Friday, February 6, 2009

Trade and Plunder: The curious twisted logic of the Universal Museum


I was fascinated to see an item in this month's Museums Journal commenting on a lecture given recently by British Museum director Neil MacGregor. For some reason whenever Saint Neil delivers a rapturous address to his congregation I always seem to be otherwise engaged.

Anyway, it seems that during his talk, MacGregor sought to justify the British Museum's controversial retention of the Benin brasses by referring to the historical trade in copper between Europe and Benin. According to Felicity Heywood of the MJ, MacGregor "argued that if the BM could prove that traded copper was melted down to make the brass plaques, then it has a right to the objects."

I see, so if I sell you a raw material and from that material you make something, the fact that it was made from the material that I sold you gives me the right to steal it back from you, along with a good deal of your other possessions as well, while killing several members of your family in the process if necessary.

Yeah, that makes sense. Who said encyclopedic museums were on the defensive?

1 comment:

Mark said...

Tom,
I certainly think Neil may be wrong in this case. Following his logic one might conclude that any Old Master paintings that have questionable provenance should have the lapis lazuli scraped off and returned to Afghanistan; have the canvas returned to Western Europe; and so on and so on.

Furthermore, Neil should not return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, but to Italy (or Macedonia maybe) for the marble was quarried in Thassos (pending confirmation on the type of marble) which at the time of their carving was a disputed territory between the Roman Empire and Macedonia. Greek nationalists will not be pleased to hear this.

MD