The British Museum is to be the subject of a fly on the wall documentary in the coming months. Here, its director, Neil MacGregor suggests that continued retention of many disputed artefacts is not a problem, if (as he believes) it is for the greater good. Opinions of the other parties involved in the disputes clearly count for nothing. The collection was acquired largely during Britain’s era of imperialism – it appears though that the mentality of imperialism still lives on though.
The Times 
May 6, 2007
Behind the scenes at the British Museum
From imperial war chest to global resource – the British Museum’s latest plan, says its director, Neil MacGregor, is to let everyone write their own history
So, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, why did you decide to let television cameras film behind the scenes at the museum, after the disastrous experience of the Royal Opera House in 1996, when a fly-on-the-wall documentary called The House made the place look like a nest of hysterical nutters? Did you have no qualms?
“No…” He pauses, then giggles convulsively. “Well, yes, as you’ve started with a tone of honesty.”
In fact, predictably, The Museum, a 10-part BBC2 series, is little short of an extended hymn of praise to MacGregor’s mighty Bloomsbury mansion. I say predictably because, by and large, if MacGregor is involved, everybody comes out smelling of roses. He is the most flawlessly fragrant arts boss we have, the most politically adept and, giggles notwithstanding, the most serious. He left the National Gallery to take over the BM in 2002. It was on its knees. Now it can fairly claim to be the best museum in the world, and its visitor numbers – almost 5m a year – are the highest they have ever been. And it’s all down to this jacketless, giggly bloke in his gloomy and very chilly office – he says he likes it that way – overlooking Robert Smirke’s cold, colossal but loveable facade. So, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, what’s it all about, then?
He owes it all, he says, to an act of government meanness in 1824. Instead of extending the BM, it was decided to house the national collection of paintings in Trafalgar Square. This means that, today, MacGregor runs the only one of the five top museums in the world – the other four are in New York, St Petersburg, Paris and Berlin – that is not dominated by European painting. “It’s a huge strength,” he says. “The physical experience is not a Eurocentric one, and the public perception is not overwhelmingly Eurocentric. Your first thought about the Louvre or the Met is: European paintings. Without these paintings, we have a way of thinking about the whole world.”
This is the hard intellectual core of all the fragrance. When MacGregor took over, the BM was threatened on all sides. Financially, there were the usual rows with government; but, much more important, there was the issue of identity. The museum was still seen by many as an imperial anachronism. The justification for its collection was being undermined by fundamental ethical issues (why should the Parthenon Marbles be in London and not Athens?) and postmodern doubts (why should all the accumulated meanings of all this loot be mediated by a bunch of dusty, cloistered types in Bloomsbury?).
MacGregor’s solution was so suavely done that nobody noticed how radical it was. He said he was returning to the BM’s roots in the Enlightenment, a move symbolised by the restoration of the King’s Library as an 18th-century collector’s paradise. The emphasis was on universalism, on the collection not as a British narrative about world civilisations, but as a unique resource from which civilisations could build their own narratives. The collection was no longer imperial booty, but a global guarantee that, whatever happened elsewhere, here multiple stories could still be reconstructed. The second Gulf war played right into his hands.
“Take what is obviously the biggest issue at the moment – Iraq. The museum in Baghdad is completely closed. The director felt he could no longer ask his security staff to protect the works, so he put the entire collection in the basement and sealed it with concrete. There is now no place in Iraq where its history can be studied. That means, for the time being, the national museum of Iraq is the British Museum.
“It is essential that different histories of the world get written. At a simple level, I was brought up with so little knowledge of what happened in India or China before European contact. I knew there had been great civilisations, but I never learnt anything about them. I suspect this was the case for a lot of people. In the case of Africa, there was a standard view in about 1900 that there was this continent with no history before the Europeans at all. The arrival of the Benin bronzes started a complete rethinking.”
This provides a response to the sceptics and even those who call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. This collection is here so that civilisations can be studied together, and to provide a guarantee of continuity. “It’s what we do. I don’t feel I’ve provided answers to the questions, but I do feel I’ve defined the predicament.”
This new role has geopolitical implications. The BM, for example, has played a part in opening China’s eyes to the world by staging an Assyrian exhibition in Beijing, and a part in asserting African identity through a Kenyan exhibition in Nairobi. In both cases, local experts were involved in telling the stories. Significantly, MacGregor says his one conversation with Tony Blair about these big issues of museum identity was about Africa, a geopolitical issue through which both Blair and Brown have struggled to define themselves on the world stage.
This, of course, may lead to complications. The big Persia exhibition a couple of years ago happened only because of President Ahmadinejad’s agreement, and was specifically intended to counteract western narratives based on the propaganda of the ancient Greeks that the Persians were the barbarians at the gates, narratives that still play a part in today’s politics. In effect, the BM was taking a partisan view of the most threatening confrontation in the world today. This will be taken further with an exhibition about Shia Iran in 2009. What if, I ask MacGregor, tensions increase and he is told to pull out? “I think it would be a difficult decision. It can only happen if people from the lending country are allowed to come in with their objects. Government, very properly, has the power to stop it.”
I point out that the film 300 is currently perpetuating Greek propaganda. “Maybe that’s a reason to do the exhibition again. We could give catalogues to everybody going to see the film.” But where is the line drawn? Would he have done an exhibition about German culture in 1939? He laughs. “There are moments when there arebarbarians at the gates. Now and then, these demonisations are accurate.” It wouldn’t be the first time he has confronted official sensibilities. At the National Gallery, he staged Seeing Salvation, an exhibition about depictions of Christ. New Labour people, in their first flush of militant political correctness, protested at what they halfwittedly viewed as an assertion of cultural superiority and exclusivity.
