France’s big splash vs Britain’s slow infiltration
Ever since the Guggenheim opened in Bilbao, museums have started to go global. Two of the world’s top museum directors explain their foreign policy
By The Art Newspaper. Museums, Issue 191, May 2008
Published online: 01 May 2008
LONDON. The British Museum and the Louvre are two of the world’s select club of universal museums, all in the West (the others being the Metropolitan
in New York, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Berlin State Museums). Both are vast depositories of cultural artefacts, both are hugely visited (the Louvre with 8.3m visitors and the British Museum with 5.4m visitors in 2007), both are important enough to play a role in the international diplomacy of their countries.
So far, no news. Art and cultural offerings have helped smooth relations between rulers since time immemorial. The news is that they are both expanding beyond their own national boundaries, albeit in ways that comfortably reinforce national stereotypes about dirigisme on the one hand and pragmatism on the other. The Louvre’s way is government-led, or, at least, strongly government-assisted, spectacular and absolutist. The British Museum’s is initiated by the museum and its curators, is much quieter, and grows organically out of its collections and the realities of the moment.
The future Louvre Abu Dhabi may well be the biggest cultural transaction in history (Napoleon’s ransackings do not count because he offered nothing in exchange). What most people do not realise is that it involves other great national institutions such as the Centre Pompidou and Versailles, never previously in such close collaboration with one another, but united now in a project that will subsidise their financial needs for many years to come.
The British Museum is also joining forces, with Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the aim being to encourage links with the rest of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, in ways that should gradually become apparent.
The interviews with the two directors, Henri Loyrette of the Louvre and Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, show how they see the foreign policy of their museums.
The most striking thing to emerge is how little emphasis Mr Loyrette puts on reaching out to the immigrant communities compared to Mr MacGregor, who after years of the Labour government’s insistence that museums become more accessible, sees it as central to what the museum does and to how it develops its foreign relations. Despite the much vaunted British arm’s-length principle, the government does have ways of making its approval or disapproval felt.
Mr Loyrette is expansionist: he wants to enlarge the Louvre’s range of operations and collecting into new territories, such as Russia. The British Museum wants to link in more with the parts of the world from which its collections have come.
Both believe that they have a role in spreading goodwill between countries, despite tensions at government level (Mr Loyrette reminds us of recent US Francophobia). Both organise exhibitions with broadbrush subjects (“Assyria” by the British Museum, in China; “Greek Art” by the Louvre, in Singapore) that get sent on tours to distant parts of the world, and while both these exhibitions certainly ornament diplomatic efforts and add to the prestige of their museums in the countries they visit, they also earn them substantial fees.
Neither museum gives figures, but the question of loan fees, one of the best kept secrets of the art world, is discussed at the annual meeting of the organisers of large-scale exhibitions, including the British Museum and the Louvre, that takes place this month in Budapest. No journalists are invited.
The Louvre is unashamed to admit that it needs money, although Mr Loyrette gets slightly ruffled when pressed on why the museum is lending to an intellectually unchallenging show (“Masterpieces in Verona: Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt and others”, opening on 19 September) put on by a commercial exhibition impresario in Italy. The British Museum so far has not lent to exhibitions of this type.
The huge difference between the two museums is the Louvre’s role now as lead shareholder in a joint venture with the government of Abu Dhabi. This earns the museum an endowment fund of E400m ($636.8m), its share of the E1bn being paid over 30 years by the emirate to the Louvre and other national museums for their collaboration in creating a universal museum in the Gulf. The question now is whether this inter-governmental transaction should be seen more as a huge fundraising operation for the benefit of French museums or as sunrise for the gloire of France in the Middle East.
The Art Newspaper: Do the major museums
of today have foreign policies?
Henri Loyrette: Speaking for the Louvre, it is not a new phenomenon. The Louvre was founded by the Revolution in 1793 and from the time of the Empire it already had a very active foreign policy. This evolved then over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today we aim to renew this initial role of the Louvre. This is a palace that has been part of the history of France and as a museum, created by the state, the Louvre has had a similar role.
