July 21, 2009

Neil MacGregor’s claims that the Elgin Marbles will not return

Posted at 12:59 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

For some reason, it appears that Neil MacGregor is now guaranteed positive coverage whenever he writes a piece for, or is interview by The Times. It seems that whatever claims he makes regarding his reasons for retention of the Parthenon Sculptures are accepted with little question or analysis.

The problem in many cases is that whilst what the British Museum is saying may be construed as a valid approach to take, it is represented as being the only valid approach, without considering the range of other possibilities or the views & sensibilities of others.

The Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta Stone may well have changed history – but there is no clear evidence that this was only the case because of the fact that they were in the British Museum.

Following the initial article are two more articles also on the British Museum, followed by a response by Kwame Opoku.

The Times

July 18, 2009
Neil MacGregor lifts British Museum’s ambition to new heights
Tristram Hunt: Commentary

This is why the Elgin Marbles are not going back. With characteristic panache, Neil MacGregor is once again making the case for the British Museum as a museum of all mankind. In 100 episodes based around 100 objects from the Bloomsbury collection, Mr MacGregor aims to cement the British Museum’s Enlightenment credentials. And he’s doing so with some ambitious inter-disciplinary thinking.

To tell a story of the world in 15 minutes through a series of objects requires a sure grasp of cultural and social anthropology. Mr MacGregor, whose most celebrated exhibition during his tenure at the National Gallery was the Seeing Salvation display of Renaissance iconography, has long understood the allure of artefacts. Indeed, he is sometimes accused of seeking to blur — in an increasingly agnostic age — the boundaries between the secular and the religious by investing the British Museum’s objects with an almost spiritual significance. But in going beyond the obviously material, in explaining the broader cultural and social currency of the collection, he will give the story of these objects a relevance far in excess of their historic context.

As such, he will draw on the work of the Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane whose books The Empire of Tea and Glass: A World History have used specific objects and foodstuffs to explore the grander themes of modernity, globalisation and cultural exchange. MacGregor’s list — from the Benin Bronzes to the credit card — provides similar such opportunities to leap from local to global. And knowing Mr MacGregor, he will not shy away from the kind of popular touch that the author Mark Kurlansky brought to this approach with his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

What he hopes to explain is how the British Museum’s collection — from the Rosetta Stone to the Elgin Marbles — changed world history. This is not Kenneth Clark’s consciously Eurocentric Civilisation or Radio 4’s Anglo-centric This Sceptred Isle, but a fiercely cosmopolitan project which mixes social history with art history, the power of ideas with economic realities.

Of course, the series has its dangers: analysing ethnology and faithfully explaining the practices of our forebears is difficult to sum up in 15 minutes. But such academic adventurism is exactly what Hans Sloane thought that the British Museum should be about, and it is hard to think of a more Reithian project for the BBC. Whether the Greeks — via the World Service — are going to relish a lecture from London on the meaning of the Elgin Marbles is a different matter.

– Tristram Hunt is a lecturer in history at Queen Mary University, London

The Times

July 18, 2009
History Things
To create a better future worldwide, it is essential to understand the worldwide past

Theodor Adorno once said that the connection between museum and mausoleum was more than just phonetic. The vast project by the British Museum and the BBC, which we announce today, shows that Adorno wasn’t just grumpy. He was wrong. The past does not just gather here. It comes to life.

Unlike previous histories this one will not be Anglocentric with the British Isles at the top of the map and most of the world painted pink. Neither will it be Eurocentric. Only one of 100 objects from the British Museum that tell the narrative comes from Ancient Greece, and only two from medieval Western Europe. There are 11 from Africa. Its illustrative objects will not just be beautiful icons. The Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone will be included. But there will also be stories from stones, and shards of pottery that record history. The earliest illustrative objects in the programmes are the first human tools 2,000 centuries old. The most recent is a credit card.

Because of its own history, the British Museum is a treasury of objects from all round the world. The BBC, with its various services, is one of the world’s most widespread broadcasters. British history has become narrowed down recently by the curriculum into a series of themes for essays, so that pupils don’t know much before the world wars and Victorian women.

This ambitious project will start to put that right. “The past”, said L. P. Hartley, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The purpose of the museum is to make that past less foreign to every successive generation. The wide sweep of this project is the ideal history for citizens of the new world.

