January 15, 2009

Time for a new era?

Posted at 1:26 pm in British Museum

The British Museum is celebrating its two 250th birthday. Maybe this should be seen as the ideal point for making a grand gesture regarding the disputed artefacts in their collection. The world has changed a lot since the founding of the museum – perhaps now, the museum can re-invent itself to once again lead the way in the world rather than dragging its heels whenever the issue of restitution is raised.

The Times

January 15, 2009
It’s 1759 and all that … or the history you never learnt at school
Ben Hoyle, Arts Correspondent


One of the salient achievements of an extraordinary year will be celebrated at the British Museum, which opened 250 years ago today. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew were also new in 1759.


Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, sees the opening of his institution and Kew as “the first coherent intellectual response to globalisation”. The British Library and the Natural History Museum were also important. These were civic collections, not collections belonging to royalty or to universities.

“What you have, available for free for everybody for the first time, is the whole concept of the world: what’s grown, what’s been made, what’s been written and what’s been thought. This is the beginning of the whole notion of citizen access to information.”

The trusteeship structure of the British Museum, enabling government to fund the institution but not to control it, became the model not just for every museum in the English speaking world “but for the BBC, the Open University and the internet, because Tim Berners-Lee [the father of the world wide web] is so much part of this British tradition of free access.”

Mr MacGregor will expand on these thoughts in a lecture at the museum tonight.


The Guardian

Charlotte Higgins Thursday 15 January 2009 11.45 GMT
The uniqueness of British museums – and the British Museum

Nicolas Sarkozy plans to establish a museum of French history. Its ethos could not be more different from that of the British Museum

Today I wrote about the lecture Neil MacGregor will give tonight looking at the British Museum’s 250-year history and its role in the modern world. Also in today’s paper was a fascinating piece by Angelique Chrisafis in Paris – which by chance absolutely seconds MacGregor’s point about the individuality of British national museums and their role in our cultural life.

As Angelique reports, Sarkozy wants to set up a national museum of France’s history. On the face of it, it sounds doomed – it would be compromised from the start by politics. But of course such a move would be entirely within the tradition of French museums and grands projets, which have historically been created by presidents and kings. As MacGregor says in my piece today, French museum collections in the 18th century were a “part of state policy”.

British museums are different, and that is their strength. The collection of Hans Sloane, which forms the basis of the British Museum, was left in trust to the nation. The British Museum was created for the people and enriched by the collections of its citizens; it is part of civic society. This sets it apart, too, from major American institutions, created by the generosity of private philanthropists – but run as private institutions. (This point is fleshed out in a piece about the Tate versus the Museum of Modern Art, New York, here.) Britain’s museums can thus perform a role as repository of a national memory that is not about its politicians, about its great men and women, but about its people – and in the case of the British Museum, about the entire world. At their best they can do exactly what MacGregor suggests: “slow down conclusions, complicate the questions, make the hasty judgment harder”.

As the BM marks the fact that on 15 January, 1759, the first members of the public came through its doors in Bloombsury, we have plenty to celebrate.

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