Anyone who listens to Radio Four in the UK (& many who don’t) will have found it hard to avoid Neil MacGregor’s regular appearances on the radio to tell his version of the history of the world in one hundred objects. The story he tells though is often very much the story that the British Museum wants people to hear  – in cases where there are questions over the ownership of the object in question, these are glossed over, to focus on other aspects that are deemed to be more interesting. Whilst many have eulogised about the power of this series along MacGregor’s excellent ability to create an image of the object through his narration, transcending the limitations of radio, others are not entirely convinced.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
A History of the World in Looted Objects
The most remarkable thing about the British Museum’s forthcoming collaboration with the BBC — A History of the World in 100 Objects — is the almost total lack of critical response to the project from any quarter save for a few lonely voices of indignation echoing from the African subcontinent.
Instead we’ve witnessed a nauseating media hagiography of British Museum director Neil MacGregor in which he single-handedly educates the world from the comfort of his beautiful Bloomsbury office. We hear of “Saint Neil”, a “suave and smooth-talking Scot”, with a “lilting highland brogue”, a “skilled diplomat” with “infectious schoolboy enthusiasm”, a “natural storyteller” and “the most fortunate man alive.”
Already it’s clear that nothing will be allowed to derail this apotheosis on its upward trajectory to Mount Parnassus. Well, I’m sorry to fart in the lift, but I have one or two problems with this project.
The first objection is that like all British Museum projects since MacGregor took over the directorship, it marshals in its support so much Establishment apparatus that it forecloses critical reactions. This used to be called Gleichschaltung, but let’s not overdo it. After all, this is culture, not politics, or so MacGregor would have us believe.
Tellingly, for example, in this particular instance the British Museum has refused to divulge the full list of objects until the first broadcast on 18th January.
The problem for those of us with a critical interest in the history of encyclopedic museums and how they’re run today is that many of the directors of these institutions have demonstrated that they simply cannot be trusted. MacGregor fatally blotted his copy book when he helped formulate, and later published, the notorious Universal Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums without consulting any museum directors beyond the sacred inner circle of the Bizot Group (a cabal of leading directors of universal museums in Europe and North America).
What few people realise is that MacGregor’s activities on behalf of the British Museum, although dressed up as a laudable didactic mission of public enlightenment and edification, are actually part of a more urgent project to protect the beleaguered edifice that is the Encyclopedic Museum in Europe and North America.
In a rapidly globalizing world, these institutions are under growing pressure from developing nations to negotiate a more equitable spread of the world’s historical material culture. Until recently, those claims were relatively easy to repel. After all, few developing nations had the facilities or resources to curate the cultural objects pillaged from them during the age of empire. But all that is rapidly changing.
A nice well-meaning Radio Four series it may appear, but behind the scenes at the museum MacGregor’s BBC project is a rearguard action that Sun Tzu would have been proud of. What’s at stake are the epistemological foundations of his institution. If MacGregor deserves praise at all, it is for adopting a cannier strategy to achieve his ends than the blizzard of dismal ‘anti-restitutionist’ publications launched on the world by James Cuno, provocative director of the Art Institute of Chicago.
MacGregor’s mission, according to The Times, is to challenge our “sloppy Eurocentred thinking”:
“Instead of spreading out a flat map with Europe at the centre, we have spun the globe at various points,” says MacGregor. “History is a dynamic process, it’s never one version that’s ‘handed down’ to us. We are telling various versions of history that add up to a greater truth about the world.”
We could bleat on about imperial nations dictating the historical narratives, but let’s park that for a moment. Compare MacGregor’s globe-spinning rhetoric above with what he told an interviewer when the Parthenon Marbles issue neared boiling point just a little while ago: “The history of the Marbles in relation to the Parthenon is now over. They are now part of a different story.”
In a delicious irony, that story is the one the British Museum has ‘handed down to us’. A History of the World in 100 Objects presents a flat map of the world with the British Museum at the centre, and ’twas ever thus. That’s what I call sloppy Eurocentred thinking.
