Memory of humankind preserves our global sanity

Madeleine Bunting

The British Museum in London is running a different kind of foreign policy and challenging the myth of the clash of civilisations.

IN THE Forbidden Palace, in the heart of Beijing, is a set of objects that tells a story of compelling fascination to the crowds of young Chinese journalists. The exhibition, traces, through a selection from the British Museum collection, the story of a country's industrialisation and rise to world power in an era of rapid globalisation Britain in the 18th century. But the parallels with China were obvious to all.

Britain's voracious and acquisitive interest in the world, evident in this heterogeneous exhibition where Egyptian statues sit alongside Roman, iron age relics alongside African, is echoed on the streets of China's cities where Prada jostles alongside Gucci, and Starbucks has even got a branch in the Forbidden Palace. How do countries absorb other cultures? Is it a passive process or can they rework the impact? These are the questions from British history that the exhibition illustrates.

The Chinese at the press opening of the exhibition this month gathered around the cases showing how British Regency fell in love with all things Chinese. Prints of Brighton Pavilion, Chinese porcelain, wallpaper. They were seeing how their forebears had been seen a glimpse of 18th-century Europe's awe for China's sophistication and power. Some of the porcelain was made to European designs but equally some of the emperor's English clocks were made to Chinese designs.

The exhibition demonstrates how Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, is recasting this institution's purpose to serve not just Britain but the world. Few collections have the scope and scale of the BM to challenge one of the great myths of our time that civilisations are discrete entities that "clash," according to American political theorist Samuel Huntington. Rather, the BM can illustrate how civilisations are knitted together in a myriad of connections economic, political, cultural and are run through by common human preoccupations, birth, death, status, and the sacred. Novelist Ben Okri describes the BM as "the memory of mankind." That memory, argues Mr. MacGregor, is a vital underpinning to political ideals of global community and cooperation. "Memory is the precondition of sanity, loss of memory is loss of identity that's as true of an individual person as of a society," he says. "The British Museum is a unique storehouse of hopes and dreams, myths and histories of human beings from the beginning, and that helps to stabilise human societies now."

One of the most pressing issues for the Big Five the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre, Berlin, St Petersburg, and the BM is how they justify these huge collections of the world's treasures. Chinese journalists in Beijing repeatedly asked at the BM exhibition's press conference for the return of Chinese objects. But if the BM's collections are endlessly circumnavigating the globe, the hope is that it might draw the sting from the question of formal ownership.

The catch, of course, is money. The U.K. Government might admire Mr. MacGregor's ideas but it has little inclination to fund them.

Given the failure of conventional warfare in Iraq and the spread of terrorism, it's commonplace to say that the battlegrounds of the future are the hearts and minds of millions, but there's little sense of what to do about it. The model of a global hub of memories, ideas, and communications such as Qatar will be strategically crucial. Britain, with collections of global importance such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Natural History Museum, and the BM, could be another. It's a different kind of foreign policy one which puts our humanity at its heart.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006