British Museum chief wants more focus on China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2006, 12:00am

The director of the British Museum says Beijing does not want the return of Chinese artefacts in foreign museums and that the nation's history is too important for the British school curriculum to ignore.

Neil MacGregor was speaking on the third leg of a China tour that also included Beijing and Xian . On Friday, he attended the opening of 'Treasures from Assyria', an exhibition from the British Museum. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend its three-month run at the Shanghai Museum.

The British Museum, established in 1753 and the oldest national public museum in the world, has about 23,000 Chinese artefacts.

'Several museum directors have told us that China has no interest in seeking back objects from foreign museums,' he said. 'That is history. That is the government position. They want to focus on the future.'

Asked whether the museum would by itself give back Chinese pieces, Mr MacGregor said that was forbidden under the terms of its charter. 'The trustees have to hold the pieces in perpetuity. But we can lend more and expect to,' he said.

The Assyrian exhibition is part of an intensifying co-operation that began in 1995 with a loan of Egyptian art to the Shanghai Museum.

At that time, the Shanghai facility was the only museum in China equipped with the air conditioning and other modern facilities required for any loan.

In March this year, the first such modern museum in Beijing, the Capital, opened and by 2009 the city will have four.

Since March, the Capital has been hosting an 80-day exhibition of 272 pieces from the British Museum, 'Treasures of the World's Cultures'. It features sculptures, paintings and stone artefacts from 2 million years ago to the present.

Going the other way will be an exhibition in London due to open next year on the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259BC-210BC). He unified China and was a brutal despot who murdered intellectuals and burnt books, but was much admired by later emperors and Mao Zedong.

Mr MacGregor said a cultural framework agreement signed last September by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing made it easier for China to loan pieces.

'We will arrange debates over the first Emperor and what he means for a unified and disparate China. We are free to say what we want. We are under no constraint.'

He considers China so important that he has proposed to the British Department of Education a change in the national school curriculum that would give China the same weight as Egypt.

'It is strange that we focus on Egypt but do not add the history of China, when 70 per cent of British schoolchildren live within 20 miles of a museum with an important Chinese collection. It is extraordinary not to use it,' he said.