And although the Parthenon Marbles may not figure among the objects in the series (no, too risky!) don’t assume for one moment that they aren’t there in the background — the 100-ton marble elephant in the room.
“I hope that the series will serve to point out that the very word ‘Mediterranean’ is no longer sustainable,” says MacGregor in another subtle attempt to undermine Greek claims for return of their looted heritage. “It is a sea which, despite the claim of its name, is not and never has been in the middle of the earth.”
Hooray to that. Yet Neil MacGregor’s project is a clear attempt to position The British Museum, despite its name, in the middle of the earth. In reality, though, the axis is shifting and power is moving inexorably east, away from Europe and North America, and towards the developing nations. That’s the real unfolding story of the world.
Art Knows 
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Please remove your hard hats: the British Museum’s wretched ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ is mercifully over
It would be funny were it not so outrageous. This morning, BBC Radio Four’s Today programme went to the British Museum to help BM director Neil MacGregor unveil the 100th object in its ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ project. The final object was the one chosen by those listeners credulous enough to have bought in to this shameless exercise in imperialistic self- aggrandisement.
At the given moment, MacGregor pulled back the veil to reveal a solar-powered lamp and charger. The sense of anti-climax was palpable. This merely underscored what Radio Four presenter Evan Davies described as “the nonsensical secrecy” in which the entire project has been shrouded.
Evidently many people had expected the 100th object to be a credit card. And in fact when the veil was removed, a credit card –the 99th object – was there, sitting beside the solar charger.
“The credit card can only be used in advanced societies, societies that are urban and developed,” explained MacGregor, adding: “In a way, we wanted to cheat – you’ll not be surprised.”
No, we weren’t surprised. The British Museum has been cheating nations and communities out of their cultural heritage for 150 years. But this dismal collaboration with the BBC has taken the post-colonial project to new depths. Cheating doesn’t get near to it.
Having watched big capital drive untold millions into ever deeper immiseration and poverty through mortgage derivatives, credit default swaps and any number of other Wall Street black magic tricks, we now have to watch the Universal Museum sector collaborating with the BBC to promote the tool most likely to exacerbate and perpetuate that process of credit-enslavement.
“We wanted the solar-powered lamp,” said MacGregor, “but also the charger that gives mobile phones to the world because the mobile phone is, of course, the credit card in large parts of Africa and South Asia.”
In other words, the credit card is the very mechanism that allows the banks and financial speculators to continue their relentless exploitation of the world’s poor.
Well, to hell with the British Museum and its Faustian pact with late capital. My choice for the 100th object is a hard hat (above left) of the kind worn by the 32 Chilean miners, freed over the last twenty-four hours to universal jubilation.
But before we cry ‘Arriba!’, let’s swing the media spotlight onto the Bolivian silver mines of Potosí, where the mineros can expect to live for no more than twenty years after starting work in the toxic mines polluted with every imaginable heavy metal. When, in the mid-16th century, the Spanish heard of the rich silver deposits in Potosí, they enslaved the indigenous people to mine the silver before shipping it back to Europe where it effectively kick-started European capitalism.
As Patrick Stack has pointed out, between 1545 and 1824, some 8 million Indian and African slaves died in the process of producing silver for the Spanish Empire. No wonder they call it The Mountain that Eats Men.
Neil MacGregor, in his naiveté, believes technology “gives a whole range of people power over their lives,” blithely ignorant of the fact that it also gives banks the power to enslave the poor of the developing world.
But of course, MacGregor is not remotely interested in solar-powered mobile phone chargers. What his odious ‘History of the World’ project is designed to do is disguise the deeper agenda of the Universal Museum, the foundations of which are being steadily eroded by those very nations subjugated by the colonial project 150 years ago.
Shame on the supine BBC for conspiring so uncritically in such a loathsome carnival.
For an exploration and analysis of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation of capital, see the catalogue of the current exhibition – The Potosí Principle at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which includes an abridged version of my paper on the Universal Museum.