The Human Experience in Objects: The Case for Museums in the 21st Century


Hi, this is Scott Halpern before you. Tune into this week's episode of the Tel Aviv review. I'd like to invite you to a live recording of the podcast in New York City on Tuesday, the fifth of February two thousand and nineteen. I'll be interviewing professor, Michael Walter. They highly acclaimed political philosopher about his latest book a foreign policy for the left. Please. Join me for more details. Check out the Tel Aviv review podcasts Facebook page, all the v one website. This is is still be one. The Tel Aviv review. Hello and welcome to the Tel Aviv review. Brought to you by the Van Leer Jerusalem institute, which promotes humanistic democratic and liberal values can social discourse in Israel. I'm your host get happen. And I would like to start by making a special appeal if you like us, please show it we need your support. Please give to show by going to a homepage. That's still be one FM's instead of review scroll down to the bottom. And you see a big red button. That says patriots click and support us where counting on you. In return. My co-host stylish ending who is away this week's Hadley, and I will bring you every week discussions about books research and other things that have caught her attention. My guest today is an international adviser to the Humboldt forum. The soon to be opened museum of non-european cultures in Berlin and former director of the British Museum. He recently came to Israel to deliver the inaugural lecture of the Van Leer institute. Tom this one series on the role of ideas, and the responsibility. The intellectuals in contemporary society the McGregor. Hello and welcome to the show. And thank you for the invitation. Let's start with the obvious question. That is perhaps also the most complicated one. How would you define a museum because to my mind, it's almost an conundrum like a dog. Right. You can immediately tell when you see one. But you can't quite a term in what other prerequisites for to be a dog or museum. Right. What are the prerequisites exactly to the heart of the problem is just like a dog different Ziems are like different breeds of dogs? But the all share a couple of things in common. The first thing that shown common is that they're about things, and it's about the expiration of human experience through things looking at things examining things comparing things and using that to tell us something about who. We are why we are about the world around us. So. That's the it's all about what can things tell us about who we are. But it doesn't have to be concrete things right objects. I mean, everything is about things I think it has to be about things the distinction. Regina museum and museum is not a library. There's always good say what the thing is not is not a libraries not about books. It's not a picture gallery in the term that I'm talking about the moment, it's about things of three dimensional objects that tell us something about what is to be a human being and above all tell us how difficult it is to be human being orphanages and the different kinds of museums at the different kinds of dogs of the ones that get different aspects of why it's a great fan or she a hill to be a human being or whether it's about one set of human beings or all of us, and that that's what makes the difference. So the role of the museum starve is to make sense of it all how do. How do you even approach that momentous task depends on the connection you've got and the collection that I was responsible for the British Museum in London had a very clear idea of what the task was and how you're meant to do it. It's set up in the middle of the eighteenth century the first moment when it's possible to collect objects from all over the world because of shipping first Mundi human history, when you can think of putting the whole world together under one roof and thinking about it as one, and that's the task that museum and still percents persists today. First century inside everything that you might and Europe and Britain ever, gone through everything. So it's called the British Museum. Not because it's about the history Britain is it isn't at all is called the British Museum because it's not about it's not a Royal collection is a collection of the people and is about a citizen a citizen or Britain and under citizen of the world. So that's the different kind. Kind of dog different kinds of museum from other ones. That's that's there was those interesting thing there is how do you keep a museum like that up to date is always been about the world now, and you can only understand the world now through its history. But also, but what's happening now? And that's the great challenge of a museum. I think today is to explore the world as it changes around us in terms of history. But also in terms of the future. Can you give us like an example? Maybe a thematic answer to my question. How is the British Museum in the beginning of the twentieth century different from what it was in the late eighteenth century in some ways, it's not different at all. It still has the aim to collect objects that tell you something about society from all around the world because the point of collecting it was to ask one big question. And that is how can people? Live together without conflict in the middle of the Asian century in Europe when people for centuries have been killing each other for religion. The question is how do you have different ideas, different beliefs, different faiths, and yet lived together peacefully? It's made before the big expansion of empire that comes later, and that enriches it on a global scale, but is always of the same idea that you can really only understand what's happening in your own country. If you look at what's happening elsewhere. So if you're like, the British Museum has always been about Gulliver's travels, you set off to look at what's happening in China or Mexico, and you come back if he learned a bit about Mexico and a bit about China, but above all, you realize how odd your way of doing things, and that you can't do it in different ways. So the point of looking at the other cultures is to see how you can be different. And the words would you choose to be different? So there have been out of facts on display for more than two hundred and fifty years their on