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Cultural Property in a Global Perspective

Benin bronze in the British Museum © David Gill
Last night we attended the inaugural Robert Sainsbury Lecture at UEA in Norwich. It was delivered to a packed audience by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, on the theme of “Art in a Global Perspective”.

MacGregor explored the theme of the encyclopedic museum noting parallel changes across different continents and cultures. He had a short discussion of the Benin bronzes, derived from the notorious punitive expedition,  and drew on the thinking of Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay in Cosmopolitanism. MacGregor adopted James Cuno's much criticised position when he suggested that cultural property can form part of the political agenda. He perhaps went a little too far when he suggested that cultural property "myths" or (to use his word) "untruths" were deliberately constructed to make the case for the return of cultural property. Such a suggestion in the case of the Benin bronzes belittles the horrendous "facts" of the Benin Punitive Expedition so clearly documented in The Times (London).

Only a Scot could have commented so wittily about the claims on the Lewis Chessmen by suggesting that Norway had yet to ask for their return.

The lecture itself was delivered with the usual passion and enthusiasm associated with MacGregor and his discussion was placed against the formation of the Sainsbury collection, that incidentally contains significant pieces of Cycladic sculpture.

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