a conversation.”
MacGregor describes the British Museum as the only place where you get the world in one building. Inevitably, parts of it are highly contentious.
You can’t talk about the British Museum without mentioning the longstanding dispute over the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, taken from Athens between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin. The Greeks want the marbles returned, to go into their new Acropolis Museum; the British refuse, although they have offered to lend them on a rotating basis.
MacGregor is adamant the marbles are in the right place. “The point of the British Museum was always to enable any studious, curious person to explore the different ways in which the world organised itself in societies,” he says.
“Showing different cultures side by side would, it was hoped, foster understanding and tolerance. Many people consider that the Athenian way of running a society is indisputably the best, and that may be so, but I think it’s important to remember there were other ways of achieving harmonious societies, such as in Persia or China.”
Roughly half of what survives of the objects from the Parthenon is in Athens, and roughly half in London. “In Athens they can be part of a Greek story and in London they can be part of a world story,” MacGregor says. “It’s important to remember, particularly for Europeans, that the Greek story is one among many, and the many are not all European. There is a great danger, I think, in our assuming that the Mediterranean is the middle of the world. It’s not.”
A very different cultural story is about to be examined at the British Museum for the first time. Australia is the subject of a season of exhibitions which begins with a garden of Australian flora, under the aegis of Stephen Hopper, the Australian director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Other exhibitions include the museum’s collection of historic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander basketwork, and a selection of its extensive 20th-century works on paper by Australian artists.
“What we try to do is to show connections between a landscape, vegetation and a culture,” says MacGregor.
“It’s not something you can do easily in a permanent museum, and this is particularly important for the indigenous Aboriginal cultures in Australia because the way they were able to exploit that landscape and vegetation is so remarkable, and still for the British public not very well known.”