Neil MacGregor talks about the need to protect artefacts abroad – yet his museum is one of the worst culprits at hanging on to artefacts from these countries – many of which were taken during times of civil unrest in the past.
Times of India 
Museums enable societies to ask questions: MacGregor
Vithal C Nadkarni, Feb 9, 2011, 04.42am IST
MUMBAI: British Museum director Neil MacGregor says he was extremely encouraged by the Egyptian people’s response to the recent attack on their national museum in Cairo’s Liberation Square. Not only did the police catch the vandals quickly but volunteers spontaneously formed a 3,000-strong human chain around the edifice to protect it from further damage.
“This shows how important ideas of collective history and national identity have become to people today,” he told TOI in an exclusive chat at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya before his talk, ‘Stories of the World: Museums, History and Contemporary Society’.
“Telling history through things is what museums are for,” he emphasized. “And because the British Museum has for over 250 years been collecting things from around the globe, it is not a bad place to start if you want use objects to tell histories of the world.”
He narrated one such ‘history’ through 100 objects in an acclaimed series of 15-minute talks for BBC Radio 4. “Our aim was not simply to describe these remarkable things but to show their cultural and philosophical significance-about Emperor Ashoka’s broadcast of tolerance, for example, made to his people through edicts carved on sandstone pillars. This also resonates with the ideas of the founding fathers of the British Museum who made it free to the world since 1753.”
In this context, MacGregor concedes that the title ‘British’ Museum can be misleading. “Every other institution set up by the state at that time had the word royal in it,” he said.
“The museum was the first for citizens. It was therefore British. But it was free, not only for natives, but also for foreigners. Nobody had earlier proclaimed in this way the right of citizens to information. This was one of the British parliament’s most marvellous responses to civil strife, and it was to set up a place where people could have access to information and meet and disagree without fighting.”
“Today, technology allows us to do this in previously unimaginable ways,” he explained. “We have nearly 2 million objects online and nearly a million with images and right from the beginning, the trustees took the decision that all these images could be downloaded free of charge for study. This is like free admission. ”
His talk on stories of the world focuses on the role that museum collections can play in enabling societies to ask questions about itself. He cites the example of the Throne of Weapons made entirely from gun parts by an Mozambican artist known as Kester.
Citing the example of the Throne of Weapons made entirely from gun parts by a Mozambican artist known as Kester, he talks about the role played by museums in enabling societies to ask questions about itself.
“It represents the end of civil war in the country because guns had to be handed in, to be exchanged for things like sowing machines,” he explains. “Then they wanted to make this process visible, to show that guns can no longer kill. What is striking is that not one of those rifles used in the throne is African. So you wouldn’t have had a civil war in Africa without European arms! This raises all sorts of questions for those of us brought up on the idea that civil war is the sole responsibility of African society.”