June 8, 2006

Is the British Museum a museum for the world?

Posted at 7:42 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor is interviewed in a Hong Kong magazine about the British Museum’s cooperation with China and how this represents the British Museum’s intentions to be perceived as a global universal museum.
He says that the rest of the world has the right to use & study the collection in the same way as British citizens. What he does not mention though that is except in occasional circumstances, when people want to study items in the British Museum’s collection (which may well have come from their own country), then they will have to visit Britain to do so. For many people this is unlikely to be possible or affordable – it could be argued that the British have far more opportunities to visit the original setting of many of the pieces than the original owners have to come to Britain.

Orientations (Hong Kong)

The British Museum: A Museum of the World for the World
by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

Three years ago the British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary. Since then we have undertaken major initiatives to emphasize the importance of the museum’s worldwide collection, not only in London and the UK, but also within the context of the world as a whole.
The British Museum was the first national public museum in the world opened for `all studious and curious persons’. When the museum was set up in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment, actual access was necessarily limited to a fairly small part of the European population, but today we can make the ideal of enlightenment for the world community a reality. All our collections were always intended to be available for anybody and everyone. The ideals articulated by the museum’s founders were part of the Enlightenment conviction that knowledge and understanding were indispensable ingredients of civil society, the best remedies against intolerance and bigotry. The museum has made its name by collecting and cataloguing the world and allowing visitors to address, through the filter of history – both ancient and more recent – key questions of contemporary politics and international relations, to assess and consider their place in the world and to see the different parts of that world as indissolubly linked. Such a global context allows more associations, more resonances, and above all more questions than do more specific geographical or cultural contexts. It enables us to interrogate the objects in a deeper and richer way.
Experiencing a museum collection can be likened to going on a journey on the Web but with the incomparable advantage of being able to engage with the scale and the surface of the objects, and to grasp the traditions of the hand as much as of the mind. Museum collections have a unique role to play in this. A sense of history is crucial to a nation’s identity. The British Museum’s encyclopaedic collections can help to provide a wider context, to give evidence of the links, influences and connections that have shaped a country. It is a global resource and we are rapidly improving electronic and Internet access to the collection, such as the recent digitization of our Central Asian holdings, including the paintings from Dunhuang. We are also expanding our programme of loans and touring exhibitions to spread the collection across the world.
In the light of this focus on sharing the collection and capitalizing on our long-standing scholarly relationships with China, the British Museum signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding with the National Museum of China (NMC) in Beijing in September 2005. This is the first cultural agreement between a British institution and the NMC and will guarantee a significant programme of collaboration between our museum and its Chinese counterparts. The first fruits of the agreement will be a series of loan exhibitions on world cultures not currently represented in museums in China which will run from 2008 or 2009 onwards. Other cultural exchanges include the current exhibition, `Treasures from the World’s Cultures’, at the Capital Museum in Beijing (which will run until 5 June and then be transferred to the National Palace Museum in Taipei), and an exhibition of artefacts from ancient Iraq which will be sent to the Shanghai Museum in July 2006.
In 2007, the departments of Prints and Drawings and Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the museum will organize an exhibition on Britain as it emerged as a world power during the Georgian period. The exhibition – `Britain meets the World, 1714-1830′ – will be shown in a new exhibition gallery in the Meridian Gate (Wumen) at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The museum is working in partnership with the staff of the Palace Museum in Beijing on this exhibition and the Palace Museum will contribute objects from their own collections, including some connected with Lord Macartney’s embassy to the Qianlong emperor in 1793. The exhibition will feature around 100 prints and drawings, in addition to objects as diverse as Roman sculpture from the collection of Charles Townley and Native American artefacts from the painter Benjamin West’s studio. Our colleagues at the Palace Museum were curious about 18th century British perceptions of China, so we have included chinoiserie fantasies as well as watercolours of Lord Macartney’s embassy by his official artist, William Alexander, later to become the first Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
Several professional exchanges have also been proposed and are currently being organized. These include inviting Chinese scholars to help catalogue our collection of Chinese paintings, and one of our clock curators going to the Palace Museum to advise on the conservation of China’s collection of around 3,000 European clocks. Two Chinese curators have been invited to come to the British Museum each year to take part in our international summer school. Zhao Feng from the National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, is currently at the museum until August 2006 to work on Central Asian textiles, updating the database entries on these objects in both Chinese and English. An Eastern pictorial art conservator from the British Museum will go to the Shanghai Museum to study Chinese techniques of painting conservation.
In London we have planned a series of annual exhibitions of our permanent holdings of Chinese paintings, the next in the series being our religious paintings in January 2007, of Dunhuang Buddhist works and paintings featuring Daoism. We also plan to host what we hope will be a series of loan exhibitions from China, starting with one on China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. The objects will come from museums in Shaanxi province and the exhibition will open in September 2007.
The obligations of the British Museum are indeed universal. The rest of the world has the right to use and study the collection, on the same footing as British citizens. What is in the collection is the common heritage of everyone on the planet. Neither the objects nor their interpretations should be limited to meet the needs of any single group or community, including even that of the museum itself. The stories they have to tell are not one, but many; their meanings are not unchanging but evolving, and we have to insist on the plurality of these meanings and their consequences. This allows us to work on the slow coming together of cultures that already borrow from each other and live together; but also for that kind of wider perception, we need time and a patient and sceptical enquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation, that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction. The British Museum must now, as 250 years ago, reaffirm its worldwide civic purpose. We hope that by taking the above initiatives, both with regard to China and elsewhere in the world, the museum will show itself to be ever more relevant to current events and to offer a depth of history to what is going on around us.

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