Neil MacGregor

Poll: do British museums focus too much on the sunny side of history?

Nicola Sullivan, 12.10.2016
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Neil MacGregor, the former director of British Museum, has condemned Britain for having a narrow view of its own history, describing it as “dangerous and regrettable” for focusing almost entirely on what he called the “sunny side”.
According to press reports, he made these comments ahead of last week’s opening of the exhibition Germany – Memories of a Nation at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, Germany.
The exhibition, which examines elements of German history from the past 600 years in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, was developed during MacGregor’s time at the British Museum, where was displayed in 2014/15.

According to the Guardian newspaper MacGregor, who is now involved in the development of the Humboldt Forum, a museum of world culture in Berlin, praised Germany’s rigorous appraisal of its history, which he said could not be more different to that of Britain.

“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” he said.
“Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones.”
MacGregor also referred to Germany’s Mahnmale (monuments to national shame). “It’s telling that in English we don’t even have a word like ‘Mahnmal’,” he said. “The term is just too alien to us.”

He used the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo to illustrate how Britain could be selective with the truth, pointing out that it was an Anglo-Prussian alliance that defeated him rather than just the Britons alone, as is often taught in schools.

“This was a joint German-British effort, but we don’t learn it that way," he said.


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19.10.2016, 10:23
The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and in the Museum of Liverpool a film called 'The Power and The Glory' that gave a very true and harrowing account of the dark sides of the British Empire. Both are excellent at tackling difficult truths.
Jack Dearden
13.10.2016, 13:29
That is sort of correct, however if you were to spend an hour or so at The Museum of London, Docklands your eyes would be truly opened with regard to the slave history. A wonderful experience, overall, as a museum, but you leave the room feeling quite stirred and shaken, and not in an uplifting way. The consolation is that it cannot be repeated. You might not get much better for explanation of social history than the Museum of London Barbican as well. Both deliver fair and accurate historical evidence of our past, never to be ignored.