July 26, 2004

Universal Museum?

Posted at 11:11 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

For some time now, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has argued the concept of a universal museum. It is a concept dating to the age of enlightenment & the founding of the British Museum. He uses this argument to justify the retention of a large number of disputed artworks from around the world, while ignoring the notion that there are other museological paradigms as well as that of the universal museum. The universal museum should not be somehow sacred above all other modes of operation. The world has moved on in many ways since the age of enlightenment, but many of the world’s museums seem reluctant to move with changing times. Why shouldn’t they instead be the first to lead the way, to create a new era of co-operation between museums, of a networked knowledge & co-existence in much the same way as the internet has transformed the ways in which academic institutions can now work together (although we should not that all to often, as with museums, this is merely the potential, rather than what necessarily happens).
Moreover, although the British Museum might be seen by MacGregor as a universal museum, at present there is little in the way of guidance there to help the visitor to understand it in this way, rather than as a series of unrelated galleries.

The Guardian

Saturday July 24, 2004
The Guardian
The whole world in our hands
Controversy over ownership of its treasures obscures the British Museum’s purpose. By offering everyone insights into cultural history, argues its director Neil MacGregor, the museum promotes a greater understanding of humanity

For many, the icon of the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone, that administrative by-product of the Greek imperial adventure in Africa. But I want to begin with an object from the other end of the continent. It is a chair, pieced together from fragments of weapons decommissioned in Mozambique after the amnesty that ended the civil war in 1992, by the artist Kester as part of the project Transforming Arms into Plough Shares. It’s almost the first thing the visitor now sees when entering the Africa Gallery at the museum and it is, I think, for any viewer, a disconcerting and thought-provoking object.

When we look at the arms-chair, we realise we are looking at guns made in Britain, Europe, the US. It’s a potent emblem, I think, of the complexities linking Africa to the rest of the world. On the one hand, the artist wanted his sculpture to be in the British Museum, and Mozambique at the end of the civil war chose to join the Commonwealth. Yet the chair speaks of a long relationship of commercial, political and military exploitation. It is also, I believe, an object that achieves one of the fundamental purposes for which the British Museum was set up by Parliament in 1753, and for which it still exists today: to allow visitors to address through objects, both ancient and more recent, questions of contemporary politics and international relations.

On a nearby plinth is another sculpture, Big Masquerade, by Sokari Douglas Camp, a Nigerian woman who for the last 20 years has lived in London. More than life-size, made of large chunks of metal styled as though fabric, it represents a masquerade of the sort that members of her family in Nigeria take part in. It is a view of Africa made by an African, but one that could have been given this physical form only outside Nigeria. Douglas Camp is very clear that she couldn’t, as a woman, have had a career as a metal sculptor in Nigeria.

On display nearby are the Benin bronzes, some of the greatest achievements of sculpture from any period. The brass plaques were made to be fixed to the palace of the Oba, the king of Benin, one above the other, a display of technological virtuosity and sheer wealth guaranteed to daunt any visitor. At the end of the 19th century, the plaques were removed and put in storage while the palace was rebuilt. A British legation, travelling to Benin at a sacred season of the year when such visits were forbidden, was killed, though not on the orders of the Oba himself. In retaliation, the British mounted a punitive expedition against Benin. Civil order collapsed (Baghdad comes to mind), the plaques and other objects were seized and sold, ultimately winding up in the museums of London, Berlin, Paris and New York. There they caused a sensation. It was a revelation to western artists and scholars, and above all to the public, that metal work of this refinement had been made in 16th-century Africa. Out of the terrible circumstances of the 1897 dispersal, a new, more securely grounded view of Africa and of African culture could be formed.

What do these objects, singly and in combination, offer the viewer? It seems to me that the throne of weapons, the masquerade figure, the Benin bronzes, allow a range of different approaches – personal, political, sacred, military, historical, cultural and international. I don’t know where else a visitor can apprehend Africa in so many contexts. A collection that embraces the whole world allows you to consider the whole world. That is what an institution such as the British Museum is for.

In 1753, Parliament decided to buy the collection and library of the scholar- physician Hans Sloane and set up the British Museum as the first national museum in the world. It was an act of intellectual idealism, and political radicalism. It is hard to know how far the MPs and grandees who presided over its birth had thought through the consequences of creating a public space for intellectual inquiry and the dissent that necessarily follows it. But the ideals articulated by the museum’s founders were without doubt part of the Enlightenment conviction that knowledge and understanding were indispensable ingredients of civil society, and the best remedies against the forces of intolerance and bigotry that led to conflict, oppression and civil war.

It was one of the first institutions to be called British, and it’s worth asking the question: “British, as opposed to what?” The first answer is surely that it was the British, not the Royal Museum. Unlike those princely royal collections across Europe, where the subjects were from time to time graciously admitted at the will of the sovereign (as was still the case with the royal pictures here in Britain), the new museum in London was to be the collection of all citizens, where they could come free of charge and as of right. This was an extraordinary notion in 1753. It laid the foundation of a quite new concept of the citizen’s right to information and understanding, comparable to the founding of the BBC and the Open University, or the modern right of access to the internet.

