Salvaging the British Museum’s vision of common humanity

The British museum
The British Museum. (File photo: Jordan News)
Nearly a year has passed since George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, made a confident argument that his venerable institution could navigate the challenges posed by decrepit infrastructure, restitution demands, and changes in the balance of global power.   اضافة اعلان

In an era of prickly nationalism and identity politics, the museum would offer an alternative perspective as the “museum of our common humanity,” Osborne said, presenting a pageant of world history to all comers.

Beneath a seemingly imaginative and extroverted tone, however, non-British listeners detected a whiff of arrogance. We will act magnanimously as history teachers to the world, Osborne seemed to be saying, but ultimately, the task of presenting humanity’s achievements will be a British prerogative, reflecting British choices about what matters and leaving unquestioned the British title to some of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. 

Now it seems as though Osborne’s bubble of self-confidence has been burst by this summer’s extraordinary disclosures about what’s really going on at the museum. The revelation that up to 2,000 objects may have gone missing (and in some cases were sold online) was enough to force the embarrassed resignation of Director Hartwig Fischer last month.

It quickly became clear that this bizarre development was symptomatic of a deeper malaise: the institution had failed to keep a proper inventory of the 8 million or so items in its collection, in part because pay and morale were low, budgets had been cut, and salaries were abysmally lean.

All that in turn has redoubled the zeal of countries that have claims on the museum’s collection. Start with Greece and its long-standing demand for the restitution of sculptures that were stripped from the Parthenon and the Acropolis by an acquisitive British diplomat, Lord Elgin. Any suggestion that the treasures were safer in London than Greece has simply collapsed, declared the country’s culture minister Lina Mendoni.

Meanwhile, the Global Times, a newspaper linked to the Chinese Communist Party, suggested the museum should return all 23,000 of the Chinese artifacts it possesses. That wasn’t quite a formal restitution demand, but certainly a reminder of how people feel in Beijing.

Fischer’s successor, Mark Jones, will be struggling to get the museum back to a minimally functional state. The job will be an exercise in damage control, hardly an opportunity to chart the brilliant new future promised by Osborne last November.

So, can anything be salvaged from the vision of a “museum of our common humanity,” which, although located in London, freely shares its knowledge and possessions with the world and successfully raises sponsorship from across the globe?

For there to be any hope of that happening, two things need to change.

First, Britain’s cultural establishment (including the legislators whose consent would be needed to alter the museum’s legal remit) must overcome its visceral objection to selective restitution in cases where the evidence for restitution is overwhelming.

The case of the Parthenon sculptures may be the most obvious. That’s because the 160-meter frieze that once encircled the temple of Athena is a single work of art, half of which is now displayed in London, a third in Athens, and smaller slices elsewhere. With a gallery bathed in Greek light waiting to receive the “British” segment, the case for reunification in Athens is clear.

If the “stone in the shoe” of an otherwise fruitful cultural relationship between Greece and Britain could somehow be removed, enormous possibilities would open for the collaborative display of other Hellenic artifacts in London and  elsewhere.

The Benin Bronzes – a generic term for objects removed from Benin City, in what is modern-day Nigeria, during a British colonial expedition in 1897 – are also an exceptional case, given the brutality of the raid. That has been recognized by the governments of France and Germany as well as important museums in the United States and some British collections.

Addressing these cases with pragmatism and humility wouldn’t weaken the museum’s claim of stewardship to a vast and unique collection of artifacts. Rather, it would raise the institution’s moral standing.

The second precondition for a flourishing London-based museum is an imaginative rethink of its governance and status. If it’s to be a museum of humanity, then it must in some sense be accountable to humanity’s wisest cultural guardians.

One of the many strengths of London as a world city is that it hosts many institutions – think-tanks, cultural and educational bodies, humanitarian lobby groups, treaty-based organizations – whose governance and funding are thoroughly global. In some cases, these bodies have an extra-territorial diplomatic status. In others, the global ethos is simply a reflection of management and funding. Many options could be considered. 

There also could be a role for UNESCO, which, for all its controversies, is universally recognized as a certifier of everything that is irreducibly important in global cultural patrimony.

Let there be a museum of common humanity. But let us not confine the stewardship of that museum to a single ex-colonial power.

Bruce Clark is a writer, lecturer, and contributor to The Economist, and author of Athens: City of Wisdom. X: @bruceclark7

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