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Can the British Museum forget the idea of imperialist looting and acquisitions?

As mentioned previously, Neil MacGregor’s series [1], A history of the world in 100 objects has now finished and has doubtlessly been more successful than the BBC ever imagined it would be. It has however provided a colossal platform for Neil MacGregor (and thus the British Museum’s) viewpoint.

Mary Beard argues here that the series manages to “Forget the idea of imperialist looting or acquisitiveness”, but I’m wondering whether this is not more a case of wishful thinking by the British Museum that people would forget it, as the reality is that for many people (mostly located outside the UK & not necessarily Radio 4 or World Service” listeners), the imperialist looting which is perpetuated today within the British Museum is a continuing source of anguish.

Guardian [2]

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor – review
Brilliant on radio, Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects also make a marvellous book, says Mary Beard
Mary Beard
The Guardian, Saturday 13 November 2010

Chapter 33 of Neil MacGregor’s marvellous book-of-the-radio-series is about the Rosetta stone. This lump of granite from Egypt, “about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports”, is, as he frankly admits, “decidedly dull to look at”. It earns its place in A History of the World in 100 Objects because in the 19th century the equally dull text – on tax breaks for priests, inscribed upon it, in three different languages (Greek, demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphs) – became the key to decoding the hieroglyphic script of the ancient pharaohs.

But, more than that, the stone also has a powerful modern history of its own. It was fought over by French and British troops at the end of the Napoleonic wars, and finally taken to London. MacGregor is one of the few to point out that it is actually inscribed in four, not three, languages: on its side, we can still read, in English, “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801.”

Ironically, given the British possession of the stone, it was a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who finally deciphered the hieroglyphs. What MacGregor does not mention is that this unphotogenic object has for years and years been the bestselling postcard in the British Museum, easily outstripping more elegant objects, such as the Elgin marbles, or more instantly appealing icons, such as the Lewis chessmen. Indeed, until it was put in a glass case a few years ago, the Rosetta stone was the object of a kind of veneration. I used to see many museum visitors lean over the low railings round it and steal a quick touch, while the warders kindly turned a blind eye.

Why the fascination? Presumably those who touched it, or bought the postcard and stuck it on their wall or sent it to friends, already shared MacGregor’s sense that “things” (as he repeatedly calls his star objects) open up our world and our history to us. We decode our past through objects as much as texts – and never more dramatically than with this lump of granite.

In that sense, among museum visitors at least (some six million a year of them to the British Museum), the ambitious Radio 4 series, encouraging us to reflect on why things matter, was kicking at an open door. In fact, perhaps the most daring aspect of the 100 Objects series was that it was on the radio rather than on television. Instead of lingering close-up shots with a MacGregor voice-over, there was just MacGregor’s voice (and that faintly irritating, science-fiction-style music) – and we simply had to imagine the rest. This gamble paid off brilliantly on air, and might have been ruined in the transition to an illustrated book. But, though the book is a truly gorgeous product, the pictures themselves are nicely discreet, each object shown against a plain black background, flattering even to the Rosetta Stone, without being flashy or dominating the text.

The only one I could have done without is the illustration of the nasty, pebble-shaped thing known as the Ain Sakhri Lovers figurine. Made in about 9000BC in a place near Bethlehem, this is apparently “the oldest known representation of a couple having sex”. Here MacGregor abandons the wry irony with which he writes about most of his objects and waxes lyrical: “I think it’s one of the tenderest expressions of love that I know, comparable to the great kissing couples of Brancusi and Rodin.” And the sculptor Marc Quinn chimes in with a comparison of this strange little stone (which, if anything, looks more like copulating beetles than copulating human beings) to “a pornographic film . . . it has a cinematic quality as you turn it . . . and yet it’s a poignant, beautiful object about the relationship between people”. For me, it was much more poignant on the radio and in my imagination.

Of course, the transition to print also encourages closer scrutiny of MacGregor’s words than the radio version allowed, as you listened to him while half-occupied with something else. There must be thousands of pedants, like me, who will go through these 100 chapters covering all of human history and more than half the globe, with their blue pencils, gleefully looking for errors, and, unsurprisingly, there are slips and odd silences. The chapter I like least is number 36, on the Warren cup – a notorious silver drinking vessel, with scenes of Roman men and boys making love, which appears in the section on “pleasure and spice”, just before a North American pipe (200BC to AD 100) and a late 4th-century silver pepper-pot from Hoxne in Suffolk.

Not only do some odd ideas about Roman culture emerge here (“Roman women were generally excluded from events such as drinking parties . . .” No, they weren’t). But there is not a whisper of some strongly held suspicions that, far from being a “vessel, probably found at Bittir, near Jerusalem, AD5-15”, the Warren cup actually dates from the early 20th century, and was made to satisfy an American collector, Edward Warren, who had an appetite for erotica (he commissioned, among other things, as MacGregor tells us, one version of Rodin’s Kiss).