TAN: Neil MacGregor at the British Museum feels that in order to reach out to the immigrant communities in Britain he needs to establish close contact with the countries from which they come. He gives the example of the Bengali community. Do you have a policy of this nature?
HL: We don’t have the same kind of collections. They are not directly linked to any of our immigrant groups; we have no Chinese or African art, for example. French policy towards its immigrants is also very different; you saw that over the whole question of wearing the veil in France. We emphasise integration much more, so the situation between the Louvre and the British Museum cannot be compared. I think the best way to face the issue of restitution claims is to promote the circulation and exchange of works of art. That’s also what we’re trying to implement through international exhibitions and scholarly cooperation.
TAN: The French government feels that culture is very much part of its image abroad. What can it ask you to do on behalf of its foreign policy?
HL: Nothing. All our current initiatives started with the Louvre, in agreement with the ministries of culture and foreign affairs, but never with any specific requests from on high to do this or that, with the exception of the Abu Dhabi project, which involves not just the Louvre, but a whole group of national museums and which is something that will relaunch them all.
TAN: Besides Abu Dhabi, which we shall come to later, where else is the Louvre active?
HL: As a consequence of our great archaeological departments created in the 19th century, we have a strong presence in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iran, all of them traditional areas of partnership. What is new is that now we have moved into territories that are not part of the traditional appanages of the Louvre; for example, Sudan, which has historically been associated with the British. Because our Egyptian department considered it necessary, they have started to dig north of Khartoum, investigating the Meroitic civilisation. We want to diversify our international activities beyond the collections of the Louvre to revive our founding mission of being a universal museum. Hence our interest in creating new partnerships and developing the collections: with Russia, for example, with a big exhibition on Holy Russia in 2010; with Latin America, with an exhibition in Brazil in 2009—in exchange of the Franco-Brazilian cultural events that took place in the Louvre three years ago—and in Mexico in 2010.
TAN: Do you believe that cultural diplomacy
HL: I do. I think it has always existed and I believe that culture can help keep connections alive when France has a difficult relationship with a country. An example of this is that we reinforced our involvement with the US at the moment when the rapport between France and America was at its worst, during the Iraq war. That was when we launched the American Friends of the Louvre, and we found that there was a shared desire to do this.
TAN: In 2006, you lent an exhibition of Islamic art to Riyadh, the first time Saudi Arabia had hosted a loan exhibition from abroad. How did this come about?
HL: It was a very meaningful exhibition, inaugurated by both President Chirac and the king of Saudi Arabia. The point of departure was the signature in 2004 of a global agreement including among its measures that exhibition and an exchange exhibition of Saudi antiquities that will come to the Louvre in 2010. Besides this, thanks to the generosity of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal who gave €17m in 2005, Saudi Arabia supported us in our project of developing the department of Islamic art. This is a long-term cooperation that includes also an exchange of specialists and any other elements that nourish a cultural partnership.
TAN: How did the donation from Prince Alwaleed come about?
HL: The Saudis knew that we had to to raise the money for the redisplay of the Islamic galleries, so through the good offices of the Saudi embassy here, of the French embassy in Saudi Arabia and our own contacts, the prince made his very generous gesture.
TAN: A great deal of the Louvre’s current foreign activity is focused on the Middle East. Opponents of the Abu Dhabi Louvre have accused the museum of being used to further France’s defence and oil interests in the region. What do you say to these critics?
HL: Once again, I go back to the question of cultural diplomacy. There is a real interest in the part of the Emirates, and a global demand, as shown by the presence of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. In this context, there is a desire there for a number of museums, not just the Louvre, but also the Guggenheim and Maritime Museum. They turned to the Louvre for two reasons, I think: in part because the Louvre is “the museum of museums”, in a sense, the very image of the universal museum for them.
