Museums Cultural exchange United Kingdom

Mandela supported the British Museum’s global role

In 2000, the former South African president spoke movingly on cultural freedom and exchange

An anti-Apartheid badge, around 1984, from the British Museum's collection

On the death of a very great person, there is a rush to proffer anecdotes that are often more about demonstrating an acquaintance with the deceased than anything else, but here is an episode that really deserves to be remembered because it illustrates Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and intellectual openness. It received no publicity at the time except in our pages because no journalist other than our correspondent was admitted.

On 16 November 2000, Nelson Mandela spoke movingly at the inauguration of the Great Court’s BP Lecture Theatre, when he recalled that the British Museum had been an institution “about which I had heard so much as a young man”. The former South African president said that he was “particularly proud that the museum is about to open three new African galleries”, and these would demonstrate the influence that the continent’s art has had on 20th-century European artists.

Mandela made no reference to restitution, but instead supported the museum’s view of its global role. “This great museum may have begun as the beneficiary of British imperial power, but it has become a truly international institution supported by global donors and attracting scholars and tourists from across the world to its unique collection of artistic treasures in which every continent is represented.”

The former liberation leader also paid tribute to the support which had earlier come from artists across the world “who saw apartheid as an outrage against their whole concept of cultural freedom and exchange”.

The very fact that Mandela had come to a BP-sponsored event represents a symbolic reconciliation. During the days of apartheid, BP had been one of the companies involved in busting the oil embargo and the corporation had been bitterly condemned by the African National Congress.

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