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Verve People
March 23, 2012

Unravelling History

Text by Meher Marfatia.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, believes that India has an incomparable heritage and its museums are a unique resource for understanding it. In conversation with Verve, he speaks about engaging the young with history and the recent collaboration between the British Museum and Indian Ministry of Culture, to provide tailor-made training for curators and museum professionals

He is certainly the harbinger of good news for those ruing the fact that dust and babudom may have paralysed our museums. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, begs to disagree. “India has an incomparable heritage, with museums whose collections are a unique resource for understanding it – what it has been and what it will be,” says the Scotsman known to have turned around the National Gallery and the British Museum from the day he joined to become the most successful director at each hallowed institution, in 1987 and 2002 respectively.

The present director of the British Museum has taken his sanguine hope for India’s academic and cultural safeguarding to an altogether new level, with a pioneering collaboration launched between the Ministry of Culture in New Delhi, the National Culture Fund and the British Museum. Acknowledging the British Museum’s reputation for providing tailor-made training for curators and museum professionals across the world, this ongoing programme for future directors and cultural leaders will ensure Indian museums have a strong base to develop dynamically. The specialised course educates participants in aspects of strategic planning, project management, effective display, communications, marketing, digital technology, conservation and security, drawing on firsthand experience of experts from international working museum environments. It promises to prove a challenging partnership between the countries.

But challenges are no novelty for the man whose noted book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, a compilation of the aired programme, is a revelation. Declaring him a storehouse of valuable information, arts patron and aesthete Pheroza Godrej says, “Neil MacGregor’s unique creative technique of unravelling the history of the world through exhibits, particularly with reference to his popular 2010 broadcasts on BBC Radio 4, brings to mind David Attenborough’s captivating natural history television programmes which hold us spellbound. In Neil’s case the narration is far more challenging and for that he has deservedly earned accolades. There is much our museums can emulate from what the British Museum has continuously been striving to do for the past 259 years. How wonderful and edifying it would be to have the opportunity to see collections from Mexico, Africa,  China, Iran and Egypt, as also for us to admire treasures that originated in and once belonged to India.”

MacGregor affirms that although the encyclopaedic British Museum contains supreme works, it is primarily a museum of cultures, not a museum of art. Set up to foster knowledge with a civic dimension, the aim, from its foundation in 1753, was to allow visitors to understand the world through things. As he observes, “A museum is a fascinating opening up of realms, allowing everyone the exciting chance to travel to another place, into other minds.”

In Mumbai for the Penguin launch of A History of the World in 100 Objects, the unstuffy globalist reasons: “A collection that embraces the whole world allows you to consider the whole world. The non-European world isn’t ‘other’ anymore; it’s part of us.” The charming Glaswegian speaks to Verve about practical academics, engaging the young with history and India’s growing possibilities for better showcasing its truly magnificent heritage.

Having visited India on earlier occasions, what changes do you notice about its museums?
India is lucky to have two of the most vital, yet hardest, things for museums to acquire: scholarship and great collections. The important task is to connect the public to this extraordinary inheritance, reminding people these objects are there for their pleasure and use. They need to know why such collections matter today, be given the opportunity to think differently about them. India is gifted with a huge number of temples, archaeological sites, secular and religious relics from a rich past. And scholars to explain this history – you can’t explore heritage without the scholarship firmly in place.

Two remarkable Mumbai museums – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum – have mastered the trick of better engaging with people in a way which makes them both alive with events, special shows and courses, without being seen as overwhelming or intimidating. The secret is to find the greatest number of ways making it simple for a visitor to spend half an hour in any museum.

You have always stressed on the importance of being proactive with the youngest children, to make museums ever accessible for them…
Yes. As children we’re all brought to museums. Going on to have our kids, we introduce them to the museum experience. What of the years between, when in our own 20s and perhaps 30s? The museum is rarely a part of daily adult life. It should be, like any other enjoyable outing to the theatre, the movies or time spent over a good meal. Our proudest statistic is that most visitors to the British Museum are between 20 and 40 years old.

The best idea today is to harness social networks to engage the young with creativity and hold shows that make those who think they know nothing about art, feel involved. A good current example of this would be the free, ongoing exhibition at the British Museum called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. It showcases the range of Grayson Perry, the first ceramist to win the Turner Prize. He is very popular with the young, an instance of the guidance of a contemporary artist restoring the urgency of the past.

A huge majority of pieces in the museum are not high art in the least. With everyday pots, clocks, metal works and all, we want to say that everyone can choose their own museum, arrange it in the head and maybe start an online conversation about it which will be completely democratic and participative.

Would you say that as a great believer in technology powering and furthering the reach of museums, this is the future for all museums to embrace? 
Oh absolutely. Technology allows us to do in the 21st century what people wanted to do in the 18th. It is our great joy to be able to offer information about nearly two million and make viewable a million of them, available in high resolution too. This is what Parliament set out to create in the 1750s and the British Museum set out to do 250 years ago.

Your epoch-defining anthology, A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with an Egyptian mummy. What’s the last item listed and why?
It’s a 2010 solar-powered lamp. The book is about change in the world and this invention allows the rural poor more equal opportunities. With it they have access to information, being able to study at night and charge mobile phones. It is amazing how the economically poorest countries are the ones blessed richest in sunshine.

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