TAN: Who was it that made the first contact?
HL: A delegation from the Emirates came to the Louvre—it was not a political contact—and said that Abu Dhabi wanted to work with us and create a universal museum. But while the Louvre was truly universal at its foundation, it had become progressively less so, with 19th-century art in the Musée d’Orsay, 20th-century art in the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, oriental art in the Guimet and so on. So to recreate this concept of a universal museum one had to involve the community of national museums, and that is when the negotiations took off.
TAN: You have 2,200 staff but only 65 curators. Part of your contract with Abu Dhabi is that you will train the staff in the Gulf. How will you manage?
HL: We have been training people at the Louvre for a long time. We have had Iranian, Syrian, Yemenite, Palestinian scholars, and exchanges of staff at all levels. In the case of Abu Dhabi, it is slightly different because the interface with the emirates is Agence France Museums, which does not exclude the occasional participation of a curator, museologist or architect.
TAN: So are all the curators of the participating museums potentially available for the Abu Dhabi project? They could be sent there for periods of time?
HL: It’s not just we who are helping to conceive the Abu Dhabi museum, but all the national museums of France who have established the Agence France Museums–I am chairman of its scholarly board. The Louvre has the biggest share in the capital, one third, and the other museums the rest. The Agence has its own team of curators with which the Louvre curators collaborate. We are ready to provide whatever services needed for the success of this project.
TAN: Is the Abu Dhabi project with that emirate alone or is Abu Dhabi acting for the other Gulf emirates as well?
HL: They call it the national museum, so I think it is a project that reaches beyond Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the UAE.
TAN: How did the other museums in the Agence France Museums get selected?
HL: They had to be an établissements publics [a legal entity operating for the common good with public funding]. Any that qualified under that heading could take part if they wanted to. The conglomerate includes the major Parisian museums, the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, Quai Branly, Versailles, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Musée Guimet.
TAN: Does the E1bn being paid by Abu Dhabi over 30 years include the E400m being paid to the Louvre?
TAN: What will this money enable you to do?
HL: This has to be seen against the general economic situation of French museums. When I came to the Louvre in 2001 its budget derived 70% from the state, 30% from its own efforts and donations. Last year the proportions were 57:43%.
TAN: Is that because the Louvre has been making more money or because the state has been rolling back its support?
HL: The budget, and the state’s contribution, have both increased. We have a three-year financing contract with the state, mainly to cover areas for which it would be difficult to find sponsorship: building maintenance, fire protection and so on. But after the doubling of the museum’s size in the 1980s, the government had made clear that the cost of renewing galleries or expanding were our responsibility. Currently we are redisplaying the 18th-century decorative arts, which have not been changed since 1960, and we have to find the E20m required.
Don’t forget that the Louvre is a palace, with correspondingly high maintenance and restoration costs. The Abu Dhabi project is a revolution in the financing of the museums involved as it provides us all with what you in the US and UK are used to, namely, an endowment fund, and the Louvre’s share of E400m will be invested and the income used to fund our various developments.
In the coming years, thanks to Abu Dhabi’s funds, we will be able to finance new projects for which the Louvre had no dedicated budget. Recently, in the presence of Christine Albanel, minister of culture and communication, we announced ambitious new projects. First, the building of a new centre for storage, restoration, research and conservation in the inner suburbs. Second, the entire renewal of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities department. Third, a complete reorganisation of the spaces under the Pyramid, initially conceived for 4.5m visitors a year and currently handling 8.5m.
If we are able to do what we are doing, it is due to the agility of successive governments that have worked on improving tax incentives to encourage benefactions. All in all, therefore, I do not see a rolling back by the state; it remains the principal backer of the Louvre.
TAN: What ministries were involved in the negotiations with Abu Dhabi?
HL: The negotiations were not conducted by the Louvre after the first contact with the Emir. The ministry of culture then took over, albeit in close collaboration with ourselves and the other museums and the foreign ministry. This has been an intergovernmental agreement, for which a law had to be passed in parliament.