But, overall, the pedants will not come out ahead. This is a brilliant, engagingly written, deeply researched survey – and “spot the error” must be one of the least rewarding responses to it. Much more fun are the choices – of “things” and stories to go with them – that the book offers. Which would be my desert-island pick? Which would I like to touch, even to own? Which speaks to me the loudest, and why? It is an Aladdin’s cave of possibilities. I found myself entranced by the axe, dated from some time between 4000 and 2000BC, found near Canterbury, and made from jade quarried in the Italian Alps (how it travelled to England, we don’t know, but another one from the same rock has been found in Dorset). Dürer’s marvellous drawing of a rhinoceros, an animal he had never seen, also stands out, partly because it is so nicely hyped by MacGregor, as a symbol of human ingenuity to match the Rosetta stone. “It is, of course – exhilaratingly? distressingly? reassuringly? I don’t know which – wrong,” he writes of the drawing. “But in the end that is not the point. Dürer’s rhinoceros stands as a monument to our endless curiosity about the world beyond our grasp.”

But for sheer historical story-power, I would go for the wooden Sudanese slit drum. This was made as a drum, in the shape of a cow, somewhere in central Africa in the mid-19th century. It then came north with the slave trade to Khartoum and was “refashioned to take its place in this Islamic society”, with Islamic designs now carved across its body. Before long it was rebranded again. After the terrible Battle of Omdurman in 1898 (where British forces killed 11,000 Sudanese “rebels”), the drum was found by the victorious army near Khartoum. A little crown was added near its tail and it was sent off by Lord Kitchener to be a present to Queen Victoria. It is, as MacGregor observes, a narrative in wood of conquests and empires, with each new owner making his or her own mark, and so telling their story, in the fabric of the object – until it entered the British Museum in 1937.

Although MacGregor does not labour the point, A History of the World in 100 Objects is also a eulogy of museums. Forget the old idea of the museum as a mausoleum (captured in Thomas Hardy’s dreadful doggerel “Christmas in the Elgin Room” – in which the marbles themselves complain of “being brought to the gloom/Of this dark room”). Forget the idea of imperialist looting or acquisitiveness. MacGregor’s museum is a place where objects gain rather than lose meaning, where they are interpreted and re-interpreted, and encouraged to meet new audiences. It is a place from which things face out, available (in the case of the British Museum) to the whole world, free.

As if to emphasise this, many different nationalities are represented among those whose opinions MacGregor quotes: a Sudanese journalist on the slit drum, a Greek archaeologist on the Elgin marbles, and so on. When I reached the end of the book, I could not help reflecting warmly that, if I were a “thing”, the British Museum would be a very nice place to end up.

Mary Beard’s books include The Parthenon and Pompeii (Profile).

Observer [3]

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor – review
Neil MacGregor illuminates the human story and rehabilitates the British Museum in the process, says Tom Holland
The Observer, Sunday 7 November 2010

There is considerable irony in the fact that BP should be the principal sponsor of exhibitions at the British Museum. At a time when the company’s own reputation is filthy black with spilt oil, the hard-nosed businessmen responsible for scouring it clean could do worse than look to the example of a softly spoken public servant with a background in fine art.

Neil MacGregor has been director of the British Museum for eight years now, and in that period he has presided over a truly startling transformation in its image. What was previously seen as something of a national embarrassment, a monument to British rapacity and taste for plunder, is now regarded with pride, and even devotion, as the Kew Gardens of global culture – a veritable seedbank of civilisations. As an exercise in rebranding, it is surely up there with the best.

This year, first with a radio series and now with a book, Neil MacGregor has set the seal on his vision of the British Musem as the world’s supreme memory palace. One hundred objects have been selected from its unrivalled collections to illustrate the entire sweep of humanity’s history: from a 2-million-year-old stone chopping tool, fashioned at a time when Homo sapiens did not even exist, to a solar-powered lamp, which McGregor optimistically casts as embodying the technology of tomorrow. Amid all the swirl and sweep of his story, which transports us to every corner of the globe, and illustrates how different cultures have always communicated, traded, and fought with one another, the various processes by which the British Museum came into possession of MacGregor’s 100 objects, and many more, come to seem just that little bit more normative. It is hard to see Lord Elgin as someone wholly beyond the pale when his purchase of the Parthenon friezes is set alongside the abduction of a head of Augustus by a Sudanese queen, say, or the transportation of a west African drum on a slave ship to Virginia. MacGregor’s central point, that the cultures of the world are the inheritance of the world, is one he never neglects to emphasise.

And in pursuit of making it, he ventures down byways that not even the most avid visitors to the museum are likely to have explored. To be sure, many of the collection’s most iconic treasures are brought on stage to take a twirl: the Nineveh friezes, the Rosetta stone, the helmet from Sutton Hoo. Others, however – whether a Japanese clay pot, or shards of pottery from a Tanzanian beach – are altogether less starry. Most moving of all, perhaps, are those objects that have been so divorced from their original settings that even a guide as eloquent and empathetic as MacGregor struggles to provide a context for them. Describing one particular artefact, a sculpture of a Huastec goddess from Mexico that could plausibly have been fashioned at any time between 900AD and 1521AD, he states that, “Of all the objects in our history, she is perhaps the hardest to read confidently through the filters of the historical record.” Yet what can be done to restore meaning to her, and dignity to whoever it was sculpted her – “the heart that fed” – MacGregor has done. Even oblivion, in this wonderful book, is given a voice.