The British Museum

I expect this article from Neil MacGregor, head of the British Museum, in the Guardian today will invite some interesting comments:,,2060784,00.html

Of particular interest to me was the idea that the museum is "about the world as seen from Britain rather than a history focused on these islands." But who is doing the 'seeing'? Blatantly it is the 'museum' and it is helpful to therefore to de-construct their notions of 'Britain.' I have not looked at the British Museum in detail but one of the chief virtues of being British has always been supposedly having a sense of 'fair play' and justice. To date the attitude of the British Museum to cultural relics which it holds onto despite repeated calls for their repatriation is not one which many people would call fair.

I also think the following is interesting: "The museum does not always tell the truths people want to hear. It was set up to challenge the simple labels with which people addressed the world. The ideal of tolerant inquiry it embodied has outlived the 20th century's disastrous fantasy of the nation as a closed cultural community." Although I am not too sure that the museum has always been a force for good in terms of challenging labels, I agree with the emphasis in the article, that we need to look beyond national identity as closed, that it is dynamic, changing and open to influences from beyond the land borders.

Still I cannot think that the British Museum is as revolutionary as they like to make out. Even though they exhibited the controversial Warren Cup for instance it was hidden to one side of the entrance with massive signs to deter you from entering if you would be offended. So different to a museum in Germany I visited where they had Peruvian cups with quite graphic displays of a sexual nature on open display in the gallery.


Amy said…
I haven't got around to reading the article yet (sorry!) and I was hoping someone else might jump in to the discussion, but in the meantime, I will say that from your summary, Ceri, it sounds like the BM is trying to promote an image of itself internationally as forward thinking and 'revolutionary' in its approach to the representation of other cultures and times, as a form of defence against the attacks it receives, especially the ongoing repatriation debate (see my later post about the Parthenon Marbles for example). That's not to say that the BM isn't doing genuinely important work and seeking to push understanding forward. It is probably genuinely attempting to figuratively break down its monolithic facade from within and present itself as an institution willing to enter into collaborative relationships with other museums and interest groups.

Hmmmm - the psychology, or the self image of the modernist museum could be an interesting thesis subject, if it hasn't already been done!

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