Last Talk: With Neil MacGregor

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Scenes from east frieze of the Parthenon, circa 438-432 BC — Elgin Collection/The British Museum

Let’s finish up that conversation with the director of the British Museum.

LACAYO: Do you worry about the future of what’s sometimes called the universal museum, the museum, like your own, that features objects from as many cultures as possible? It would seem that such museums would be threatened as more nations demand the return of artifacts that were taken from their territory in the past. It’s not just the Elgin Marbles. For instance, the Egyptians have said they would like your museum to return the Rosetta Stone.

MacGREGOR: The Egyptians have never questioned the Trustees’ ownership of the Stone. The Trustees have received a letter from the Egyptians asking the museum to lend the Stone for a number of months. So it’s a perfectly ordinary loan request, of exactly the sort that has never been received for the Parthenon sculptures. The Egyptians have started from the position that legal title is absolutely clear and that they want to borrow it like anything else and then return it.

As for the universal museum, is it endangered? No, I think the need for a museum where the world can look at itself as one is greater than ever. The British Museum was the first great museum to aim at bringing to the world things from all over the world. It’s an 18th century ideal, an Enlightenment ideal — a pre-imperial ideal. The museum was founded in 1753, before the British Empire really gets going. The idea of having, in one building, things from the whole world, there for free, for the whole world to study, is just as important now as it was 250 years ago.

It’s very interesting that the French government, in their discussions with Abu Dhabi — [about French museum involvement in the culture complex planned there] — is using exactly the same language. What they want to offer Abu Dhabi is a universal museum. And that is what Abu Dhabi wants. When they opened the new Capital Museum in Beijing, they opened it with “Treasures of the World’s Cultures”, an exhibition from the British Museum showing the cultures of the world other than China. Museums in China have very little in them that was not made in China, so for most Chinese it is very hard to see things made outside.

LACAYO: You’re often mentioned as a posible successor to Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whenever Philippe retires. You’ve said you wouldn’t want the job because you have things still to do at the British Museum. What are those?

MacGREGOR: I would like to make the museum a place where the world can tell its histories, to allow the whole world to think about its oneness, how it interconnects. Over the next five years, in the run-up to the Olympics, we want to embark on a series of projects about the histories of the world as told through the objects in the British Museum. One aim is to make the museum more available on line. We now have about 300,000 objects in photographs documented on line. We want to make it usable throughout the world, to make the museum what Parliament set it up to be, a resource for the studious and curious of all nations.

Until about the 1960s, when air transport and packing changed, the question for most objects was where should they be. That’s not now the case. The fact that Assyrian sculptures can travel to Shanghai, and allow the Chinese for the first time ever to see the civilization of the Mesopotamia, and then come back, changes the assumptions of that argument very profoundly. [Developments in] the technology of transport mean that those old discussions about whether an object should be in place A or place B are old discussions. Objects can be, over time, in many places.

LACAYO: In that case, would you agree to an actual sharing arrangement with Greece for the Elgin marbles?

MacGREGOR: We already have a sharing agreement — we each have about half.