The Director of the British Museum has indeed a fertile mind that never tires of inventing new defences for the retention of looted artefacts of others in the major museums.
Once it became clear that the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. (2002) and its principles were not as effective as the signatories thought, other approaches had to be considered.
One such approach is the “travelling exhibition”. This seems interesting and reasonable until one begins to consider what is being proposed. MacGregor is reported in Elginism to have told an audience at the University of Western Australia that due to globalisation, the concept of “travelling exhibitions” will become more relevant;
“When you see these objects they will mean more to you in your own experience than they would in London or the place where they were made”
“The value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible and explain the present to as many people as possible that may not be achieved by being returned to the place where it was made.”
These statements made to an appreciative audience in Perth, must be examined closely.
MacGregor has for many years defended the retention of artefacts of others on the ground that in the British Museum you can compare the objects with artefacts from other cultures. Thus you can compare Egyptian artefacts with Greek objects. London was the best place for such comparisons. Has he now abandoned the claims for London or is he maintaining the contradictions?
What MacGregor is saying here, perhaps not meaning to say so, is that artefacts are better appreciated outside London and the place where they were produced.
Would we really accept the notion that the Benin Bronzes are better appreciated outside London and outside Benin City? But what factors enable better appreciation of a Benin Commemorative Head outside Benin City and London?
Could one then go as far as to say that a better appreciation of British artefacts can be achieved in Lagos, Accra and Abidjan that is not possible in London? The absurdity of the suggestion becomes patent here and no one would suggest that artefacts be moved from the countries where they were produced to elsewhere.
The idea that “the value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible” is surely to be rejected. Many African artefacts, stools, knives and pots were made for domestic use. In other words these objects have specific functions in the society where they were made. They are now being assigned the function of explaining history to persons who belong to different continents and cultures. If the objects have a history, it can only be in the history of their own cultures. Or do we want to add the history of the robbery and plunder of the objects by Westerners? Do we want to deny to objects their functions and roles in their own original societies and be more concerned by their fate in the land of the plunderers? Of course, you cannot explain the role and function of an object if you take it outside its society and assign to it a function that was never envisaged by the makers. MacGregor disqualifies the place of production, e.g. Benin City and the place of their present detention, e.g. London. In other words, if we cannot legitimately keep these objects in London, we will not send them either to Benin City.
The notion that the value of an artefact is to explain history may be linked to attempts to take control of the narrative of Greek history by assigning to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles a different history starting from their presence in Britain. Similar attempts were also made in the case of the Benin exhibition- Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria by assigning to the Benin Bronzes the so-called added values and shifting meanings they are said to have acquired since their presence in European museum since the nefarious Punitive Expedition of the British that in 1897 looted the Benin Bronzes and sold them to other Europeans.
The basic concept of travelling exhibition