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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Big year for the British Museum

By Helen Bushby
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The British Museum is celebrating its 250th anniversary, but it is also hitting headlines for aiding post-war Iraq as well as enjoying an unexpected upturn in its finances.

As the world's oldest national public museum, its 250th anniversary is a celebration of its vast collections, which span two million years of human history.

Elgin Marbles
Take a panoramic tour of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum

Millions of visitors from around the globe have visited it since 1753 to see treasures including the controversial Elgin Marbles, Egyptian mummies and drawings by Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Its birthday exploits include music from around the globe and a show called Museum of the Mind, a look at "art and memory in world cultures", to celebrate its 250th birthday on Saturday.

But the museum can also celebrate a turnaround in its much-publicised financial difficulties.

Last year its outgoing director, Robert Anderson, told BBC News Online the museum needed 10m to boost its ailing finances.

But the museum says this has all changed - recent cuts, including 75 voluntary redundancies, have resulted in a "very good" financial situation.

The British Museum's greatest artefacts - in pictures and audio

"The cuts are starting to pay off," a spokeswoman told BBC News Online. "Our director Neil MacGregor is hoping to balance the budget by the end of the next financial year - it certainly is a turnaround."

But despite all this good news for the museum, Mr MacGregor has found himself somewhat preoccupied with Iraq.

He has been a key player in helping his colleagues at Baghdad's national museum, following extensive post-war looting from the thousands of ancient artefacts stored there.

He said that ultimately, helping Iraq and insisting that tanks protect its national museum was more pressing than the British Museum's anniversary.

"This is much more important," he told the New Statesman recently. "It is more urgent and the stakes are higher.

An official at the National Museum of Antiquities, armed with an iron bar in one hand, stands on guard
The damage by looters was catastrophic
"Reminding everybody what the British Museum is for is very important, but the survival of the great museums of Mesopotamia is of a different order of importance."

Baghdad museum's head of research, Dr Donny George, described the looting as "a loss to mankind", and experts believe may have been down to organised gangs of international art traffickers.

Mr MacGregor headed the UK's help effort, saying he alerted the government to the problems when the looting began, insisting that tanks be sent immediately to protect the museum.

"The loss and smashing of the iconic objects are catastrophic," he said, adding "it looks as though all the records of the Ottoman period and centuries of Ottoman administration have been destroyed".

The British Museum has the largest Mesopotamian collection outside Iraq, meaning it can offer the world a great deal of expert knowledge.

Ancient mosaic of Christ
The British Museum also has ancient mosaics of Christ
With the approval of Unesco, the United Nations' cultural agency, Mr MacGregor took a team of experts from some of the world's most famous museums to Iraq.

After assessing the damage, they later met at the British Museum to discuss how best to deal with such a huge problem, pledging to offer continuous help and expertise.

They called on the United States to secure the borders of Iraq to prevent further export of looted items.

And they also called on the United Nations Security Council to impose a ban on all international trade on Iraqi cultural heritage.

A 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy in the British Museum
Scientists use hi-tech scanning equipment to look inside mummies
Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also said the UK Government would do all it could to help restore Iraqi heritage.

As well as its vital work with Iraq, the British Museum will also have exhibitions next year which include one on Kingdoms of the Ancient Nile as well as a tour of a "virtual mummy".

Visitors will be able to experience an X-ray tour of an Egyptian mummy, by "diving in" and exploring inside the mummy, finding out what happened before its death.

Global pressure

And, of course, the row about the Elgin Marbles - housed in the British Museum since the 19th Century - is likely to continue.

The museum is standing firm in the face of calls to return them to Athens, although the Greek government regularly demands their return, with the backing of a group of British celebrities and politicians.

Pressure is also being exerted on a global level, as calls are increasingly being made by countries including Egypt and China, which say antiquities should be returned to their homelands.

The British Museum's 251st year will undoubtedly be another busy one.

Virtual future for ancient relics
04 Jun 03  |  Technology
In pictures: British Museum at 250
15 Apr 03  |  Photo Gallery
Iraqi looting 'a loss to mankind'
29 Apr 03  |  Entertainment
UK sends antiquities experts to Iraq
15 Apr 03  |  Entertainment
British Museum 'needs 10m boost'
27 Jun 02  |  Entertainment
Call to protect Iraqi heritage
02 Apr 03  |  England

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