TAN: Are you liaising with Thomas Krens, who is doing the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim?
HL: Not at all. I like him and he is a considerable figure, but we have not worked together and what we are doing is profoundly different. We are not creating a branch of the Louvre in the way that the Guggenheim creates branch museums. The Abu Dhabi project is the creation of a national museum in which a group of French museums are participating. What we have done at the High Museum Atlanta is different again: it is a three-year-global partnership including not only a series of exhibitions but also exchanges between the staffs of the two museums. And the Abu Dhabi project is also very different from the Louvre at Lens, which will be a part of the Louvre itself in northern France, reviving the old tradition of the Louvre as a national museum whose collections serve the whole country.
TAN: There has been some criticism down in the Gulf that the Louvre Abu Dhabi project has not been explained much to the local population yet.
HL: The deeper issue is what kind of public this museum will have. Although I don’t know these countries well, two things have struck me: one, the appetite for culture that I have seen there; two, how much they remind me of when I was researching the early history of museums in America, around 1900. Then European newspapers carried arrogant and ignorant articles saying, “What does Chicago, a city of butchers and abattoirs, want with an Art Institute; it’s against nature?” These articles strikingly resemble what has been in the European media recently. I think it’s marvellous that we want to do the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and both from the point of view of civilisation and of politics it is highly desirable.
TAN: But do you believe you can create a cultural scene out of nothing or a very different cultural tradition? Singapore has been trying to do so over the last 15 years or so, with limited results.
HL: How long is it since you have been to Singapore? We have very active contacts there and have just held a very successful exhibition of Greek art. They have opened a splendid museum.
TAN: I understand your
loans to the High Museum in Atlanta and to Denver, both sophisticated museums with good education departments, but I am puzzled by your loans to Marco Goldin’s commercial exhibitions enterprise in northern Italy.
HL: It’s a longstanding collaboration with the paintings department of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and others. Goldin’s are always scholarly exhibitions; I saw what he did at Brescia and it was impressive. What is your question?
TAN: Marco Goldin is one
of a small number of totally commercial organisations that do exhibitions for profit. These include the people doing the King Tut show currently in London, the people doing the Palais de Luxembourg shows…
HL: One never organises an exhibition with the aim of losing money. Every cultural organisation needs to programme a few profitable exhibitions so as to balance the books and to allow for the more difficult projects. Anyway, a blockbuster exhibition doesn’t mean a bad exhibition. For instance, the Louvre is currently displaying “Babylon”, which is attracting more than 4,000 visitors a day; last year, the Praxiteles show had only 1,500 visitors a day, but despite this difference, both exhibitions are very scholarly.
TAN: Goldin’s are not intellectually demanding shows. I am thinking of “Impressionism and the Snow”, for example, that
was in Turin during the 2006 winter Olympics and all
those exhibitions called “Masterpieces from such
and such a museum”…
HL: It is unfair to suggest that only Goldin does this. It’s in fact very widespread. In Great Britain and America, many museums, and not the least of them, have organised “Impressionistics” shows or selections of masterpieces from this or that collection.
TAN: Do you have any current restitution claims against the Louvre?
HL: No official ones. There
is always some newspaper somewhere claiming this or
that piece, but no government
is claiming the restitution
The Art Newspaper: Do the major museums
of today have foreign policies?
Neil MacGregor: Yes. It reflects what has changed in the world in the last 30 years, mostly to do with the fact that we are now witnessing another huge period of migration. What began as tourism for the rich has become worldwide movement of populations. With that has grown a sense of curiosity about other cultures, which means more and more countries want to borrow from the great European and American collections, and particularly the British Museum. It also means that because more and more people from different countries live in London, the diasporas want to engage with their collections in the museums here.
