March 17, 2007

The purpose of the British Museum

Posted at 12:53 pm in British Museum

British Museum Director is trying desperately to re-cast the British Museums aims as a museum, not for Britain, but for the world. This involves making agreements with various other countries – unfortunately, the museums only ever wants to negotiate where it can dictate the terms of any sort of agreement.

The Guardian Blogs

The memory of humankind preserves our global sanity
The British Museum is running a different kind of foreign policy and challenging the myth of the clash of civilisations
Madeleine Bunting
Thursday March 15, 2007
The Guardian

In the Forbidden Palace, in the heart of Beijing, is a set of objects which tell a story of compelling fascination to the crowds of young Chinese journalists. The exhibition, traces, through a selection from the British Museum collection, the story of a country’s industrialisation and rise to world power in an era of rapid globalisation – Britain in the 18th century. But the parallels with China were obvious to all except the Chinese curators, who remained diplomatically evasive.

Britain’s voracious – and acquisitive – interest in the world, evident in this heterogeneous exhibition where Egyptian statues sit alongside Roman, iron age relics alongside African, is echoed on the streets of China’s cities where Prada jostles alongside Gucci, and Starbucks has even got a branch in the Forbidden Palace. How do countries absorb other cultures? Is it a passive process or can they rework the impact? These are the questions from British history that the exhibition illustrates – and that China is now confronting. How will it, how can it, reshape the western values of consumerism and individualism now flooding China’s huge cities?

The Chinese at the press opening of the exhibition last week gathered around the cases showing how British Regency fell in love with all things Chinese. Prints of Brighton Pavilion, Chinese porcelain, wallpaper. They were seeing how their forebears had been seen – before the 19th-century humiliation of the opium trade and the collapse of the Chinese imperial dynasty – a glimpse of 18th-century Europe’s awe for China’s sophistication and power. Some of the porcelain was made to European designs but equally some of the emperor’s English clocks were made to Chinese designs – a favourite in the palace museum was topped with a copper robot of a clerk in European clothing sitting at a desk, automated to write out, in Chinese characters, “Boundless Longevity”. Each adapted the other’s technology to their own aesthetic.

The exhibition demonstrates how Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum – with whom I was travelling – is recasting this institution’s purpose to serve not just Britain but the world. Few collections have the scope and scale of the BM to challenge one of the great myths of our time – that civilisations are discrete entities that “clash”, according to the US political theorist Samuel Huntington. Rather, the BM can illustrate how civilisations are knitted together in a myriad of connections – economic, political, cultural – and are run through by common human preoccupations – birth, death, status and the sacred. Novelist Ben Okri describes the BM as “the memory of mankind”. That memory, argues MacGregor, is a vital underpinning to political ideals of global community and cooperation: “Memory is the precondition of sanity, loss of memory is loss of identity – that’s as true of an individual person as of a society,” he says, “The British Museum is a unique storehouse of hopes and dreams, myths and histories of human beings from the beginning, and that helps to stabilise human societies now.”

It’s an ambition which aims to make the British Museum part of a global commons – a set of international institutions (analogous to the BBC World Service) whose purpose is beyond narrow national self-interest. It means taking exhibitions beyond the usual circuit of Europe, the US and Japan, where sponsorship and ticket sales bring handsome returns. More is planned in China, with a “History of the World” touring provincial cities, alongside an exhibition in Nairobi and plans for the Middle East. The approach is in sharp contrast to that of the Louvre, which has always been closely linked to displays of national prestige and whose activities are aligned with that of the government: the Mona Lisa was reportedly lent to Japan in exchange for France winning a contract for a mass transit system.

One of the most pressing issues for the Big Five – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre, Berlin, St Petersburg and the BM – is how they justify these huge collections of the world’s treasures. All have to find answers to the Elgin Marbles-type headache. Chinese journalists in Beijing repeatedly asked at the BM exhibition’s press conference for the return of Chinese objects. But if the BM’s collections are endlessly circumnavigating the globe, the hope is that it might draw the sting from the question of formal ownership.

The catch, of course, is money. The government might admire MacGregor’s ideas but it has little inclination to fund them. The Foreign Office doesn’t “do” culture; the British Council only does contemporary work. The idea of using Britain’s extraordinary collections to contribute to a global process of shared memory is too far off the diplomats’ map. But another small country has embarked on just such a strategy to create a place for itself in the world – Qatar, bankrolled by its gas reserves, is currently on a major acquisition drive to build up international collections to sit alongside its investment in al-Jazeera.

Given the failure of conventional warfare in Iraq and the spread of terrorism, it’s a commonplace to say that the battlegrounds of the future are the hearts and minds of millions, but there’s little sense of what to do about it. The model of a global hub of memories, ideas and communications such as Qatar will be strategically crucial. Britain, with collections of global importance such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Natural History Museum and the BM, could be another – sponsoring and initiating connections across the globe. It’s a different kind of foreign policy – one which puts our humanity at its heart.

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