Friday, February 6, 2009

Busking on Benin: The Encyclopedic Museum runs aground

Further to my interim item of earlier today on British Museum director Neil MacGregor's recent public lecture on the foundation and contemporary function of the BM, the full lecture is recorded here. It comes across as the most desperate defence of the 'Universal' or 'Encyclopedic' museum since James Cuno's recent book.

This evening I spent an enjoyable hour making Greek feta pies and slurping white wine while listening to MacGregor's lecture on the iPod, pausing only to splutter with mirth at his floundering attempts to justify the historical development of the institution over which he presides. Try as MacGregor might to focus on the British Museum's many strengths, he will never silence the skeletons rattling noisily in its basement storerooms. Better, surely, to acknowledge their presence; better still to let a few of them out.

Neil MacGregor is generally renowned as an inspiring and erudite speaker and so it was all the more peculiar to hear him thrashing around trying to justify the BM's retention of the Benin brasses on the grounds that they were fashioned from a raw material originally supplied by European traders. He sounded like George Bush busking on particle physics.

I was also surprised and disappointed that he failed to refer by name to the Benin-born contemporary artist Romuald Hazoumé as the creator of the striking installation La Bouche du Roi, which the BM recently acquired (and which I reviewed here). Clearly the badge of anonymity historically attached to African 'tribal' or primitive' art still lingers in some quarters.

Above all — and most pertinently, given James Cuno's recent muscular pronouncements about a nascent nationalist strain in cultural politics — it was telling to hear MacGregor's rehearsal of the profound and immoveable 'Britishness' of the British Museum. Clearly it's all well and good for the British Museum to use its collections to tell the stories of other cultures, but when those same cultures request the return of their cultural objects in order to reclaim their autobiographical rights they are accused of a sordid and destructive 'nationalism'.

Is it any surprise this Universal Museum thing just won't go away?

1 comment:

Stephen Conrad, London said...

I was pleased to find your blog, but dismayed by the dismissive tone you take of Neil MacGregor's lecture here. Anyone who has met him, or heard him lecture, will know that his delivery is slow, paced, and frequently somewhat hesitant, for whilst he is a very gifted historian and administrator, he is an extremely shy man whose lectures are barely scripted, and formed of carefully thought through notes and lists of illustrations on which he then speaks, and whose ideas and opinions are carefully and slowly delivered, as here in his lecture on what it means to be a world museum. MacGregor was making a very valid point about humans as creators, and in no way claiming to promote some sort of nationalist, and by extension, patronising view of other cultures by the museum he directs. Regrettably, in this blog, you seek, like Christopher Hitchens before you, to undermine the express purposes by which man studies man's achievements in the field of cultural objects, by an understanding of how the past (and even future) are to be understood by people of the present. He was not thrashing around, he was not suggesting - indeed he made it clear - that the Benin Bronzes were 'seized' at a time of cultural imperialism, and he was trying to show that it is ironic that such beautiful things should have by a hardly known and understood interconnectedness, have been made of materials originating in Europe. To accuse MacGregor as Director of the British Museum, and its Trustees, of deliberately retaining works from other cultures when those cultures seek their return, is a wrongheaded and unfair one; the museum has no mechanism for doing so, as the Trustees act on behalf of the British people to hold the collections in perpetuity. It is a cause for celebration that British expertise within the museum is contributing so much to an understanding of all the world by countries that have not collected objects from other cultures (Japan and China he mentioned), and helping museums whose collections have been looted or destroyed in conflicts (as in Basra and Ur) to find ways to recover and restore them using expertise of his curators. I fail to see why you object so unreasonably to a universal museum, unless of course you would prefer only a small elite to have knowledge and learning.