The Times

From The Times
July 18, 2009
British Museum and BBC reveal history of the world in 100 objects

Ben Hoyle, Arts Correspondent

Neil MacGregor is too polite to say so but he suspects that most people’s grasp of history is so blinkered as to be almost useless for the modern world.

Instead, the widely admired director of the British Museum admits, slightly sheepishly, that his own overview of the past was until recently “alarmingly insular”.

“The shape of history that I had carried around in my head, I realised, is the wrong one for the world we are now trying to understand. One of the big impediments to living properly together is that we’ve all got the wrong histories.”

Now, after four years of planning and plotting, Mr MacGregor is ready to unveil a cure: a project of enormous ambition in partnership with the BBC that could change the way that people all over the world think about the past and, therefore, the present.

Specifically it will emphasise objects. Using things that human beings have made, it will set out a world story that probes into the neglected corners of history and allows Africa, the Americas and Asia parity with the much more familiar chronology of Western Europe.

The core of the project is a 100-part radio series called A History of the World in One Hundred Objects, written and presented by Mr MacGregor, to be broadcast in prime-time on Radio 4 next year.

But what began as a collaboration between the British Museum and Radio 4 has grown into something much bigger that will tie in the World Service, the BBC foreign language services, regional and national television schedules, children’s television, the BBC website and schools and museums all over the country and, potentially, the world.

Perched neatly on the edge of a chair in his magnificent office in the west wing of the museum, Mr MacGregor is fizzing with enthusiasm. In the lilting Scottish accent that is about to become familiar to millions, he explains how his museum, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, is “an extraordinary, inspiring idea and also totally silly” because it is impossible to gather the entire “story of human making” in one building. The same heroic but faintly ludicrous idealism underpins A History of the World.

Each 15-minute radio episode will take one artefact from the museum’s permanent collection and use it to tell a story about the civilisation that produced it, how it reached the museum and how subsequent generations have interpreted it.

Mr MacGregor says that the advantage of concentrating on “things” is that they unlock the hidden histories of groups whose artworks and written accounts have been lost or were never made.

It took two years to whittle the selection down to 100 objects from the eight million in the collection. Some of those chosen are beautiful artworks but others are “incredibly brown and boring”, according to Jeremy Hill, the leading curator on the project. They might be the sort of thing that a casual visitor would stride past without a second glance, but each has a gripping narrative.

There is the smooth rock that on closer inspection turns out to be the earliest known image of human sex, made 10,000 years ago; the stone “yoke” possibly worn as a belt in a Central American ball game 1,000 years ago; and the bark shield dropped by one of the startled Aborigines who greeted Captain Cook’s explorers at Botany Bay in April 1770.

The time span stretches from two million years ago with the earliest human tools, found in the Rift Valley in modern-day Tanzania, to 2010. One of the most recent objects is a credit card. The final item will be decided during the series and may not have been made yet.

As importantly, the geographical spread will emphasise world history rather than the Eurocentric account that most Britons grow up with. There is only one object from Ancient Greece and two from medieval Western Europe, for example. But there are 11 from Africa.

Every week will slice one time period five ways, taking objects made in different parts of the world at roughly the same moment, one per episode. So week 16 will feature a silver clock in the shape of a galleon from Germany, a bronze plaque from Nigeria, a turquoise mosaic serpent from Mexico, ceramic elephants from Japan and a piece-of-eight silver coin from Peru.

Mr MacGregor, who said this month that the museum of the future will be primarily “a publisher and broadcaster”, gets an early chance to test that idea on a world stage. The project will ram home his argument that the British Museum belongs to the world, strengthening its moral case for holding on to controversial artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria both featured in the series.

Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, gets a 20-week package that, he says, “hits the G-spot of the Radio 4 audience”. The least that he expects is that the programme will be the latest in a long line of classic BBC factual series, stretching back to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in the 1960s and 1970s.

But there is a bigger prize. Mr Damazer believes that the project could persuade the public, of all ages, to re-imagine our history through the personal objects around them.

There will be a game show on CBBC in which competing children have to complete physical challenges and unravel clues in the British Museum at night to identify one of the 100 objects. Televised events to which people bring family heirlooms are also under discussion — a sort of Antiques Roadshow meets Who Do You Think You Are?