continually. Yes. But I'm assuming that the way. That the narrative is framed has changed. Yes. Absolute. Okay. So can you give us one example of this artifact that's been there for two to one hundred fifty years, and is is no display differently. Yes. And there's a there's one very obvious artifact when it's put together in the middle of aging century, one of the arguments, very strongly put forward is that all human beings are doing the same things just slide two different ways as a very humane humanistic enlightenment idea, and one of the things that they know is that everybody lets everybody plays music, every society, we know dances, sings whatever. So the one of the collectors asks ship's captains to bring back musical instruments around the world one of the audiences. A drum is bought in Virginia in the United States and before the United States. It's still a British colony in the seventeenth thirties and is put on show as an. American Indian as they call it drum and looked at and everything's how interesting day her drums, just like our drums, then later on much later when they start examining the would the discovered it's not an American drummer tall is actually a drum that comes from west Africa. And how did a drum mid west African wood? Carved, very elaborately carved in west Africa would get Virginia in the seventeenth thirties with his only one way, it's actually part of the slave trade. So from what is the illustration of music as worldwide phenomenon we have a document of the slavery. Now, we don't have many documents of the slave trade from the African side because the people who wrote the records were the whites. So it turns into a very important document because we know that drums were used on the ships to make the slaves dumps to keep them from despair to keep them fit insofar as it could be fit transported that and we also know that then used in the plantations often to call people to revolt so in that drum you have a story of exploitation transport bridge. You also. Have a story of resistance. And then further examination reveal that it's not any ill drum is actually from an African Royal orchestra. And that was makes it clear reminds you is the evidence that of course, the people who sold the slaves were the African rulers. So you have a much more complex story of the slave trade. And it's the first afro American is the oldest documented Afro-American musical instrument. We have so it's the head of everything to do with jars back spirituals everything it's all in that object. What essentially made way for the British Museum and such endeavors, whether we like it or not what British imperialism right at the British empire that brought enabled people to bring artifacts from all over the world. And. Not just imperialism. That's what's what makes it possible is British shipping. And transportation lot of that is trade. Sure. But there is a certain power relations that allow the British to take off the from. Sometimes it's trade. Sometimes it's exchange. I'm sometimes it's about power. Of course, it is. But this is more complicated, just imperial all. Right. Fair enough. So say that British global dominance for a big chunk of that period. Was the thing that enable it and take you for the correction, but still how do you? I mean the. The image of British dominance. Of the seas has changed over time. How do you dissociate your endeavor from? The memory the not so happy memory of that period in British history because they say about when you go to Egypt or to grease or to Mesopotamia they tell you that to finish that that trip. You have to go to the British Museum. Right. How how do you answer that? I don't dissociates you can't dissociate it. And the thing is not to dissociate. The drum is a good example, the because the objects change and the thinking changes, the drum is one story of slavery. But is very important that at the end of the eighteenth century. It was very much part of the work that came out of the research and the Bush Bish museum and the lower there that formed an opposed slavery, and the abolition of slavery and the narrative of the objects and what happens to them later is critical part of working with the countries. The people. Above all, the countries the communities from which the came. So you don't associate it. What you do when you present? For instance, aboriginal Australians material. Now, there's a real example of imperial power. Europeans arriving Australia. Dispossessing the people who largely died we have very significant in the Richmond. The British Museum has very significant aboriginal collections. Their research now with communities of aboriginals, you write the history again because every generation is to write its history new. But you're right it now with the aboriginal 's. But you're right it in the context of the world, which produced the vents, and that seems to be a very very interesting exciting thing to do because the original community with whom we worked. They have no written documents, of course, from their these are part of their history documents they worked with the colleagues. We have the curator in the Brazilian isn't aboriginal. So she is telling the story of her people to the world in the context of the world through that collection. That's the way you do it. You don't dissociates at all. And part of the. Debate of any collection with it's the Louvre with as the Berlin museums. The metropolitan New York part of the critical story, the central story is how did those objects come and how those relations changed? Yeah. Because the power relations is not only the world for Britain. It's also what it means inside Britain British society because going back to our dog its defining more than museum is is very hard. But defining what British is even harder. And the fact that as you said, you're not a Royal collection. You not you. But at at the end of the day, you are one the one British institution. You are the British Museum the on several British museums that you compete with how do you account for the amorphous nece and the range of critical voices coming from within British society to claim their part in British society. That's what the museum can do. The the museum is the perfect place for that debate to take place because what is very I think very striking is that for almost every part of the British Museum with you're