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The exquisite exhibition
of drawings by Michelangelo that has just opened at the British Museum is something of a rarity for the institution these days: quiet, intimate, inward-looking – and having no comment to make whatsoever about the current state of the world.

That contrasts sharply with recent shows that, it seems, have gone out of their way to announce their contemporary resonance: last year’s exhibition on ancient Persia, which only went ahead at the last minute following a special meeting of the Iranian Council of Ministers to decide whether to co-operate with a politically antagonistic country; an exhibition on Sudan, which happened to run at the same time as the genocide in Darfur; last week’s opening of a show of museum highlights in Beijing, arguably the most culturally curious spot on the planet.

I say to Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, freshly returned from a flying visit to the Chinese capital, that it must be a relief to be floating for a while in the placid waters of the Italian Renaissance. He agrees, up to a point. “It shows the extraordinary range of the museum’s collection. The point of this museum is to let people enter a world that they couldn’t otherwise reach or imagine. We are being taken into Michelangelo’s entire universe here, and that is exhilarating.”

But that refined universe has its troubles too: “What it also brings into focus is the enormous conservation responsibilities of showing these drawings. Every time we show them, their life
is reduced. And we have to decide how often in a generation people can come to see them. It
is like an ecological issue: how do we use these world resources in a responsible way for future generations?”

The drawings must therefore soon trudge back into the twilight of their fusty storerooms; otherwise, hiding treasures away is the last thing on MacGregor’s mind. Now in his fourth year as director, he says the recent loan to China marks an entirely new approach for the museum, one that is “trying to make a reality of the fact that this really is a museum of the world”.

“Until five or 10 years ago, almost all exhibitions took place in quite a small circuit of museums, in Europe and the US, and perhaps Japan and Korea. Now that has changed quite profoundly. We can take the collection to Africa, to China, and they can use it as they want, because in each case it has a different public to address, and a different story to tell.”

Which stories, I ask, were the Chinese interested in?

The reply is surprising. “One of the least known aspects of British relations with China in the 18th century was the extraordinary importance of the British clock trade. The Palace Museum in Beijing has an enormous collection of the great luxury clocks of London, which were not
collected in this country because they were made for export.” That fascination had its flip side: “Our next exhibition to Beijing will be of Chinese export porcelain, so they can see what it was of China that the British wanted.”

MacGregor loves teasing out the little paradoxes of such cultural exchanges. They reflect his view, which he traces to the founding principles of the museum, that it is the use to which objects are put, in different social contexts, that gives them a large part of their fascination. And it is the way that societies want to study those objects that currently fascinates him.

Next summer, for instance, the museum is sending part of its Assyrian collection to Shanghai. It is symptomatic, he says, of China’s insatiable thirst to learn from other people’s history: “They want the Chinese public to be able to compare Chinese civilisation with the other great civilisations.” MacGregor also speaks of China’s more subtle interest in 18th-century Britain, and how it nurtured its global relations. “It is not just curiosity. They want to know how Britain managed this extraordinary, and very fast, commercial engagement with the rest of the world.”

It was last year’s exhibition on Persia that was a paradigm of how the study of ancient cultures and artefacts could illuminate a contemporary political situation that was uncomfortably fraught. Between the agreement of the loan of prized pieces from Tehran’s National Museum and their arrival came the surprise election as Iran’s president of the anti-western hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

The loan went ahead – one of Ahmadi-Nejad’s few friendly gestures towards the west. The show was a great success, attracting more visitors than any of the museum’s temporary exhibitions since Tutankhamun in 1972. It helped visitors better understand Iran’s history – yet here we now were, in a desperate diplomatic impasse over Iran’s possible capacity and/or intention to develop nuclear weapons. Was that not a sharp reminder of the limits of scholarly co-operation?

Once again, MacGregor’s agreement is qualified. He concurs that there is a “wide gap” between those lines of communication, and actually attaining political agreement at the top level. “But there is a far greater awareness now of how the Iranians think of themselves, and how and why that needs to be taken into account. In terms of the broadening of public understanding of those long, big issues that shape contemporary politics, we are just at the beginning of what an exhibition can do.

“But if the key thing is to keep multiplying the opportunities for dialogue, I think that cultural exchange is enormously important. Because it provides a ground on which high-level conversation can take place, so that each side feels perfectly . . . ” and he chooses his words carefully here: “Respected. Unthreatened. Honoured. The more of those instances we can generate, the better.”

I ask if that was part of
his mission when he became director.

“No. I was shaped by the 18th-century notion that the museum was a space where people came to think about the rest of the world, and to reflect on their proper position in it.” The
invasion of Iraq, and the
looting of Baghdad’s National Museum, changed his view. “It became immediately clear to everyone that the fate of antiquities in Iraq was something that was very important to contemporary Iraq, and something that the British Museum simply had to take a position on. There was no alternative.” The museum’s experts on the region were prominent in helping the museum piece back together, sometimes literally, its lost treasures. “Only we could do it, because of our collections, and our scholarship, and our long collaborations with colleagues in Iraq.”

By coincidence, an exhibition soon afterwards designed to
celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Museum in
Khartoum unexpectedly turned into a commentary on the Darfur genocide. Again, he says, “it became unmistakably clear that we could not talk about the past in the Sudan without addressing its present.”

I ask MacGregor about the
perennially thorny question of restitution of parts of the museum collection, and he says that the argument has moved on since the crude tug-of-war antics of the past. “I think the issue of what an object’s purpose is has emerged as more important than the issue of ownership. Can [an object] achieve different purposes by being alternately displayed in several places? That is a fruitful way forward.”

In other words, more loans, more exchanges. But could he imagine the museum ever being pressurised into giving something away permanently? “The founding principle of the museum was that the collection should be held together for all time, so that it could be studied together. The trustees are still bound by, and would still re-affirm, that principle.”

He stresses that the museum was an “Enlightenment, pre-Imperial” institution. “The idea and principle behind it was set up before a colonial view of Britain’s role [was formed]. If you look at Cook’s collections from the Pacific, it was entirely about knowledge and understanding. It wasn’t about trade, and it certainly wasn’t about conquest. Indeed, he wound up being killed in the process.

“Of course the late 19th century saw it differently. But the great thing about the Enlightenment was that it was a forward-looking movement. What we have to decide is what to do about these things now.” And the only way forward, he makes plain, is not to be “hung up” on the question of ownership.

What about new acquisitions? It is surely more difficult to know what to acquire for the museum’s collection in our post-modern, semiotically complicated world than it was 250 years ago?

He says it has always been difficult, but points to a contemporary example that fulfils all the criteria. “The ‘Throne of Weapons’ [made by the Mozambican artist Kester Maputo out of decommissioned weapons collected since the end of civil war in 1992] was acquired as a contemporary work of art, and is a terrifically interesting way of thinking about contemporary issues facing the country. It is also a crucial document that will be studied in 200 years’ time.”

The throne has been on a nationwide tour, which has amply illustrated MacGregor’s thesis on the diverse meanings of objects according to their context. “At the Horniman Museum, it was the focus of a terrifying debate on gun crime in south London. When it went to northern Ireland, it was all about whether you should show decommissioned weapons or not. At Coventry Cathedral, on Remembrance Day, it was about reconciliation after conflict. In Scotland, it was about the European arms trade in Africa.

“Now a team from Mozambique wants to borrow it back, with all those echoes of its UK tour, because it has become something quite different from when it was created.” MacGregor laughs at another little paradox, and allows himself a moment of satisfaction: “It is so much the way one wants things to be.”

‘Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master’ is at the British Museum until June 25.
Tel 20 7323 8000

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