Quite separately as a phenomenon, but clearly linked in cause, is the growing political desire of nations and states to define themselves through cultural artefacts as opposed to the intangible heritage, which was what defined communities through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, when Poland and Ireland and Brittany were asserting their identities in the 19th century, it was essentially through language, poetry and music, while in the late 20th century that phenomenon has been given form through the desire to see and engage with objects. Many countries now want to present themselves to the rest of the world through the objects that were produced in their territory over the millennia, and those may be objects already held by museums abroad. The Chinese decided to lend the terracotta warriors in order to provoke discussion and a deeper understanding of China’s cultural history. We did not want to present the terracotta warriors as a cultural phenomenon in a historical vacuum, as they have often been shown in the past, but decided to call the exhibition “The First Emperor” and tried to use the event to talk about the making of China, the achievement of the First Emperor in 220BC in imposing some kind of unity on extraordinarily diverse peoples, with issues that are in many ways comparable to those addressed by the Chinese government today.
Finally, because of the total transformation of London in the last 30 years in terms of its population, there’s a real need to articulate how the different cultural traditions of the world come together. For example, last year we had the ceremony of raising the two great totem poles from British Columbia in the Great Court, with representatives of the Canadian first nation performing prayers and religious ceremonies, expressing their delight that this great Haida carving was to be seen along with works from Egypt and China and Greece.
We need to have a foreign policy in terms of how we work with the source communities: how often do we visit, let’s say, the Haida people in British Columbia; how often do we invite them here; what academic activities do we undertake together; how does the presentation of the materials in the British Museum reflect their understanding of their traditional artefacts?
I think that intellectually, quite apart from anthropologically or politically, any responsible museum now has to take account of that. It’s a move away from the eurocentricism of two generations ago.
TAN: Do you ever find that that you are
in disagreement with the source country
about the story you’re telling?
NMcG: The role of the museum is to be where
the evidence is put forward. One of the very interesting things about the First Emperor is that most of the written sources about him are from about 100 years later, from another dynasty that wanted to discredit his dynasty and show that they’d lost the right to rule. So the great stories
of burning the books and burying the philosophers may be true, but it’s very hard to know. What we did in the exhibition was to display the leg irons that were used to restrain the men who made the terracotta figures, showing that this was a coerced work force.
With our exhibition about the ancient Persians in 2005 there was no disagreement with the Iranian government, but there was a lively debate in public over how the view that emerged from the objects related to the written history on the Greek side. Again, we tend to know the Persians through biased, written accounts. This is a very important role for a museum, to be the place where contested histories can be contested, with the material evidence laid out.
TAN: With exhibitions of such importance as the Persian one or the recent one from China, does the British Museum go it alone or do you work in tandem with the UK government?
NMcG: This museum is not part of government, and it’s why I feel uneasy about words like cultural diplomacy. There is no sense in which the institutions like the British Museum and British Library are arms of foreign policy and I think that’s a very important line to hold.
TAN: Has the Foreign Office ever tried to use you as such?
NMcG: Quite the reverse. The Foreign Office has always been very scrupulous about the fact that museums are not under government control.
TAN: So they’d never do what the Italian ministry of foreign affairs does, which is to order museums to send important works of art to exhibitions in foreign countries?
NMcG: They can’t, due to the wisdom of the 18th-century parliament that set up the British Museum as the first of the bodies to be funded by the State but not controlled by the State, with trustees who have their obligations to the beneficiaries, and cannot be compelled by government. That was the model then for all the other national museums and, of course, the BBC. It means that government is simply not able to give orders to the trustees. That’s very different from France and Italy, for example.
TAN: Can government help you in your exhibition and other cultural programmes abroad?
NMcG: It can help in different ways in different countries. In China the groundwork for this extraordinary exhibition was laid over the last 20 years by academic co-operation and friendships between the British Museum and colleagues in China. But what was also very important was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the British Museum and the National Museum of China in the Great Hall of the People in the presence of our Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier, because that ensured that the highest Chinese authorities would allow the movement of a number of works of art and so on.
