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?

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?