Linda Colley, writing about the 18th-century construction of “Britishness”, has focussed on two key elements: that it was anti-Catholic and, on the whole, anti-French. Only eight years before, in 1745, Britain had looked over the edge of the abyss at civil war, the Jacobite rebellion and the alarming possibility of a return to an authoritarian state on something like the French model. The foundation of the British Museum was part of the reaction to that defining moment.

The Catholic model of authority, as seen from London, was one where intellectual inquiry was limited, controlled, and often prohibited. On the political plane, France provided the clear demonstration that in an absolutist society, even one only idiosyncratically Catholic, true intellectual liberty was denied. The British Museum is often contrasted with Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Where the conceptual French characteristically wrote a book, the empirical British collected things and put up a building. But the key difference is surely that Diderot was put in prison and the Encyclopedia banned, whereas the British Museum was created by parliament specifically to promote intellectual inquiry, and to encourage the discovery of new kinds of truth.

In 1753, London was a city prone to bouts of violent religious intolerance. In that year Parliament voted to give civil rights to the Jewish population only to withdraw them a few months later in the face of public protest. In 1780, the Gordon riots would show how explosively strong anti-Catholic feeling could be. Study of the different societies and religions of the world would, it was hoped, generate tolerance and understanding. Like Gulliver returning from his travels, the scholar and visitor to the British Museum would see that there are many good ways of organising the world.

The original collection contained books, rocks, plants, animals, and scientific instruments – all the world, physical, natural and human, under one roof. Artefacts from classical antiquity and ancient Egypt were complemented by objects from societies Europeans had hardly heard of. The new museum soon received objects and specimens collected by members of Captain Cook’s expeditions from the islands of the Pacific, from the north-west coast of North America, and from Australia. These objects raised all kinds of questions about the origins and practices of communities dizzyingly remote from European understanding, and impossible to square with the received theories of world history.

To ensure that the collection would be held for the benefit of citizens, and not the purposes of the crown, Parliament hit upon a solution of extraordinary ingenuity and brilliance. They borrowed from private family law the notion of the trust. The decision that the museum would be run not as a department of state, but by trustees had – and still has – crucial implications. Trustee ownership confers duties rather than rights. Trustees must derive no benefit for themselves, but hold the collection exclusively for the advantage of the beneficiaries. The collection cannot be sold off. The museum was set firmly outside the commercial realm, a position epitomised by the principle of free admission. Even more astonishingly, it was in large measure removed from the political realm. Trustees are not allowed by law merely to follow government orders: they have to act as they judge best in the interest of beneficiaries, including, crucially, future and unborn beneficiaries.

Who are the beneficiaries for whom the trustees hold the collection? Startlingly, they are not just the citizens of Britain. The British Museum was from the beginning a trust where the objects would be held “for the use of learned and studious men [in 1753 they were mostly men], both native and foreign”. In his will, Sloane had declared his desire that his collection should be preserved “for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons”. The rest of the world has rights to use and study the collection on the same footing as British citizens.

The original focus of the museum’s curiosity was inevitably the ancient world and the cultures of Greece, Rome and the Bible that dominated 18th-century thinking about the world. The collections would enable these cultures to be addressed through things, not just words. The study and classification of objects began to reveal a history different from the familiar narrative of the texts known and studied for centuries. And soon other texts, long unreadable, complicated the story yet further.

The supreme example of this transformational new understanding is of course the Rosetta Stone. Once it was possible to read history from the perspective of ancient Egypt, it became clear that the account presented in the Hebrew Old Testament had to be robustly questioned. The literal truth, the absolute authority, of scriptural tradition could not easily resist the kinds of advances in historical knowledge unlocked by the Rosetta Stone. The deciphering of ancient scripts changed for ever the way Europeans were able to imagine the story of humanity, destroying centuries of received authority about the past with repercussions as important for our understanding of time and history as the geological studies of the same period.

And it was not just Egypt. In 1872, George Smith, an assistant in the museum, deciphered a neo-Assyrian seventh-century BC tablet from Nineveh. He found that it told the story of Utnapishtim, who had been warned by the gods that there would be a great flood that would destroy the world. He built a boat and loaded it with everything he could find. He survived the flood for six days while mankind was destroyed. At the end of the flood he sent a dove and a swallow out and they came back because they could not find dry land. Then he sent a raven, which did not return, and he knew the floods had subsided.

On reading the tablet, Smith “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself”. Quite apart from being an understandable cause of extreme excitement, this was proof positive that the Biblical story of Noah was not unique. A different man in a different place was told by a different god, or, even more alarmingly several gods, to take his precautions. None of this proves or disproves any historical fact, nor indeed any religious creed. But this kind of comparative religious study changes the status of all claims to exclusive truth of whatever kind.

An essential part of such liberating understanding is the recognition that within the same museum object, different histories, meanings, and functions may freely cohabit. Here again, the fact that we are the British Museum, and not a French one, is significant. Implicit within French museum theory is the notion that sacred objects entering museum collections must be entirely divorced from their religious context and function and take their place exclusively within a secular human history. Is it necessary to make these kinds of separations?

