July 15, 2008

Is the British Museum afraid?

Posted at 12:42 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Kwame Opoku in his latest piece notices the same coincidence as I did with the current burst of over-zealous publicity for the British Museum.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Panic and Panegyrics:Comments on “Songs of Praise” for the British Museum

We have had within the last few days a spate of articles, all praising in fulsome language the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor. One article, “Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth” written by Damien Whitworth, appeared in the Times on 12 July.

Another sycophantic article, by Ben Macintyre in The Times of July 10, 2008, is captioned, “Let’s all have tickets to the universal museum”, arguing that “It’s pointless trying to work out who owns ancient art objects. We need to share them around the world”. A third article, by Tristram Hunt, “The British Museum is now our top attraction. If only others would shrug off their deadening ways and follow its lead”, appeared in The Observer on Sunday July 6, 2008.

It can be assumed that the publication of these article within such a short period is no sheer coincidence but part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to boost the popularity of the British Museum and the prestige of its director, But why now? We have no obvious explanation and can only speculate on the motivation behind these panegyrics in respectable British media.

In about the same period, we know that Egypt has made in June an official request for a loan of the Rosetta Stone, that Marbles United has appointed a Campaign Director (Thomas Dowson) on 9 July, and that the Benin exhibition has opened on 10 July in Chicago giving further impetus to discussions on the restitution of the Benin bronzes. There have also been recently several instances of returning cultural objects to Greece, Egypt and Italy. Could these separate but not unrelated issues have thrown somebody at the British Museum into panic and caused him or her to seek the support of leading British newspapers to prepare public opinion for any eventual discussions and disputes?

As readers know, a nightmare of the museum director (and perhaps also of his loyal staff) is to wake up one morning and find that the Rosetta Stone, heavy as it is, the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, as many as they are, and the Benin bronzes have all disappeared from the museum! In reality this will not happen over night but who knows how all this works on the minds of those under constant attacks and who are aware that the whole world is against them in this respect? It should be recalled that it was panic by the British Museum, under increasing political pressure by the Greeks for the return of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles that led to the British initiative to draw up the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums in December 2002, signed by all the important museums with the notable exception of the British Museum, the champion of the “universal museums”. The leading museums, mostly European and North American, informed the so called “source countries” that they had no intention of returning any of the cultural objects that had been wrongfully taken away in the past.

Whatever the motive for this spate of praise songs for the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor, we need to look carefully at the ideas they contain. We have commented elsewhere in detail on two of the praise songs and wish briefly to comment on the article by Damian Whitworth, “Is the British Museum the greatest museum on earth?

We may all agree that the British Museum is a great museum but whether it is the greatest museum is another matter. For some people, a great museum must be a specialized museum concentrating on a few subjects, such as art or fashion for others, a great museum can only be a “universal museum”. Obviously Whitworth is in the second group although he does not explain his criteria for greatness which will allow the determination of which museum is the greatest. He assumes that Great Britain must have the greatest museum.

The greatness of the British Museum lies largely in the presence of a huge number (some estimate 13 million) objects of all sizes from all parts of the world assembled there. But these collections or rather confiscations constitute a clear evidence of the violations and denials of the individual and collective rights of freedom of religion and culture. They also evidence a violation of the right to self-determination of peoples since these objects should have been returned to the various counties of Africa and Asia when they gained formal independence from the former colonial power, Britain. These objects constitute a permanent and constant reminder of the continued violations of these human rights. Whether greatness based largely on the violations of the human rights of others, greatness linked to the suffering and massacres of many peoples in various parts of the world deserves our admiration, is matter of conscience and morality. Some Europeans may admire the destruction of other cultures through the colonial expansion and aggression but they surely cannot expect Africans, Asians and others to share this admiration.

