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British Museum director speaks about Elgin Marbles & Indian artefacts

The British Museum is working with the Indian Ministry of Culture, to help to improve their country’s museums. This is a great idea, & shows a useful way that museums can collaborate with one another abroad. During an interview about this, MacGregor was also asked about the Parthenon Marbles & stated that they had been offered to Greece as a loan. In much the same way though, as the British Museum claims that Greece has never in recent years made an official restitution request, it could be argued that the British Museum has never really made any sort of official offer to Greece. There have been statements in the press, but as far as I’m aware, no sort of proper discussions with high level Greek officials. The British Museum seems instead to rely on previous assertions of ownership by Greece as rejections of such as loan offer, allowing them to assume that the loan would be unacceptable on this basis & therefore never even make a proper offer…

From:
Times of India [1]

‘Get people into your museums’
TNN Jan 15, 2012, 06.20AM IST

Indian museums badly need overhauling and who better than the director of British Museum, Neil MacGregor, to help do it. In Delhi recently on an ambitious project in collaboration with the ministry of culture to train Indian professionals, he tells Archana Khare Ghose that exchange between all parts of the world has to go up.

Your team will be training Indian museum professionals. What do you think are the disadvantages that Indian museums suffer from but could improve upon? Fortunately for India, it has two of the hardest things to acquire in a museum – scholarship and great collections. All you need now is to get people into the museums. I think Indian museums are right now focused on their collections but it would be of immense interest for the public if they were to get opportunities to see collections from say, Mexico, China, Iran, etc., in their own museums through loaned exhibitions. The collection of the British Museum is available to see for free to all those who are “curious or studious, native or foreign” and we could loan them for exhibitions.

When you took over as director of the British Museum, it was reportedly under financial deficit. What has changed in the museum since then? The British Museum turned 250 years old in 2003 and that’s when we went back to the original purpose with which the museum was set up. It was set up to build a resource for understanding the whole world and why our present is the way it is. What we’ve tried to change is to use the extraordinary treasure of the museum to understand all the corners of the world, to make sense of the world through our collection. We’ve taken quite a few exhibitions of our important treasures to the places that they came from – like the exhibition of ancient Persian artefacts to Tehran – and brought interesting ones to the British Museum, like The First Emperor, which included Chinese terracotta warriors too. The idea is to increase exchange between all parts of the world.

The Elgin Marbles – classical Greek sculptures in the British Museum removed from the Acropolis of Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 – have remained in contention with Greece demanding the sculptures back. The British Museum has treasures from all over the world, including India. How do you deal with demands for return of treasures? These were acquired in a different set of circumstances and in many cases would have been totally lost to the world had they not been preserved by the British Museum. Housed in the museum, they have become accessible to visitors from all over the world. We have offered to loan these sculptures to Greece for an exhibition but they refused saying they would either take it back as owners or not at all.

Your radio series-turned-book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, is a novel way of looking at the world through objects from various civilizations and how these have shaped up the world we live in. How does it help in understanding history better? The way we study history right now is ludicrous. We need a new history for the entire world, to take argument out of the European tradition and understand histories of people before they were ‘discovered’ by the Europeans. For instance, we don’t know anything about emperor Ashok though he is so vital to understanding why an Indian thinks the way he does – Gandhi, Nehru and many other thinkers from India can trace the origin of their thoughts to Ashok. That’s why Ashoka’s pillar is one of the 100 objects in the book. This book is based on a BBC Radio 4 series and is an exhaustive introduction to the world that we don’t know about. I hope it will lend new meaning to world history.