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Who should decide how other people perceive context?

The Prince of Wales has in the past taken an interest in the Greek Orthodox church which has included visits to the holy site of Mount Athos. The British Museum has over one hundred orthodox icons in its collection, but only sixteen of them are on display with the rest in storage.

The Prince has written to Neil MacGregor, director of the museum suggesting that this is a waste & that the icons should have their own room at the museum. MacGregor suggests though that the icons should not be seen as works of art in their own right, but merely as documents to the changing role of faith and society. Both these points of view raise the issue though, of whether there is a single true correct context for any artefacts? Can the views of the Prince & MacGregor not be seen as equally correct? Is it not possible for these two views to exist simultaneously? It is likely that other people will see these artefacts in a way that corresponds to neither of these outlooks, but who is to say which approach is the one that should be taken. It could be argued that the museum is trying to lead people into seeing history in a certain way through the way in which it chooses to present its artefacts, whereas surely in an ideal world, the display should be more open & unstructured in its representation, with the public free to interpret it in whichever way feels appropriate to them.

In the case of the Elgin Marbles & numerous other restitution claims, the same thinking could easily be applied. The British Museum takes the argument that it is a global universal museum in the spirit of the Enlightenment, displaying each context within the context of other cultures. They seem to have trouble understanding though that this is only one possible approach however (the approach that they take in practise does not necessarily seem to reflect this theory anyway – the concept that they describe of a museum where pieces are judged by comparison to others would seem to be far better represented by the uniquely Victorian Pitt Rivers Museum [1] in Oxford). Surely though, an equally plausible approach would be that the artefacts are better displayed in a situation as close as possible to their original context. Artefacts were formed in an area, reflecting many aspects of that area, from the geology & topography, to the quality of light & the views from the site. There are of course many other original contextual aspects that are now gone, such as the social, political & religious environments that led to the creation of the artefacts. Who are the Universal Museums to say that everyone should see cultures through the framework of a universal museum structure, dictating that this method is somehow preferable to any of the other options.

The Independent [2]

5 April 2006 09:13
Prince of Interference and the museum’s missing icons
By Guy Adams
Published: 05 April 2006

Prince Charles doesn’t just use angry “black spider” letters to harass politicians. They’re also helping him to stick a nose into the day-to-day running of Britain’s foremost cultural institutions.

Our future king has made an extraordinary attempt to make the British Museum reorganise its collection, in order to create a special gallery that will house its religious icons.

In a move that will lead to further accusations of improper interference, it has emerged that the Prince wrote to the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, last year, shortly after a visit to Mount Athos.

According to The Art Newspaper, which has seen the correspondence, he complained that only 16 of the museum’s 102 icons were on display. The rest were banged-up in storage.

In a lengthy letter, which details his longstanding interest in Greek Orthodoxy, the Prince described this as an unacceptable waste, and requested that MacGregor set up a special room to house them.

Sadly, MacGregor – one of the most powerful men in British arts – doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around. His reply politely told the “dissident” Prince to get stuffed, saying icons shouldn’t be regarded as a special category of objects deserving their own room.

“The prime interest in icons at the British Museum is not as autonomous works of art, but as documents of a changing approach to faith and society,” he said, crisply.