“They saw Seeing Salvation as Eurocentric. But this was a central part of how we learn to understand ourselves, of European consciousness, a part of how people think… To be fair to this government, and to all governments, it is worth restating the extraordinary way in which the BM was constituted so as to depoliticise it. The idea that, in the middle of the 18th century, an organisation was set up, funded by government but not controlled by government, is amazing and absolutely fundamental. It’s one of the odd things about the problem of the Parthenon sculptures – most people find it genuinely hard to believe that this is not a decision for the government.”
The further advantage of the MacGregor Predicament Definition is that it provides a local identity to the museum, as well as a global one. Visitors are getting younger, and UK visitors are on the increase, but the nature of those visitors is constantly changing. So, for example, exhibitions of Ghana-ian and Bengali objects produced sharp increases in visitor numbers from those local communities. The museum is able to serve these diasporas, but can also benefit from the fact that the nature of diasporas has changed radically. “We almost need a new word. Previously, the diaspora left home, and that was it. Now we have this remarkable phenomenon in which people regularly visit the country of their parents and grandpar-ents. The distinction between home and abroad has been dissolved.”
With huge new immigrant waves from the expanded EU, this puts pressure on the museum’s collection if it is to be evenhanded in servicing all local diasporas. The particular current problem is eastern Europe. “We get regular visits from colleagues in eastern Europe who express concern that our eastern European collections are not strong enough, which they’re not. What is interesting is that, for so many people, the British Museum is one of the few places where you can locate your culture in the context of the whole world, and it is important to countries that this will happen. We are, in fact, planning our European gallery of the Middle Ages, and you cannot now cover that era unless you accept that the area runs from Constantinople to Dublin.”
So, new Europe wants us to have its stuff; old Europe wants its back. Meanwhile, the TV series, with its emphasis on the sheer behind-the-scenes effort involved in conserving and exhibiting the collection, is, in effect, an expression of MacGregor’s sense of wonder when he arrived at the BM. At the National Gallery, there were a few thousand paintings, and the processes of care and restoration were more or less uniform across the collection. At the BM, there are countless thousands of objects and different materials.
“When I arrived, I realised how little I understood, even as a regular visitor, about what actually needs to happen before the museum can function. I did not understand how difficult
“The series makes obvious the complexity of what may seem a simple thing, like putting a bronze statue on show. It’s the submerged bit of the BM. The museum is much more of an iceberg than any picture collection, and it’s interesting to see what it means to collect this range of material. And the fact that the museum, by doing its job, allows more people to interpret the collection and build narratives.”
All this fragrance would seem oppressive were it not for the fact that even MacGregor’s BM spends brief periods in the glare of media-generated controversy. Our native desire to tear down excellence – of which, when discussing 18th-century political cartoons, MacGregor has spoken fondly in the past – means that any chance to snap at his heels is routinely seized. One recent story suggested that his policy on the Parthenon Marbles has changed. It hasn’t: loans to Athens have always been on the cards. “The position is as it has always been. The trustees have always said that the sculptures are an essential part of the museum here.”
Another story criticised the expense of his scheme of holding meetings of the board of trustees overseas. “The trustees have to decide how to plan for the future of this collection, which is unique in the world. That means thinking about how it’s going to be displayed. The only way you can really hope for informed discussion is by going to look at what comparable collections do. Once a year, we hold a board meeting abroad – it’s really an instruction course for trustees.”
The sting in the tale of the criticism was that this money might be cutting into the acquisition budgets. Spending in this area last year was very low. “Acquisition spending across all museums is under pressure. It’s not earmarked money, and it has to come out of the residue. In fact, our acquisitions have been remarkable, thanks to the support of the patrons and the National Art Fund. And we’re still given collections – the late film critic Alexander Walker put together his collection of modern prints to give it to the BM. And the artist Avigdor Arikha gave us his collection of the best of his graphic work. The financial expenditure is modest, but the enrichment of the collection is profound.”
MacGregor – startlingly, in view of his appearance and general bounciness – is 60. He’s not Sir Neil because he turned down a knighthood in 1999, though he won’t say why. He has been rumoured to be in line to take over from Philippe de Montebello as director of the Met, in New York, but it was, he says, no more than a rumour. The BM, therefore, may be his final berth, though he seems dubious about 65 as a decent retirement age. He should stay, dispensing fragrance – though, on the other hand, his retirement memoirs should be good.
“There are many different histories,” as he keeps saying, “waiting to be written by other people.” Including him.
The Museum, BBC2, from Thursday http://www.bryanappleyard.com
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BRITISH MUSEUM Founded in 1753 and first opened (free) to the public in 1759; has about 7m objects Star attractions:Parthenon Marbles, Rosetta Stone, Sutton Hoo burial artefacts Visitors:5m a year
METROPOLITAN, New York City Founded in 1870, it occupies 2m square feet on Fifth Avenue and holds 2m+ works. Strong in European and American art, it has important collections of antiquities and medieval art at the Cloisters Star attractions:Temple of Dendur, Unicorn tapestries (Cloisters) Visitors:5m+ a year
STATE MUSEUMS, BERLIN The Pergamon, Altes Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie offer classical antiquities – Islamic, ancient Near East, Byzantine, Egyptian – as well as 19th-century fine art Star attractions:Pergamon Altar, Ishtar Gate, bust of Queen Nefertiti Visitors:Pergamon has 850,000 a year
HERMITAGE, St Petersburg Kick-started by Catherine the Great’s purchase, in 1764, of 200 European paintings, it opened to the public in 1852 Star attractions:Rembrandts, impressionists and postimpressionists, ancient gold (including Schliemann’s Troy finds) Visitors:2.6m a year