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Neil MacGregor: Briton of the Year

The Times (London) has named Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, as "Briton of the Year" (The Times December 27, 2008; see also Leader). The article touches upon the successor to Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
[MacGregor] declined the Met on principle. It was not a public institution, he said. And he wanted to stay at a museum that was free to everyone. MacGregor, it would appear, is profoundly democratic. Refocusing upon the founding ideals of the institution that was established by Act of Parliament in 1753 as a museum for the world, he has radically redefined the role that it can play in public life.
There is discussion of the Museum's exhibition policy:
Helping to release the power that lies implicit in the world’s ancient artefacts, MacGregor has turned the British Museum into an arena in which some of our most fraught and contentious contemporary political debates can be approached with a freshened sensitivity and depth of understanding that can surely be a great help in fostering peace.
The Times "Leader" restates the value of the Universal Museum:
Neil MacGregor has ensured that the British Museum is not just a venerable but little visited institution, is not just part of an antique cultural landscape, but is vital to the nation's lifeblood. While other museums may wither, MacGregor has made it impossible to imagine a cultural future for Britain that does not feature the British Museum close to its heart. It is a huge legacy.



British soldiers of the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 proudly posing with the looted Benin artefacts.
The choice of a personality as “Briton of the year” is clearly a matter for British nationalists and a non-Briton has no business examining the basis of such a choice. It is up to the British to indulge in such a game if they consider it worthwhile. However when a leading British newspaper, The Times, making such a designation for the first time, writes in this connection that the “British Museum is the best in the world”, that it is a museum for the world and refers to an “international society” and “global society”, calls its director whom it has selected as Briton of the year”, “Saint Neil” and declares that “his most profound belief is that the British Museum was established for the benefit of all nations”, then non-Britons are provoked to comment.

The respectable British newspaper is repeating what it must know to be incorrect, namely that the British Museum is there for the world or humanity.
This unfounded claim which is mainly aimed at deflecting claims of restitution-Benin Bronzes, Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, Ethiopian treasures and Rosetta Stone - has been examined enough on the pages of cultural sites. (“Benin to Chicago: In the Universal Museum?” ) We need not go into all that again. It suffices to point out that the British Museum is only open to all who can obtain a British visa and can reach London in this period where European governments are making it impossible for non-Westerners to visit Europe. The true status of the British Museum is more accurately described by the newspaper as “iconic national establishment”. It is a British institution for the British which allows non-British to enter if they so wish since this brings a lot of benefit to the British economy through the stay of tourists in Britain. A leading article in the Times of the same date has characterised the museum as follows: “Neil MacGregor has ensured that the British Museum is not just a venerable but little visited institution, is not just part of an antique cultural landscape, but is vital to the nation's lifeblood. While other museums may wither, MacGregor has made it impossible to imagine a cultural future for Britain that does not feature the British Museum close to its heart. It is a huge legacy.”

The most remarkable fact about the British Museum is undoubtedly the amount of cultural artefacts from other countries which have been assembled there, most of it through plunder, stealth, oppression and extortion during the colonial and imperialist period. Most objects in this museum are tainted with the blood and sweat of victims of colonial oppression. Not even the most fervent supporters of the British Museum will dare to deny the basic facts of British colonialism and imperialism. Neil MacGregor though has suggested we need new histories and interpretations. ( It is the large variety and huge numbers of cultural artefacts of various cultures gathered in the British Museum which constitute its fascination and greatness and not any other factor. It is no accident that in a brochure for the public, under the rubric “DON’T MISS”, the museum lists as items that must be seen the following objects and their locations:

Lower floor,
King of Ife - Room 25
Ground floor
Rosetta stone - Room 4
Parthenon sculptures - Room 18
Assyrian lion hunt reliefs - Room 10
Upper floors
Mummies - Rooms 62 - 63
Oxus Treasure - Room 52
Royal Game of Ur - Room 56
Lewis chessmen - Room 41
Samurai armour - Room 93

The non-British owners of these stolen/plundered artefacts (excluding the Lewis chessmen, discovered in the British Isle) have requested the return of many of the objects but the British Museum has not, so far, fulfilled any such demands. Indeed, the museum has not sought to discuss seriously with the claimants. (“Nefertiti, Idia and other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality” http://www.modernghana
“Formal Demand for the Bronzes: Will Western Museums Now Return Some of the Benin Bronzes?”
“Ethiopian President Shows the Way in Demand for Restitution of African Artefacts”
Shall We Learn from Zahi Hawass on How to Recover Stolen/Looted Cultural Objects?
In this period of pressure to return stolen and looted objects, the British Museum, constantly attacked with regard to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes, remains a remarkable exception and a citadel of resistance to claims by owners of wrongfully appropriated cultural objects. No doubt various attempts will be made to confer on the museum and its officials an impressive status that seeks to put them beyond all criticism. Is the attempt to confer sainthood on its director part of this plan? We recall the various concerted articles which showered praises on the museum and its directors a few months ago. (Let's all have tickets to the universal museum, Love the Universal Museum and Despise the Others) It should be stressed however that no aura of sanctity, whether bestowed on the British Museum or its director, can intimidate or inhibit the critics of the institution. Many of those who have been deprived of their cultural artefacts will not be overly impressed by any attempt to create an atmosphere of intangibility or an aura of holiness around the British Museum. The British did not hesitate to violate religious objects of many African peoples, e.g. Ethiopians when the greed of the aggressors led them to cultural or religious objects they coveted. Beneficiaries of looting and stealing should not rely on holiness and religious inhibitions. Once the sacred nature of objects has been violated by aggressors the protection afforded by religious sentiments will surely not prevent previous owners from collecting them back.

We leave it to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury to deal with the question whether one can, in accordance with their theology, contemplate conferring the status of saint on living persons working in organizations such as the British Museum which have been established at the cost of the destruction of other cultures, involving massacres and other aggressive actions. Is it enough to do your work well in order to become a saint? How many saints do we have in the museum world? Where then are the devils in the museum world? Since when do saints guard stolen/looted objects of others? If saints are guarding and managing the venerable museum, what ordinary mortals will dare to question the modes of acquisition of the millions of objects in the museum?

Should those who have stolen/plundered the cultural artefacts of others not learn to exercise a certain amount of modesty and humility rather than exceeding themselves by indulging in self-praise which can only revive painful memories of those who lost lives and cultural objects under British colonial and imperialist rule?

The Times will surely not be amazed to recognize that Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Greeks and Nigerians will not be very amused by the designation of Briton of the year for they see in the British Museum their defeat, humiliation, spoliation and subjugation; they would wish they could go into the museum and collect their stolen objects the way the British came and looted their countries.
They are not likely to be enthusiastic to participate in singing songs of praise of the British Museum or contribute to the process of sanctifying the institution and its leadership; they are more likely to be chanting sorrowful funeral dirges and mournful songs of lamentation, cursing their past ill-fate, swearing and praying for a better future when they will be strong enough to recover their stolen cultural and religious objects.

Queen-mother Idia, Benin/Nigeria, now in the British Museum.
Seized by the British during the invasion of Benin in 1897.

Kwame Opoku, 1 January, 2009.

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