TAN: And in the case of the Persian show?
NMcG: That was an exhibition made possible in spite of government stand-off. We began talking about it just before the invasion
and all the negotiations were conducted just afterwards, a very bad moment for relations between
the two countries at a political level. Throughout, the Iranian authorities made it quite clear that because this was an exhibition organised by our Keeper of Middle Eastern Collections, John Curtis, and because he was a trusted friend of many decades, they would lend to his exhibition. Of course, it had to be authorised by the Iranian government, but they were, I think, happy to do so because they knew that it presented a long historical view of Iran, which could only add to greater understanding of the country.
TAN: The British Museum was much involved in the special focus on Africa in 2006 prompted by former prime minister Tony Blair. How did that come about and what did you do?
NMcG: That was different. We wanted to develop our connection with the museums of sub-Saharan Africa, because in English-speaking Africa the museums were founded in association with the British Museum, so the links are long standing—in the Sudan for over 100 years. But we also wanted to work with the diaspora in the United Kingdom in the interpretation of the collection, and ensuring that they used the collection to look at their own history. It’s impossible to find sponsorship to work in sub-Saharan Africa, so when the prime minister came in 2003 to mark the 200th anniversary of the museum we asked him for a birthday present of funding to work in sub-Saharan Africa, and that £250,000 enabled us to embark on a very interesting series of programmes for curatorial and conservation training and exchanges, particularly in Nairobi, where for the first time ever an exhibition was put on by African curators for an African audience, drawing on the collections of the British Museum. In education and training, quite small sums can achieve an enormous amount.
TAN: In the case of Iraq you were already there before the war and you immediately mustered to try and help after the looting of the Baghdad Museum. Is this help still going on, and what effect has it had?
NMcG: It is still going on, but the effect has been dwindling as the security situation has deteriorated. In the beginning we were able to send colleagues, so Sarah Collins from our Middle East department, who is a very good Arabist, went to work in Baghdad to help them co-ordinate their international aid activities, but she had to come home after the United Nations team was blown up. A number of Iraqis have been here for training. Last June the new director of antiquities came to the museum to ask for help in training in Armah and we are still waiting to hear whether we shall get government funding for this.
TAN: You have emphasised your curators’ excellent long-term relationships with the countries in whose cultures they specialise. How many curators do you have to cover the extra-European world?
NMcG: Not nearly enough: between 20 and 30, which is a tiny number given the size and complexity of the world.
TAN: Who pays when you bring people over to train in the British Museum?
NMcG: We do. The museum has started an international curatorial summer school for curators from countries with which we have strong links, such as Iran and Iraq, Turkey, Japan, Sudan, Egypt, South Africa. It’s a very important part of our long-term foreign policy, because the key thing now is to build a generation of curators who think locally in terms of the collection, but know this collection well enough to see how their material culture fits into the material culture of the rest of the world.
TAN: Would you see yourself doing long-term loans abroad, as other big museums such as the Louvre are doing?
NMcG: Museums everywhere are trying to reach a wider public. They are aware that the great collections of the 19th and 20th century were only possible because of the political reach of a few countries, and they are in the great former imperial cities, London, Paris and so on. How we now make them available around the world is a pressing question and some have opted for outposts to try to do that and help generate income. Our policy at the moment is to maximise the places where the collections can be seen, so we’ve been building up a series of networks through which curatorial exchanges will take place and exhibitions from the collection will travel regularly, so that over time the people in a given place will see large parts of the collection. That seems the best way forward, rather than selecting one outpost where you deposit part of the collection, because it seems to me that on a network basis you’re actually likely to reach more people with a more varied offering.
TAN: There is one huge difference, which is that the long-term outposting tends to be well paid by the hosts. How do you finance your loan networking?
