The British Museum has always been a fabulous resource. Look what it owns. Not even the line-up of seven dwarfs who preceded St Neil MacGregor in the director’s chair could seriously damage the clout and width of this magnificent hoard of global treasures. Yes, much of it was stolen or inveigled from its rightful owners. (But when it comes to the acquisition of great art nobody, ever, has been entirely innocent.) Yet for all the splendour of its ill-gotten gains, the BM has had considerable difficulty finding a proper niche for itself in the modern museum world. “How to be relevant?” must echo around these splendid chambers nightly once the lights are switched off.
It is a great collection, but what is its greater purpose?
Earlier directors were too small of mind and stature to worry about it. But St Neil is a museum figure sent down to earth by God precisely to sort out stuff such as this. He would have realised that the colonial age was over, and that vacuuming up other people’s international goodies was no longer enough of a role: the BM needed a higher function. So he has given it one. Subtly, cleverly, MacGregor has turned the BM into a spectacular teaching aid that allows us to understand the present better by looking more closely at the past.
The Sudan show here in 2004 illuminated the Darfur conflict more vividly than any number of reports on News at Ten. The First Emperor exhibition that wowed so many visitors had so much to tell us about China at a time when knowing about China was crucial. And now Hadrian has arrived.
Most of us know one thing about Hadrian: he built the wall that crosses the north of England. After that, his achievements blur. But the overall message of the historical mega-biogs the BM has taken to mounting is that one man can change the world. The First Emperor did it. Hadrian did it. Karl Marx, who wrote Das Kapital in these same rooms, did it.
When Hadrian ascended to the laurel in AD117, the Roman empire was in turmoil. His predecessor, Trajan, had overextended the imperial reach and uprisings at the edges of Rome’s holdings were threatening stability. Mesopotamia was revolting. Judea was exploding. Macedonia was bristling. And another rebellion had broken out in the troublesome province of Britannia. In other words, there was trouble in Iraq, Israel, the Balkans and here. Had Fiona Bruce been reading the news in Hadrian’s day, she would have been lamenting pretty much what she laments today.