September 18, 2014

The impact of Scottish independence on the British Museum

Posted at 12:46 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

This article was published some time ago, but its content is still relevant today.

Everyone reading this weebsite hopefully realises that the so called Elgin Marbles were not from Elgin, nor did they ever pass through Scotland to the best of my knowledge. The fact remains though, that they were brought to the UK by a Scotsman, although subsequently purchased off him by the British Government. Whilst they might not be under contention in Scotland’s independence debate, many of the other artefacts may well be more closely tied to Scotland than to Britain.

Further to this, the British Museum is a national museum for the whole of the UK – if a country was to split from the union, would they then be entitled to a percentage share of all the artefacts in the collection.

Neil MacGregor refuses to answer any of these questions, saying that they will be considered as & when the issue becomes real for them.

Lewis Chessmen - discovered in Scotland, but many of them are now in the British Museum

Lewis Chessmen – discovered in Scotland, but many of them are now in the British Museum


What would be the implications for the British Museum if Scotland voted for independence?
If Scotland became independent after 2014, the British Museum would be presented with an “existential question”, according to its director Neil MacGregor
Tuesday 25 June 2013

“Let’s jump off that bridge when we get to it,” said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, when pressed on the putative future of the institution were Scotland to become independent.

The question was raised at a British Museum press conference today not by a journalist, but, intriguingly, by Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary under three prime ministers and once the most powerful civil servant in the land.

Even so – after pointing out that his would be one of dozens of “British” institutions that would have to rethink if the union dissolved – MacGregor conceded that there would be a huge “existential question” for the museum, which was founded by act of parliament in 1753, were the vote to swing in favour of independence next year.

“It’s a very serious question,” said the Glaswegian. “The British Museum is the first cultural evidence of the union. It was part of the response to the events of 1745 – the first British thing created after that threat to the union – and it sent out a big statement. It was marrying Scottish Enlightenment ideas to the London’s global contact, and it was a real expression of what that new country [Britain] was.”

It may be that the question is more philosophical than practical: after all, the British Museum is the biggest international lender of objects in the world, and it’s pretty unthinkable that it would break links with Scotland if it became independent. (Having loaned one of its most precious things to Tehran, for example, one feels it’s hardly going to block out Edinburgh, however tetchy things have been about the fate of the Lewis chessmen, several of which are planned to go on permanent loan to Stornaway.)

By way of comparison the British Council, for example, has said that whatever the outcome of the independence vote it will still support cultural projects from Scotland, such as its presence at the Venice Biennale.

The other side of the coin is how relevant the British Museum actually feels as a cultural expression in Glasgow, Inverness or Aberdeen – especially when Edinburgh has its own National Museum, albeit with a different focus from that of the Bloomsbury institution.

Is the post-Enlightenment Britishness of the London museum utterly out of synch with a fracturing, post-imperial world? Or is its new connectedness via the web and its vigorous commitment to national links beyond London (not least sending its Pharoah: King of Egypt exhibition to Kelvingrove) proving it to be as crucial as ever, in fact ever more so? All this is speculation for now, but if Scotland becomes independent it will, beyond a doubt, change the terms of engagement for the museum on both sides of the border.

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  1. Becante13 said,

    09.18.14 at 12:48 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: The impact of Scottish independence on the British Museum

  2. Basiliscoe said,

    09.18.14 at 12:49 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: The impact of Scottish independence on the British Museum

  3. aus99a said,

    09.18.14 at 12:53 pm

    @elginism Interesting times ahead indeed!

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