doing about the African collections the Asian collections. The Greek collections there is now a British population. For whom that's their history as well. If you look at London nearly three hundred mother tongues spoken, huge African population huge Indian Pakistani population their histories in the British Museum. They have come to Britain just as the objects came to Britain, they are part of the same process. How they see that process how they are now part of British society that debate takes place in the museum, and it can only there because the museum is free to everybody. Because one of the great founding documents of the museum in seventeen. Fifties was that it must be free of charge to everybody native and forum. So it's always been seen as a resorts for the world to study to us. But in Britain today, it's an extraordinary place where the melting pot of our society, the great enrichment and extension of our society is reflected in the collections, but zooming because the melting pot of British society and multiculturalism is such a hot debate. Eight and everyone has a take on it that some of them pursue more violently or more racially than others. Do you get? I mean for what you what you say. Now, it sounds as if it's like a harmonious process that everyone lives together. I mean, do you get a lot of pushback and a lot of pressure from some groups perhaps from? From I wouldn't say the government, but you know, people of power how how do you how do you manage that living together as never Mona's processes anybody who's ever had part of been part of a family living because it's not about harmony is about how you how you handle dissent, and how you live together with different views. That's where the museum is. I think very important public space and part of the purpose of the museum is the debate. I mean, it's got to be a place where disagreement happens in public, and it doesn't happen. All the Tony is the hotel and part of the duty of the museum is to organize those debates. If you take something like, the very rich collection in the British Museum of objects from Bengal because that was the part of India with which the British engage. I and is always most deeply there's also a very big Bengali population in London. Both Hindu and Muslim and the model for debates then is that you take objects events festivals whatever and you have them presented by that say a. A British scholar who's not Indian, but you also involve the diaspora population in London the British Indian population, and you work with people from mingle. So you have a triangular discussion all of those people have very different hues of the project. Some of them would be economically researched. Others are more emotional response. What the story is that they see in them, which are their stories would scholars would know which important part of the of the object in the narrative, and then you have to have the debate there, and how do you convey to the public to the visitor when they come in and see been goalie object, how do you incorporate the very different views that does in many ways incompatible into one narrative, you is very difficult to label. The the great to great things have happened in the last twenty thirty years really the first in this regard, the first is that. You can of course, use sound guides with much greater depth. So on a sound guide. You can present different views at length and complexity would you can't on a label? The podcast is a perfect example of this. You have debates discussions. They're downstream podcast and there forever. So that's one way of doing it. The other big ways through exhibitions and public events which you run with either a broadcaster or with the newspaper. And then, of course, the other very important thing is you lend the objects the great change in the last thirty years is that because of the technology of transport you can lend the Chinese objects to Africa, you can lead the African objects to China and to take out. There's really interesting question the regime, you China and Africa is changing every day is one of the big, geopolitical shifts. There is nothing in the Chinese museum. Collects. To tell the story of Africa. That's something the British Museum can do you can lend those objects and equally the other way round. There are a great museums in Africa, but they've African things so that brings me to my next question. I mean, it's segue. So perfectly into my next question. Which is is your conception of what a museum is a western idea or do you draw inspiration from the way different museums were? This kind of endeavour was done around the world. The museum is most of us know, it is a western idea. It really starts in the form. We know it's in the way we use the word in Europe in the eighteenth century seventeenth eighteenth century, but it has been taken up around the world, and there are earlier models in the in the eighteenth century, the Chinese emperor. Puts together. What is in fact, a great museum and many critics? They wouldn't have used the word museum. But when African kings in west Africa, conquer their neighbors. They bring the objects from those other tribes other cultures of the peoples together. So the idea of bringing together collections of objects from other cultures are the by conquest treasury exchange is of universal one with you museum is a different thing as the purpose. If the purposes for study than museum, and of course, we've been very influenced in the British Museum and everywhere, by the way, the museums idea there was developed elsewhere, particularly in countries like China in Japan where that idea has been taken up very very strongly and plays a similar kind of role. How do you deal with Klein of interest in this kind of low tech activity? I mean, there's no decline of interest is are rising steady to an all time high. No, quite the reverse. I think as podcast this one and people like you have more and more impact on on the world. People more will want to look at the thing. The real thing to see the thing to compare the thing now because I tell you why many years ago interviewed someone from the imperial medium in London who told me that the main problem is that they deal with the three least popular words in the English language, Imperial War and museum. So you're saying that even young people who who are so. I