British Museum blog

What I want from the British Museum

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic, former British Museum Trustee

I wrote in my recently published memoir A Parallel Life, about my first encounter with the British Museum. My dad worked in a factory at night making tin cans and during the day he read. One of the things he read voraciously was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is in its pages that I first saw the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the British Museum – the edifice – itself, very feminine and welcome, Muse-like to me. Decades later, after I had moved to London from New York, I was given a Reader’s Card, a pass which enabled me to take books out of the British Library, then housed in the Museum. I can’t tell you the fear and the excitement I felt going through those faux-Grecian pillars for the first time, me – a kid from the Southside of Chicago – here, for free, with no restrictions on what I could see.

And feel.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I came to see, after eight years on the Board here – four of them as Deputy Chair – that every museum, large or small, is an ecosystem. It is the objects; the physical building itself; the curators, other staff and visitors. And then it is the things that cannot be seen: the scholarship; the energy of everyone involved; the connections with the museum’s various communities.

And the Point.

Every museum has a Point. All of the modernisation, the furbelows, bells and whistles must never obscure the Point. And this is held – in a delicate balance – with the Board and the Director and his/her team. The Point, to me – at this moment in what we call the West – is simply to justify the West itself. We take this for granted because the West has been ruler for so long, so long in control, in charge. But this will not be the case in the rapidly approaching future.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

We must ourselves understand the West: individual freedom; the free flow of ideas; the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities. The modern Agora. Freedom of religion and speech and thought… and the freedom to roam, which to my mind, is peculiarly British and apt in relation to the time that the Museum came to be, the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 21st century the Age of Enlightenment also means digitisation – not simply the ‘wiring’ of the Museum, but an understanding of what a digital edifice is, that it exists not just on screen or increasingly in digital ‘wearables’. A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.

Be the Visitor.

The concept of being a ‘visitor’ itself will become a multi-faceted experience, increasingly one that will not just be in situ.

But everywhere.

The Museum must face Everywhere.

We must not only know what our values are, but the Museum becomes the very demonstration of them. All nations and peoples are welcomed in the spirit of Enlightenment and the Museum must have neither fear nor favour in doing this. The agora of itself therefore extends out, encompassing, fearless. Free.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in one of the Museum’s galleries

And now, we are in a time when this can actually happen – digitally – and museums must acknowledge this, and to some extent enter into a new partnership. Because the Visitor, the Engager, will also take a more and more active part in creating the Museum of the future.

There has to be space for this to happen.

I also don’t think that ethnicity will play a large part in the scheme of things in 50 to 100 years’ time. There will be little or no such thing as ‘ethnic diversity’. In the West we are blending, becoming new people and so the Museum will become a kind of staging post and also a way-station, in which objects, ideas and experience will document the movement toward this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

This can only happen if the Museum continues to make itself an equal and never allows class or other banalities to get in the way of its mission. And is vigilant about this. Strong and determined.

I have a friend who told me that, when she was a young girl, she used to pass through the British Museum with her eyes closed, on her way to the Library. For her, the Museum, all Western museums, are storehouses of old, sentimental and in the case of the British Museum, colonial and imperial loot. She couldn’t look because there were things inside that belonged to her. I’ve grown to understand the enormous value of global collections, but we must all know why they hold objects that do not ‘belong to us’. This is not only an intellectual explanation, but an emotional one.

Museums must make their Boards younger, swifter, more diverse, able to react to change. The British Museum has made good steps in this area already, but nobody can be complacent; change and turmoil will be the ‘terrible twos’ of the 21st century, and our children, too, if we see them in a positive way. Every day the 21st-century museum must be rebuilt anew. The point of it all has to be revisited, refreshed constantly. In simplicity, precision and elegance.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

Sitting next to my dad back then, poring over those heavy encyclopaedias, we read the stories attached to the objects and we saw, within ourselves, the lands and the times and the people. The British Museum belonged to us then. And yet, it belonged to itself, too. The coming together of these two ideas: The Visitor and the Museum, their conjunction, projection and protection, is what the British Museum in the 21st century has to be about.


