A History of the World in Looted Objects

Tom Flynn 13 January 2010

The most remarkable thing about the British Museum's forthcoming collaboration with the BBC — A History of the World in 100 Objects — is the almost total lack of critical response to the project from any quarter save for a few lonely voices of indignation echoing from the African subcontinent.

Instead we've witnessed a nauseating media hagiography of British Museum director Neil MacGregor in which he single-handedly educates the world from the comfort of his beautiful Bloomsbury office. We hear of "Saint Neil", a "suave and smooth-talking Scot", with a "lilting highland brogue", a "skilled diplomat" with "infectious schoolboy enthusiasm", a "natural storyteller" and "the most fortunate man alive."

Already it's clear that nothing will be allowed to derail this apotheosis on its upward trajectory to Mount Parnassus. Well, I'm sorry to fart in the lift, but I have one or two problems with this project.

The first objection is that like all British Museum projects since MacGregor took over the directorship, it marshals in its support so much Establishment apparatus that it forecloses critical reactions. This used to be called Gleichschaltung, but let's not overdo it. After all, this is culture, not politics, or so MacGregor would have us believe.

Tellingly, for example, in this particular instance the British Museum has refused to divulge the full list of objects until the first broadcast on 18th January.

The problem for those of us with a critical interest in the history of encyclopedic museums and how they're run today is that many of the directors of these institutions have demonstrated that they simply cannot be trusted. MacGregor fatally blotted his copy book when he helped formulate, and later published, the notorious Universal Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums without consulting any museum directors beyond the sacred inner circle of the Bizot Group (a cabal of leading directors of universal museums in Europe and North America).

What few people realise is that MacGregor's activities on behalf of the British Museum, although dressed up as a laudable didactic mission of public enlightenment and edification, are actually part of a more urgent project to protect the beleaguered edifice that is the Encyclopedic Museum in Europe and North America.

In a rapidly globalizing world, these institutions are under growing pressure from developing nations to negotiate a more equitable spread of the world's historical material culture. Until recently, those claims were relatively easy to repel. After all, few developing nations had the facilities or resources to curate the cultural objects pillaged from them during the age of empire. But all that is rapidly changing.

A nice well-meaning Radio Four series it may appear, but behind the scenes at the museum MacGregor's BBC project is a rearguard action that Sun Tzu would have been proud of. What's at stake are the epistemological foundations of his institution. If MacGregor deserves praise at all, it is for adopting a cannier strategy to achieve his ends than the blizzard of dismal 'anti-restitutionist' publications launched on the world by James Cuno, provocative director of the Art Institute of Chicago.

MacGregor's mission, according to The Times, is to challenge our "sloppy Eurocentred thinking":

"Instead of spreading out a flat map with Europe at the centre, we have spun the globe at various points," says MacGregor. "History is a dynamic process, it's never one version that's 'handed down' to us. We are telling various versions of history that add up to a greater truth about the world."

We could bleat on about imperial nations dictating the historical narratives, but let's park that for a moment. Compare MacGregor's globe-spinning rhetoric above with what he told an interviewer when the Parthenon Marbles issue neared boiling point just a little while ago: "The history of the Marbles in relation to the Parthenon is now over. They are now part of a different story."

In a delicious irony, that story is the one the British Museum has 'handed down to us'. A History of the World in 100 Objects presents a flat map of the world with the British Museum at the centre, and 'twas ever thus. That's what I call sloppy Eurocentred thinking.

And although the Parthenon Marbles may not figure among the objects in the series (no, too risky!) don't assume for one moment that they aren't there in the background — the 100-ton marble elephant in the room.

"I hope that the series will serve to point out that the very word ‘Mediterranean’ is no longer sustainable," says MacGregor in another subtle attempt to undermine Greek claims for return of their looted heritage. "It is a sea which, despite the claim of its name, is not and never has been in the middle of the earth.”

Hooray to that. Yet Neil MacGregor's project is a clear attempt to position The British Museum, despite its name, in the middle of the earth. In reality, though, the axis is shifting and power is moving inexorably east, away from Europe and North America, and towards the developing nations. That's the real unfolding story of the world.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, narrated by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, begins on BBC Radio Four on 18 January.

Captions to images
Top left: The 'Cyrus Cylinder' in the British Museum, recently requested by Iran and currently the subject of fresh research after two related objects were suddenly discovered in the British Museum's collections.

Lower right: The bust of Nefertiti which is at the centre of a dispute between Egypt and the Neues Museum in Berlin, which is refusing to return it.
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