Giles with technology Arkin to discover the real things that three dimensional of the British Museum visitor figures are now somewhere around seven million a year over forty percent of those are under thirty and the most the fastest growing part of our visitor group the thirties. So there's absolutely no question that, and I think it's because precisely because you technology allows different kind of engagement with things because you can look too closely and listen to comment debates discussions, different views, different interpretations at the same time. I think that's one reason why this is so popular about the political independence of the British Museum. I'm assuming that in a country like the UK, whereas there's a clear guidelines on what civil society is. And the -cational purpose of such places this much less of a debate. But what do you see from other places in the world that too that you worked with and worked vis-a-vis in terms of governments and political power trying to dictate what the narrative in museums should be the political autonomy of the museum is the key thing. Very interestingly. And maybe as you'd expect in the in the enlightenment, it's the founding debate about the British Museum. The key point was this would not be the Royal connection. The key point was that the government must not be able to control. This parliament sets up a collection buys a collection for the citizen, and it is good. British Museum is it's where everybody and the key question is. We by the collection. We put it in the middle of London. We open it free of charge. But how do we make sure that does not controlled by the government? So parliament is working against the government. But that's part of what it's supposed to do. Which was precisely what is supposed to do. And they decide the only way to ensure that this institution which has to be funded by the state is independent of the state is to have trustees. So the invent the trustees system this is the first trustee museum in the world. And the point of the trustees is to protect the intellectual life of museum from the political control of the government while depending on the financial funding of parliament. So is the the British Museum honored only to the trustees not to the minister and the trustees answered not to the government, but to parliament as a whole it sounds rather technical, but it was a brilliant way of taking the collection out of political control. But when you lend exhibitions to China or Africa and places where the rule of law is not as strong as. Developed as it is in Britain. How do you? I mean, do you even try to prevent a situation whereby political power would interfere? Can I come back? The point of that freedom means that only Britain underbush museum. British collections were really free to lend to Tehran in large measure. This was a very important question. The British Museum had put on an exhibition on the history of Iran because we thought it was extremely important. If you want to understand the world today to understand what the world look like from Tehran. If you grow up Iranian if you grow up with the knowledge that your country was the great imperial power for thousands of years in the in the region, if you know, the this great humane tradition of Cyrus, how'd you feel about the world? That's what museum is about. How do other people think about the world? The question out. So there were very generous in lending to us. It was I think it very important exhibition in allowing a debate about Iran, then Iran now how Iran thinks about its history they asked in return, if we would lend to Iran, the great Cyrus cylinder, the document which shows that Cyrus having conquered Babylon allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Our government. I think would not have allowed that nor with the French governments nor with the US government the British Museum. Trustees were independent they felt that the Iranians had been very generous in lending to the museum for particular kind of public debate outside political control and the British Museum trust is lent to Tehran. And the object went and came back without any problem. But then you come to the question of how is it talked about there? And that is I think the fundamental rule. The most difficult rule is that you hold the object. But other people must be allowed to talk about it as they choose. There are many different readings. And if you the central point of the museum is not restrict within the limits of of intolerable, racism, or whatever. So when you lend the object the British Museum is the greatest lender of objects in the world. You also recognize that it is for other people to decide how they interpret it. You have to accept that. It's really an inclination of the classic liberal paradox. Right as liberal Kenya. Dictate for Illit, can you allow illiberal people to voice, their Elizabeth opinion. Right. And you we all know that you have to do that up to a certain point of the questions where does the limited come. But I think your question is that. I I I believe very firmly that if you lend to museums you're part of a network of colleagues who will look after it. So the security is usually not the big problem. And you have to believe that debate about the object will change, ultimately the way people think will open up new ideas, new possibilities, and that you're stimulating change. Right. No mcgregor. An international adviser to the Humboldt forum and the former director of the British Museum. Thank you very much for coming on the show. Thank you. And also big thanks to give them off the mirror of sound engineer and three Thai Shalom, our producer and the Van Leer institute for the generous support, and I would like to ask you this many or most of you listen to us on the apple podcasts app, and please please consider writing review you support us by going to our website. That's tailby. One daughter fem nice Tel Aviv review and subscribing onto a patron campaign. We've got gifts for you. Out a arrive with almost five hundred interviews if you like what we do here. You can also like us on Facebook page is called the Tel Aviv review, podcast ideas from Israel and follow me on Twitter. Join us again next week for another edition of the Tel Aviv review. And until then good. Good.

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