Bonnie Greer is on the panel for A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?, on Thursday 11 September, 18.30–20.30. This is the first in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Bonnie Greer’s memoir A Parallel Life is published by Arcadia Books.

Filed under: Museum of the Future, Uncategorized, , , , ,

Bitcoin: how do we display the intangible?

bitcoin minerBenjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

The Citi Money Gallery charts over four millennia’s worth of monetary history. The Department of Coins and Medals cares for over one million objects in the Museum’s collection and like any museum with a growing collection, the most pressing questions are what should we collect and where should we put it all? Yet a recent concern for me as the curator of the Citi Money Gallery is not which objects should I select from our vast collection for a new display, but whether we had any suitable objects at all. This may sound like the murmurings of an eccentric curator, but let me explain myself.

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

Bitcoin token, designed by Mike Caldwell (CM 2012,4040.4)

If the gallery is to be a record of the changing nature and form of money through the ages, then it is just as important to reflect the modern world as it is ancient Greece or Rome. Modern technologies, and in particular their application, are having huge effects on the world of finance but also on society in general. As a result it would be remiss of the gallery not to discuss a particular current monetary phenomenon. I speak of course about ‘cryptocurrencies’, digital de-centralised currencies which began with the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Since its opening in summer 2012, the Citi Money Galley has always had a bitcoin token on display, made by the software developer Mike Caldwell.

However this is really just a token for the collectors’ market, a physical manifestation of something which was never intended to exist in a tangible way. So the display at first did seem rather tricky, tricky but not impossible. Objects are at the very heart of everything we do at the Museum and while we couldn’t display a real ‘bitcoin’, there was a wealth of other material culture which could help tell the story.

The paper ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System‘ published in 2009 seemed to be the sensible place to start. Written by the unknown (although not so unknown if you are to believe an article in Newsweek magazine) Satoshi Nakamoto, it brought to the world’s attention a possible new form of currency and so is included in the display.

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Bitcoin miner USB stick

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

Record of the first bitcoin block mined

While Bitcoin is the most well known of the cryptocurrencies it has spawned over one hundred other purely electronic cash systems since its creation. The major thing that these currencies have in common is that they are created using complex computing. To this end a bitcoin mining machine (pictured above) is displayed in the gallery with a record of the first Bitcoin block mined on 3 January 2009.

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Dogecoin logo, designed by Christine Ricks

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

Bitcoin Magazine Issue 16: To the Moon (November)

One of the most interesting aspects of cryptocurrencies is that at the moment their use is as much a lifestyle choice as an economic one. You only need to look at the logo of ‘Dogecoin‘ to see that while Bitcoin and its descendants are a serious attempt to offer alternatives to traditional currencies, there is playfulness at work. Attempts to popularise and promote Bitcoin use similarly arresting graphic designs and so the inclusion of Bitcoin Magazine into the display adds colour and imagery.

For all the evident ingenuity at play, much of the negative press surrounding Bitcoin is as a result of its unpredictability. A look at its price from a height of over US$1000 in December 2012 to its current price hovering around US$450, is evidence of this fluctuation. The final object on display is at first glance rather straight forward. It is a Smile Bank account document recording the transfer of pounds sterling from a British bank account to a Bitcoin exchange in Japan. The exchange was called Mt. Gox, the largest exchange in existence in 2013, handling around 70% of all bitcoin transactions. However, in February 2014 Mt Gox filed for bankruptcy after declaring the loss of over 650,000 bitcoins. How this vast amount was lost, an amount worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time, is still being investigated. The plainness of the document hides a cautionary tale about the volatility of all financial investments.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

If you have any thoughts on what other objects would help tell the story of Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies generally, please tell us about them in the comments. To leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Money Gallery, , , , , ,

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Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
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