When members of the London Maori community came to bless the installation in the museum of Maori objects, some of them given by their ancestors to Captain Cook, speeches, songs and prayers acknowledged different kinds of relationships – spiritual and academic – with the objects on display. It was an affirmation of an important principle: secular inquiry need not preclude the rights of the sacred.

Accommodations like this are perhaps harder when an object is tied to a particular notion of national identity, or comes to be appropriated to a particular political end. Such was the fate of the famous Cyrus Cylinder. Found in Babylon, this celebrates the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, king of Persia, in 539 BC. It is, in other words, the record of the morning after the night of Belshazzar’s feast. The writing was on the wall, Babylon fell, the Persians arrived, and Cyrus inscribed this clay cylinder to be used as the foundation document of a temple. In it he proclaims that he has returned statues of gods to their temples, and allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands. It is the archeological evidence supporting the Old Testament narrative that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return from the waters of Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem.

When the last Shah of Iran decided to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian monarchy, he asserted that the Cyrus Cylinder was the world’s first charter of human rights, whose birthplace was therefore to be located in Iran – an assertion that must have startled many who had tried to assert their human rights under his regime. The Cylinder became a mantra of his newly constructed national identity.

Comparison by scholars in the British Museum with other similar texts, however, showed that rulers in ancient Iraq had been making comparable declarations upon succeeding to the throne for two millennia before Cyrus. The Cylinder may indeed be a document of human rights and it is clearly linked with the history of Iran, but it is in no real sense an Iranian document: it is part of a much larger history of the ancient Near East, of Mesopotamian kingship, and of the Jewish diaspora. It is one of the museum’s tasks to resist the narrowing of the object’s meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda.

Which brings us to the Elgin Marbles. After the fall of the Colonels in 1974, strengthening democracy and joining the EU were naturally the prime aims of the new Greek government. Then for the first time the location of the Parthenon sculptures became not merely a matter of cultural debate, but an instrument of national politics. Ever since, the return of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum (about half of what survives from antiquity is already in Athens) has been a matter of Greek government policy. Melina Mercouri, Greek minister of culture, argued that the Parthenon and its sculptures embodied the values of democracy and indeed the very spirit of Greece as a modern, democratic, European nation, and were therefore the exclusive cultural patrimony of the Greek people. Well, up to a point. The problem is that they embody many other things besides. Their key purpose, as ornaments in a temple, was clearly as adjuncts to a religious cult. Athens may have been in some sense a democracy but it was also a slave-owning society and an imperial maritime power. Both the building and its sculptures were the subject of intense political controversy at the time of their creation, since they were funded from the proceeds of tribute extracted from fellow Greek city states in the name of defence against the Persian enemy.

What becomes evident in Bloomsbury is that the sculptures are, like the Cyrus Cylinder, part of a story that is not only national. Indeed it is not only European. In artistic terms the sculptures are clearly part of a process that embraces Egypt and Mesopotamia, Turkey, India, Rome and the whole of Europe. Over the centuries, the Parthenon itself has, like its sculptures, come to mean many other and contradictory things. The building has been a church and a mosque and is now a ruin, – a document of the Christian, Ottoman and Venetian history of Greece as well as the Classical. Its present expurgated state is a testament to the classical education and aspirations of the German kings who shaped modern Greece in the mid 19th century. And the sculptures, since coming to London, have become part of another European and world story.

The British Museum was founded with a civic purpose, to allow the citizen, through reasoned inquiry and comparison, to resist the certainties that endanger free society and are still among the greatest threats to our liberty. We see, for example, brutally oversimplified notions of identity manufactured and imposed upon cultures and communities throughout the Middle East, to sustain entrenched conflicts. It is no less an issue for our own country, where many English view the European continent in general, and Germany in particular, through a distorting myth of inherited enmity, while Scots can look upon the English through the fictional history of opposition and oppression served up by Braveheart . We need not dwell on the mythical Britain, racially pure, of BNP fantasy.

The cultural historian, Edward Said, in May 2003, after the invasion of Iraq and just a few months before his death, wrote a new preface to his book Orientalism : “The terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like America, the West, or Islam, and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, must be opposed …”

He goes on to say how we can oppose them. “We still have at our disposal the rational interpretative skills that are the legacy of humanist education. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other and live together, but for that kind of wider perception, we need time and a patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation, that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.” The British Museum, any world museum, seems to me to be indeed one of Said’s “communities of interpretation”.

A collection like that held in trust for the world by the British Museum is surely a powerful weapon in a conflict that may yet be mortal, unless we find means to free minds as well as bodies from oppression. World museums of this kind offer us a chance to forge the arguments that can hope to defeat the simplifying brutalities which disfigure politics all round the world. The British Museum must now reaffirm its worldwide civic purpose. That must be the goal that shapes our future plans. Where else can the world see so clearly that it is one?

· Neil MacGregor is director of the British Museum.

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