That MacGregor is not leaving the British Museum is presented as if he had rejected an offer to become the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It is even stated that the American media pressed him to state whether he was leaving or not. One can only reject an offer if it was ever made. When you look at the reports from the USA, it is clear that he was never offered the job and could therefore not have refused it. Lee Rosenbaum who knows more about such matters than most of us wrote:

“This headline on Bloomberg sure got my attention this morning:

British Museum’s MacGregor Was Asked to Run the Met, Said No

Who knew? But the much more carefully phrased article by Farah Nayeri seems to indicate that no such thing may have actually occurred. Nayeri writes:

British Museum Head of Press Hannah Boulton…said, “He [MacGregor] was approached by them, he had a conversation with them, but in the course of that conversation he ruled himself out of the job of running the Met.”…

Asked today if he was offered the Met job, MacGregor said only that the Met’s search committee had “a very large number of conversations with people who were not candidates” about the Met’s future”. CultureGrrl. www.artsjournal.com

The presentation of this matter by Whitworth reminds one of a practice which used to be current in the then West Germany. Professors who were well-established in their positions would set in circulation rumours that they were planning to leave their posts and some even organized to receive in fact offers from other universities only to reject them later. This strengthened their bargaining position as regards their employers. But does MacGregor really need this?

We leave uncommented Whitworth’s statement” the saga began to look like the museum equivalent of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s tug of love over Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Whitworth is free to describe the job of Director of the British Museum as the best job in the museum world. Not all of us will agree with this assessment. Some of us world not sleep well, knowing that our museum has stolen artefacts from the whole world and that the Cambodians, Chinese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Greeks, Indians, Japanese, Nigerians, and Peruvians all have claims against the objects in our museum. Sleepless nights would become normal. This is a matter of belief and individual conscience. If you take the injunction “Thou shall not steal” seriously a museum like that is hardly the place for you. Many Europeans seem to believe that that moral prescription does not apply to art and artefacts. On the contrary, they believe they have a right and duty to seize such objects to preserve them in the interest of mankind, including presumably the peoples they are robbing.

The British Museum may be a creation of the European Enlightenment but the realization of that idea was only possible during the colonialist and imperialist period which enabled the British Government to amass those huge and varied objects from all over the world. Small and weak countries, lacking in a strong army and a powerful navy could never have established a museum such as the British Museum. The colonialist were strengthened in their devastating attacks on innocent and unprepared Africans and Asians but the moral support they derived from the writings of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. These philosophers were of the opinion that the colonial peoples were not really human beings and in any case were at the bottom of the ladder of evolution. The Europeans on top had to “civilise” them even if these attempts involved the use of force and violence.

Macgregor is quoted by Whitworth as saying “that such cultural diplomacy can bring nations together by enhancing wider understanding of a country beyond modern-day politics. Museums have a mission to help us to understand ourselves. A great exhibition should make us “a little more questioning and uncertain” about our society. “As well as being interesting in themselves, the collections raise questions about us and about now.”

Despite all the exhibitions that have been presented at the British Museum, there does not seem to be any sign that the institution is working for a wider understanding beyond modern-day politics nor have the collections raised much question about the British and their society, at least from the point of view of the British Museum. The museum and its director do not show any sign that they have doubts about the legitimacy of their possession of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and the Benin bronzes.

Whitworth can praise MacGregor as much as he likes. He even cites a British historian who is alleged to have described MacGregor as a “genius”, a description most of us would use with the greatest caution. None will doubt that anyone who can run a big enterprise such as the British Museum must be a person of great ability but a “genius”? Or is this part of the inflation of words, almost endemic on the other side of the Atlantic that is now reaching this side of the ocean?

As for the British Museum being “a museum for the world” or “a museum for mankind”, could we kindly ask these writers to spare us the pain in tracing the creation and expansion of this museum? The British Museum is a British Museum, created by the British Parliament by the British Museum Act of 1753, financed by the British with a Board of Trustees appointed by the British Sovereign and the British Foreign Secretary. Does this sound like an institution for mankind? The fact that the museum contains confiscated materials from all over the world does not make it a museum for the world. As for the entrance to the museum being free of charge, one can only add that yes, it is free of charge provided one can go to London where the museum is situated. How many can afford the trip from Africa or Asia to London? Would the Africans and Asians who seek to visit Bloomsbury in order to go to the “museum for mankind” even obtain a visa if they advanced such a visit as the reason for their travel to London?

I start wondering when I read the following statement with regard to Hadrian: “Expressing his passion so strongly that he was called “the Little Greek” was “like Kennedy saying, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,” says MacGregor. Or “the equivalent of George Bush speaking Arabic or writing Arabic poetry “.

Should we take all this seriously?

Kwame Opoku, 14 July,2008.

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