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The Universal Museum – the way forward?

In the anniversary lecture [1] given by by Neil MacGregor, he predictably expounds the universal museum concept as the way forward for the British Museum. It should still be remembered that the whole Universal Museum concept is one pushed by the museum itself – no one appointed them to this role, it is not the only possible role for a museum & most importantly, the original owners of artefacts were never consulted about it.

The Universal Museum ideology neglects the circumstances of acquisition and the original context, focusing instead on the entity of the holding museum itself. This is not to say that it is without any benefits, but it should not be seen as a clear cut justification for perpetuating the status quo.

The Times [2]

January 25, 2009
British Museum director Neil MacGregor talks collections
An extract from Neil MacGregor’s anniversary lecture where he reflects on the great works made by humans throughout history

Neil MacGregor

It was 250 years ago this month that the British Museum first opened its doors to the public. When you visit the museum today, you visit somewhere that is like no other collection, no other building on earth. It is the only place where you can, in every sense, walk through the world, and through time, and look at the whole range of what humans have made and speculate as to what they have thought.

But the British Museum’s collection is a very odd one. There are great works of art in it, of course, such as the Iris from the Parthenon or Michelangelo’s only surviving study for Adam. But the British Museum is not a museum of art. And its collection has always led to contradiction with its name. It is a matter of bafflement to many people why it is called the British Museum when such a small percentage of the objects in it are British. But it is quintessentially British. It is effectively the first public institution to be called British — rather to our irritation, the British Linen Bank got there first. It was quintessentially British in 1753, when it was founded by parliament; and it is true today.

It was set up in Montague House, on the site of the current building, in a London that does a great deal, I think, to explain why it is the way it is; a London that was the centre of world trade. As early as 1711, Addison wrote, “There is no place in the town which I love to frequent as the Royal Exchange. It gives me a secret satisfaction, and in some measure it gratifies my vanity, as an Englishman, to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting each other upon the private business of mankind, making this metropolis an emporium for the whole earth . . . Sometimes I am jostled by a body of Armenians, sometimes I’m lost in a crowd of Jews, and sometimes I make one in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, a Swede, a Frenchman at different times, or rather I fancy myself, like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what countryman he was, replied that he was a citizen of the world.”

It was the first time anybody could really have said that, the early 18th century, and it’s the first place it could have been said. It is this London where Hans Sloane starts to build his collection. Sloane, who was the friend of Newton and Handel and Voltaire, who looked after Queen Anne as a doctor, who inoculated people against smallpox, was the man whose collection is the basis of the British Museum. He was a very clever doctor, an intellectual, and a rich one, because he is the man who realised that cocoa, which is clearly good for you, but very bitter, could be made drinkable if you mixed it with milk and sugar. Drinking chocolate is the fortune on which the British Museum is founded. And this enormous fortune, and this intellectual curiosity, enabled him, using the maritime contacts of London, to put together a collection of a sort that was unparalleled outside princely collections, and in many senses unparalleled anywhere.

But it was a collection with a purpose. Sloane, like so many of his generation, had been seared by the folk memory of the religious wars that shook Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. His idea of looking at humanity was to see in it what united people, and his collection is geared to showing what are the common elements of human experience. And so, for instance, he collects shoes from all over the world — wooden pattens from Malacca, Pyrenean espadrilles, leather shoes from Morocco, silk ones from China. What he was interested in was that everybody uses shoes, but every society addresses that need in a different way. And it’s a good metaphor, I think, for how Sloane saw the whole nature of different human cultures and, above all, religion. He thought one of the purposes of his collection was the confutation of atheism, but what he meant by that was that while all countries worshipped a god, they all worshipped gods in different ways.

It’s this worldwide collection of objects for comparison that Sloane, when he drew his will, offered for sale. He had two daughters, and he wanted to provide for them. And he wanted £20,000. Above all, he wanted his collection to stay together; and he offered it on condition that it should be freely available to anybody who wanted to consult it. He offered it first to George II.

It’s important to bear in mind that when Sloane makes his offer, this is a country that has recently experienced what was in effect a civil war, when the French-backed Catholic Stuarts got to Derby. There was panic in London, and a real fear that the parliamentary system of government could collapse. Anti-Catholic riots continued all through the century; and there was also a profound suspicion, not just of the French, but of the Scots. They were coming to London after the union in unacceptable numbers, and by the end of the century Richard Newton protested against these endless arrivals of pushy, ambitious Scots, many of them in the government, if you please!

George II doesn’t want to pay the £20,000. Parliament is asked, and parliament says, of course, it has no money. And so, like every British parliament, they say they can’t possibly afford to do something for the arts, but eventually they will have a lottery. So they did, bought the collection and then had to decide what to do with it.