NMcG: We ask for loan fees, normally, from the place that shows our exhibitions, so that does produce some income, but not at the same level as the outpost system. An example of one of our networking shows is the exhibition of ancient Mesopotamian culture that we have sent to Shanghai. We have an agreement with Shanghai that every two years we send an exhibition of a great ancient culture: Assyria in 2006, Greece this year, India in 2010.
TAN: How have they been received?
NMcG: Oh, with such enthusiasm. Hundreds of thousands of people have been to see it, and, of course, it was the first time the Chinese were able to think about Mesopotamia through the objects. There was enormous excitement in the media about the existence of this other very ancient culture that with writing had achieved something ahead of China. That exhibition is now going on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston [21 September-4 January 2009]. We’ve also put together an exhibition that is essentially a history of the world through the holdings of the British Museum. We were asked to make that to open the capital museum in Beijing, in 2006, where it was a colossal success because there is no collection in China that gathers the whole world together under one roof. It begins with the first hand axes from central Africa and ends with a great selection, from David Hockney to a Russian plate celebrating the privatisation of the electricity industry. That exhibition has gone on tour in the Far East
to an enormous public and
has now been seen by two million people in China, Korea and Japan.
TAN: Have you been called upon to advise any governments abroad?
NMcG: Not as such, but with the Hermitage I have been lucky enough to be on the Unesco International Committee for over ten years. What is interesting is the growing co-operation between the great museums, because we’re all collections founded in the Enlightenment spirit and we’re all having to confront the same issues of cultural particularism at home and abroad. The British Museum, the Berlin state museums, the Hermitage and the Louvre meet once a year to talk about how we consider our Islamic collections, and in particular what issues the presentation to our different local public now raises. For Paris that public is largely North African, for Berlin, largely Turkish, and for St Petersburg, Chechen, Caucasian, and Central Asian. But in London, because of its Nigerian and Pakistani population as well as its huge Middle Eastern population, there is no single public. The way in which we might engage with religious communities is also very alien to the French tradition, their museum being part of the secular state, whereas in Britain that’s not
the case. Those issues are very important now, and that’s where you need foreign relations.
TAN: So it’s not just a question of exchanging information about how not
to offend people?
NMcG: It’s about how to reach out. At these meetings we learn a lot about how to do it, but we also realise how much we can do here because we have free entry. We can invite poorer parts of the population to come to the museum and make it their own, which allows a different kind of engagement with the various populations.
TAN: Have you, in fact, managed to enlarge the social range of your visitors?
NMcG: Certainly: when we did the Bengali programme, for example, building the Durga in the Great Courtyard. That is a good illustration of the need for a foreign policy: if we want to engage the Bengali population in London, which we do, as it is a huge population and the museum has a very, very important and very old Bengali collection, that’s not really possible unless we also engage with the craftsmen in Bengal, with the guardians of those traditions, there and among
the diaspora. Nowadays, you can’t have a domestic policy,
at least in London, without a foreign policy.
TAN: What about countries that are, shall we say, politically out of favour?
NMcG: We can enable the investigation of their culture and tradition. So, for instance, a couple of years ago we put on an exhibition about the long history of the Sudan at precisely the moment when there was great debate going on about the genocide in Darfur and the real worry about what the Sudanese government was doing.
The museum is a neutral space. This meant that when we reopened the Korea gallery in 2000, we were able to have representatives of North and South Korea at the same time, looking at the Korean culture
to which they were both heirs. At the time, that was astonishing.
TAN: You have been appointed chairman of the World Collections programme, which involves five other major UK institutions. What do you perceive its role to be?
NMcG: The World Collections Programme is an evolving programme, but it will aim to increase worldwide use of the UK collections as a way of exploring how cultures connect across time and space. It will broker relationships, establish partnerships, facilitate staff exchanges, establish mechanisms to share expertise and conservation technology, and help enable loans. For the first three years, the focus will be on Asia and Africa.
Submit a comment
All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be
made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.
Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email email@example.com