Published  04/10/2007

An enlightened state of denial

An enlightened state of denial

The director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor, champion of the Museum's ongoing exchanges overseas, notably with China and with India recently, has gone out of his way to make a point about this historic institution dating from the Enlightenment that swept Britain in the 18­th century. He remarked that visitors are often astonished that the British Museum has so few British things in it, and made the point that it is a museum of the world. It was, MacGregor says, ‘the first national museum in the world’, and, ‘one of the earliest physical consequences of a truly global economy’.1 It is on this basis that the Museum has been able to convince the Chinese government of the international value of this venue as a global centre. It remains unique and without serious competition elsewhere as a world museum. Despite the inevitable blindspots caused by the Enlightenment's ambivalence about the slave trade, this status can be upheld. But an act of homage to those, also enlightened, who in the 19th century secured in stages the abolition of the slave trade, might now be appropriate. A survey of the economic spin-offs within Britain that the trade actually brought would help to remove much of the still prevalent state of denial about this that exists in the community. This would be the Age of Enlightenment truly brought home. But admissions would have to be free.

1.,,2060784,00.html (last accessed 3 October 2007)


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