Digging up the past: Neil MacGregor

Former director of the British Museum is in the city to re-kindle his love for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, and learn more about the Parsis’ relationship with fire

After successful collaborations in the past, it looks like the British Museum and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS) have more to look forward to. In 2012 and 2014, important artifacts from the British Museum, including an Egyptian mummy and the 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder, considered the first Human Rights charter, were displayed at CSMVS, when art historian Neil MacGregor was the former’s director.

Article by By Benita Fernando | Mid Day

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Neil MacGregor, former director of British Museum, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

MacGreogor, who retired from his post in December 2015, is now part of an advisory board for the Berlin Palace — Humboldt Forum Foundation, but continues to form bonds between museums. In town last week to announce the revival of the CSMVS Research Journal, which went out of print in 1973, he caught up with mid-day to discuss what is keeping him busy.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. You are back in Mumbai and at CSMVS after your visit last year. What are your plans beside the launch?

A. My visit here is also to discuss with Mr [Sabyasachi] Mukherjee [director of CSMVS] an exhibition that we are planning for the end of next year. The idea of the exhibition, which will take place at CSMVS, is to look at the history of India in the context of world history. It is a good cooperation, because Indian objects will come from CSMVS and objects from other parts of the world will be borrowed from the British Museum. So, it should be possible to look at Indian history, perhaps, in a new way.

Q. You have a reputation for not letting artifacts become appropriated for political purposes. How will this exhibition place India in a different light?

A. The point of museums is to study objects and present the latest research. Every visitor has to decide how to interpret that. The role of the museum is to allow people to tell different stories from the objects. The museum shouldn’t have a view on what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ perspective.

Q. What is your current research on faith and society, and fire, about?

A. At the British Museum, we are preparing an exhibition on faith and society for next year. Every society that we know has a structure of belief; from the British Museum’s collection we are trying to look at how different societies at different places and times have come to develop varied ideas about the same things. And fire is something that has symbolic value in every religion since it is the only element that human beings have to keep alive. Fire is natural but somehow divine. How the ancient Romans thought about fire is different from the way the Jews and the Parsis did. For the Romans, fire is the centre of the house and the state; and the fire in the temple is the symbol of the survival of the state. For the Jews, fire is dangerous and is God’s power.

Q. Are these different from the way Parsis thought about fire?

A. For the Parsis, fire is purity and not meant to be contaminated. So, while the Jews would burn meat offerings in it, the Parsis would keep it pure. The British Museum has three ceramic tiles that explain a Parsi fire ceremony, which will be on display.

Q. Do you plan to research more on the Parsis during your stay in Mumbai?

A. Yes. We are aiming to find a person, an expert on the community, who will speak on a radio programme for BBC Radio Four. I am not sure if I will be able to go to Udvada this time, however.

Q. It looks like you and Mr Mukherjee have become ‘besties’. Could you tell us more about the bond between the two museums?

A. The CSMVS and the British Museum have a long historic relationship, right from a connection with Assyrian reliefs. I have been working in Berlin after my retirement, which has long been a centre of European study of India; my successor at the British Museum is a German [Hartwig Fischer], from Dresden, which has an interesting collection of Indian paintings. Dresden and CSMVS have a partnership to study those paintings. All European museums want to understand better the history of India. The research journal, which has scholars from India but also those from Britain and America, is in this direction. All museums are part of a world community of scholars and researchers; this world community of scholars is working together to write new histories.