This is a very crucial moment, because it’s a moment when parliament is consciously thinking: what kind of citizen does it want? There’s a consciousness that the role of government is to think what sort of society is desirable, and what kind of behaviour is to be fostered. And parliament does something completely extra- ordinary and without precedent. It decides it will give the collection to trustees, who will hold it for the public benefit, without private gain. It’s the first parliamentary trust, and it establishes something very remarkable. The trustees are to be representative of the nation — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of the Commons — but also non-Anglicans. From the beginning there’s a Dissenting trustee, Lord Willoughby, and a Jewish benefactor, Solomon da Costa; and by 1766, a Catholic trustee. Even more remarkably, the trustees are not susceptible to instruction by parliament. So parliament creates a system where the museum will be funded by government, but not controlled by it. And the beneficiaries of that trust are “all studious and curious persons, both native and foreign”. Information and knowledge are established as a civic good. The British Museum becomes the private study collection of every citizen. And that is still one of its great traditions.

From the start, the kind of person who came was striking. This was not the elite world of Sloane’s friends. In 1784 it was reported to the trustees that “those recently admitted consisted chiefly of mechanics and persons of the lower classes”. And the museum continues to welcome all visitors. Once it had opened totally without admission tickets, and on days when people were not working, the numbers were enormous. On Easter Monday, 1837, 23,000 visitors came in one day. Those are numbers that would still strike us as astonishing.

The latest census shows that one in 20 of the population of central London is recently arrived from sub-Saharan Africa. The questions our collections raise, for example, about the long history of Africa, of slavery, are not questions about another place, they are questions about our city. We are back in the position where we have to address the whole world, and in a new way.

We now have handling desks in many of the galleries. The notion that this is still a private collection of every citizen is something we try to recover. And we also make sure the collection can travel, not just in the UK. The Discobolos statue was in Shanghai this year, for the Olympic Games, where it was seen by 5,000 people a day; the same numbers visited the Assyrian collection, in Shanghai too. There is no collection in China where you can look at the achievements of Assyria, Mesopotamia, the culture of Iraq or the achievements of ancient Greece. If the trustees are to hold this collection for the benefit of all curious and studious persons, native and foreign, touring is one of the things that have to be done.

We also work with the BBC, whose programmes about us are seen by millions; and of course we use the web, the main way of ensuring that every citizen of the world can use the collection. We now have more than 1m objects online, and large numbers of programmes to work with schools, exploring particular cultures. The entirety of the old-masters drawings collection is available online, at very high resolution, and this means that for the first time, everybody can look at the great masterpieces of European drawing in the British Museum’s collection.

Dürer’s famous drawing of a rhinoceros was one of the items in Sloane’s collection that first went on show 250 years ago this month. It is, I think, a good emblem of the museum — and not just because some would think museums are slow-moving, rather dimwitted and insensitive to external stimulus, but because Dürer had never seen a rhinoceros. He had read a report of this rhinoceros shipped from India to Portugal, and on the basis of the best information available he created an idea of a world he didn’t know. It’s exactly what the museum is for: to use the information available, construct an image of what we don’t experience — and it will be wrong, but it is better than nothing.

Now, thanks to the web, you can study Dürer’s rhino in the most extra-ordinary detail. We took the decision that the resolution of these images should be of the highest, and should be freely downloadable for noncommercial purposes. You can probably teach Dürer better now in Sydney or in Tokyo than in the Print Room itself.

It is, I think, exactly what the museum’s first trustees would have hoped for: the private collection of every citizen in the world.

The Times [3]

January 25, 2009
Neil MacGregor’s plans for British Museum’s future
Neil MacGregor wants to make treasures of the London landmark into a private collection for every citizen in the world
Bryan Appleyard

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is a hedgehog. The one big thing he knows is what his museum is for: “What the collection is about is truth, and one way to the truth is comparison; and comparison is an enormous weapon in the struggle towards truth. That holds across everything. A comparative collection, as opposed to a national collection, offers access to different kinds of truth.”

He has just laid out his big hedgehog idea in an important anniversary lecture. It is a text by which future museum policy, here and elsewhere, will be defined. It represents a new, deeper, global statement of what the hedgehog knows. He wants to turn the BM into “the private collection of every citizen in the world”.

There are national museums all over the world, telling local stories, but there are only a handful of museums in which national cultures can be compared. Of these, the BM is the most comprehensive and, thanks to Hedgehog MacGregor (now in the seventh year of his reign), the most ambitious. He wants to create a worldwide network of curators trained to know the contents of the BM.

He even wants to turn it into a “lending library”, so these curators can pick and choose their objects and make their own exhibitions in their own countries. “This vision . . . ” I say tentatively. He interrupts. “It’s really a quotation rather than a vision. It’s what people in the 18th century, when the museum was founded, thought they were doing.” “Vision” was a bit strong for him. He is famously reticent, curiously understated for a man widely regarded as the greatest museum boss in the world. But I’ll come back to this matter of his psychology.