Ultimately though the tone of the project emanates from one man. But Mr MacGregor is not quite sure what he has let himself in for. “Once you have started doing this, there’s no reason ever to stop. This could keep us going for another 250 years.”

Kwame Opoku (by email)


When I was young at the University of London, the historians concerned themselves mainly with history but now it appears they are also interested in stories and are promoting those who tell stories. Is this a recent advancement in historiography? I am of course usually behind with the more recent advancements taking place in London, especially in Bloomsbury. Tristram Hunt, unconditional supporter of Neil MacGregor sings his praises for a project which has not yet been revealed to the public.

“To tell a story of the world in 15 minutes through a series of objects requires a sure grasp of cultural and social anthropology.”

How can any serious historian support such a project? Could anybody even tell the history of Russell Square in 15 minutes? How are we to understand the following sentence? ”But in going beyond the obviously material, in explaining the broader cultural and social currency of the collection, he will give the story of these objects a relevance far in excess of their historic context.”

If someone is going to “give the story of these objects a relevance far in excess of their historic context” then this means he is surely going to play games with the historical facts. Is that what the historians at the London University are now doing or encouraging others to do? One does not need much talent and imagination to tell stories very far removed from historical facts? MacGregor seems very good at this. His recent adventurous argument that the Benin bronzes were made from materials from Europe and therefore the British Museum was justified in holding them, gives us an idea of what to expect.

“What he hopes to explain is how the British Museum’s collection — from the Rosetta Stone to the Elgin Marbles — changed world history. This is not Kenneth Clark’s consciously Eurocentric Civilisation or Radio 4’s Anglo-centric This Sceptred Isle, but a fiercely cosmopolitan project which mixes social history with art history, the power of ideas with economic realities.”

Does Tristram Hunt, as a historian seriously believe that the British Museums’ possession of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. the Rosetta Stone and other looted treasures, such as the Benin bronzes changed world history? Is that what the University of London is now teaching young historians?

In the article, “The whole world in our hands”, http://arts.guardian.co.uk/; Neil MacGregor tries very courageously to present the very British institution, the British Museum, as an institution for the world and humanity. In order to do this effectively, he must efface the oppressive and cruel British colonial history.

There is no way MacGregor and co can make us forget the British imperial birth of the British Museum. No matter how hard he tries, the national character of the museum, its financing, its nomination of the trustees, its unwillingness to abide by UNESCO and United Nations resolutions will prevent it from being considered a “universal museum” in the true sense. So long as memories of British colonial and imperialist rule remain, it will be difficult to convince intelligent persons from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, etc. that the British Museum is now there for all of us. So long as historical and traditional accounts exist on how the thousands of objects were taken from the colonies by force and brought to London, so long will the mistrust of the British Museum’s new campaign remain. MacGregor cannot disassociate the British Museum from military aggression since the Museum sometimes even sent its officials with the expeditionary forces to advise them on what cultural objects should be seized. We know the involvement of the museum in the aggression against Ethiopia, at Maqdala. Richard Holmes, Assistant in the British Museum’s Department of Manuscripts, had been appointed the Expedition’s “archaeologist

MacGregor has therefore decided that we need new histories or stories

I have decided to buy very quickly good books on British colonial history before this idea of re-writing or revising history catches on and accounts on colonial history are made to suit the new vision of the Britain Museum that the present director of the museum is propagating.

Is Tristram Hunt assisting Neil MacGregor in this enterprise? In earlier generations, they would have been called revisionists. One does not dare use such a description knowing some of the implications of such a designation in earlier decades. But how should one describe a conception of history such as Tristram and Neil seem to be propagating?

We now know where we should not send our children to study history: London.

Kwame Opoku.

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1 Comment »

  1. jharna Elizabeth Mann said,

    01.11.10 at 11:21 pm

    I am so pleased to hear of this new series after having seen the fascinating BBC programmes by Mr MacGregor on certain works in the National Gallery . It is typical of some people to criticise before the programmes have even begun. The idea is fascinating, and , I’m sure will make for enjoyable listening for those many people who thirst for knowledge about art and beauty, in a world in which only the sensational or scandalous has a place. Three cheers for Neil MacGregor – having seen is to believe and hope.

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