Underlying this and other plans is not some new hedgehog knowledge. He’s said it all to me before. But he’s saying it again, in more detail and with more passion, because the times require it. “The need to use this resource has become more acute. As a result of what’s happened in the Middle East and Africa, the need to engage with the historical dimensions of identities, societies and conflicts is greater than ever. The stakes have got higher and higher. In Palestine and Iran, the stakes are higher than they were five years ago; the same is true in Sudan or in central Africa or west Africa. The construction of civil society in more and more of these areas looks endangered, and the implications for our societies are more evident than they were.”

The transcultural, transnational, transhistorical comparisons that can be made in the BM’s collection subvert the crude rhetoric of contemporary politics and tribal division. They prompt us, as MacGregor says, “to slow down conclusions, to complicate the questions, to make the hasty judgment harder”. Things — shoes, statues, coins, whatever — tell stories we may not want to hear. Iran is not what our leaders say it is; nor are we what the Iranians are told by theirs.

MacGregor is big on Iran. Next month he has a new exhibition — Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran — about Abbas I, who, in the 17th century, stabilised and globalised his country. Iran tended to be written out of eurocentric history. Not any more, if the Hedgehog has anything to do with it. He’s also currently showing an exhibition about Babylon, to make it clear that that city was not the barbaric den of iniquity of thoughtless history and Bob Marley songs; and he’s got Montezuma in the autumn, to show that indigenous Latin American culture was not destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, another myth of thoughtless history. He wants us to look again: “It’s a way of using objections to challenge not so much misconceptions . . . (reticence again) . . . as accepted assumptions. That is central to the position of the museum.”

“Are you not,” I ask, “letting your exhibitions policy be dominated by contemporary politics?”

“No,” he says, surprisingly quickly — he normally takes a while to formulate his answers. “We are saying the collection is so rich that it enables us to look at these things. After Montezuma, we’re doing Florentine Renaissance drawings, and one after that on the journey of the soul in the Egyptian afterlife. It would be a bit of a stretch to fit that in with contemporary politics.”

He laughs wildly, convulsing in his chair. He does that a lot. Yet, in spite of his reluctance to define his role as political, it is. Very. Take, for example, the Lewis Chessmen. These are 12th-century chess pieces found in the 19th century in the Outer Hebrides. A few are on display in Edinburgh, but most are in the BM. Some Scots have been saying they should all be in Edinburgh, that they are an essential part of national identity. The Glasgow-born Hedgehog becomes withering: “The question is, in what sense can an object made in Norway for export to Ireland, then buried, credibly become a vector of Scottish identity? If we are going to construct new support for national identities, it’s important to question whether they are valid ones — or fantasies.”

The Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, of course, cannot be quite so easily dismissed. They are Greek to the core. But MacGregor has been down this road many times before — by having them in the BM, by removing them from the purely national context of Greece, he exalts them by fitting them into the wider story of global civilisations.

He is 63 this year and has signed on for another five years, having declined the chance to take over the Met, in New York: it is not, he says, a truly public institution like the BM. How does he see the museum changing in that time? Well, already 1m of its objects are online, and that programme will continue. They’re in high-def and will soon also be in 3-D. He is keen to accelerate this process; it advances the role of the BM as the private collection of every citizen in the world. He’s adding more languages to the audio guides and wants to get this service online. In time, you will download your customised walk round the museum in any language to your iPod before you go.

He’s also excited by the idea of neuro-archeology — this is my term, not his. Neuroscientists have suggested that the movements required in making a stone hand-axe — tools that appear all over the world — cause patterns of electrical activity in the brain similar to those caused by language. The implication is that they might have evolved together. Tell me more, I say. He laughs wildly again: “That’s my only toehold on neuro-archeology!”

What really floats his boat, though, is the idea of the BM as a lending library of objects. He has already had a triumph with this, with the Britain Meets the World exhibition in Beijing in 2007. Chinese curators wanted to tell the story of how Britain became a superpower, and they picked their own stuff from the BM’s shelves. He is especially keen to extend this plan to sub-Saharan Africa. Many of those museums were established by the BM. But curators have to be trained, and work has to be done to ensure museums are equipped to keep the objects safely.

“It is natural for the BM. When Sudanese curators come here, for the first time in their life they see a collection that doesn’t have only Sudanese objects. They also probably see the first Chinese objects they’ve ever met, sometimes even the first Egyptian.” If he succeeds, he says, there will be “a community of curators across the world that knows this collection well enough to draw on it”. It is all, as he says repeatedly, a simple extension of the principles on which the BM, uniquely, was founded.

And the psychology? Less is known about MacGregor than about any public figure in our national life. He is hidden in plain view. This is accepted because of his charm and his success, and because, like one of his objects, he seems too valuable to break open. But there’s also his wider reticence, his careful choosing of words and issues. He may know only one big thing, but, in politics, he knows many little ones.

In fact, the only thing he is not reticent about is the big thing: his absolute conviction about what the BM is for, to make us compare and, by comparing, to complicate our understanding, and thereby to spread the kinds of humility and uncertainty that are the only possible foundations of civil society. Not bad for a hedgehog./blockquote>