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New BBC Civilisations to ask whether Britain’s culture is built on ‘looting and plunder’

Half a century ago, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation took BBC viewers on a tour de force of Western culture, setting a standard for arts broadcasting and educating a generation along the way.

This year, the 21st century version of the landmark show is to turn a critical eye to the history of British civilisation, questioning whether it is built on “looting and plunder” and who, really, are the barbarians.

Civilisations, subtly renamed to suit its new remit, is to examine “not one civilisation but many”, taking Clark’s original premise to expand to a “truly global perspective”.

One bonus episode, presented by Professor Mary Beard, is to explicitly tackle the behaviour of the collectors of the British Empire: the “imperialists, archeologists and fanatics” who stocked Britain’s museums and private collections with treasure from around the world.

According to the BBC, it will ask: “How far is British civilisation built on looting and plunder, or admiration and openness? Do we always see ourselves in the mirror of the outside world? And is one person’s civilisation always another’s barbarity?”

The show will travel to the Acropolis, Athens

“Through these stories,” it adds, “Mary exposes some of the debates and controversies embedded in the very idea of civilisation, our changing attitudes to it over the last few hundred years and how and why it is so contested.”

The decision to discuss how Britain’s art collections came to be follows recent calls to reappraise western history, and the British Empire.

Campaigners have called for the removal of statues and monuments of leading colonial figures, such as Cecil Rhodes, while some believe acquired objects such as the Elgin Marbles of the British Museum should be returned to their country of origin. 

The new Civilisations team

Credit:
BBC

Professor Beard, who will present two of the nine Civilisations episodes as well as the extra show Civilisations on your Doorstep, said she was particularly interested to focus on reading the idea of civilisation “against the grain”, looking “from the other side of the dividing line” to see the side of history’s losers as well as winners.

“I am even more concerned than Clark with the discontents and debates around the idea of civilisation, and with how that rather fragile concept is justified and defended,” she said.

“One of its most powerful weapons has always been ‘barbarity’: ‘we’ know that ‘we’ are civilised by contrasting ourselves with those we deem to be un-civilised, with those who do not – or cannot be trusted to – share our values.

Mary Beard at The Colossi of Memnon, Egypt

“Wherever possible I try to see things from the other side of the dividing line, and to read civilisation ‘against the grain’.

“These programmes look at some of those on the losing, as well as the winning, sides in the historic conflicts over images, and about what should and should not be represented, or how.

“Those who destroy statues and paintings – whether in the name of religion or not – are regularly seen in the West as some of history’s worst barbarian thugs (and some of them no doubt were), and we lament the works of art that, thanks to these ‘iconoclasts’, we have lost.

“But, as we shall see, they have their own story to tell too, even sometimes their own artfulness.”

The show has been given access to the terracotta warrior sculptures

Simon Schama, who presents five out of the nine shows, said of Clark’s legacy: “What would possibly be added by a new series?… Of course the answer is the rest of the world.”

He added: “It’s taken three years of thinking, writing, filming and editing, every shoot, every encounter with great art, a daunting challenge and an immense satisfaction.”

Two other episodes will be presented by David Olusoga, the historian and broadcaster whose shows will tackle themes of “contact, trade, interaction, empire and race”.

Due for broadcast in the spring, Civilisations is inspired by Kenneth Clark’s landmark series on Western art, which was a huge hit and made a star of its art historian presenter when it was first shown in 1969.

Filming the original Civilisation

The new version will be accompanied by Civilisations Festival, which will see the BBC partner with more than 250 museums, galleries, libraries and archives across the UK.

Lord Hall, director-general, said: “In a complex and fast changing world, Civilisations is a landmark BBC arts series which asks us to question what lies at the heart of our identity and what makes us human.”

The nine-part series, which has been filmed in 31 countries and six continents, looks at early depictions of men and women around the world and the remote origins of human creativity. It also focuses on religion and art, the depiction of nature and the fate of art in the “machine and the profit driven world”.

The controversial Elgin Marbles

Prof Beard said: “I hope that people will be dazzled by the wonderful works of art we have been able to show.

“But even more I hope that the programmes will prompt all kinds of discussions and debates about what we now think ‘civilisation’ is… and our stake in the very idea of it.”

Asked why Schama had five episodes while Beard and Olusoga each had two, a spokesman for the BBC said it reflected “the wide-ranging nature of [Schama’s] expertise in the field of global art”, adding: “They are each bringing their individual expertise and offer different perspectives and debate, which is at the heart of the series.”

Article Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/07/new-bbc-civilisations-ask-whether-britains-culture-built-looting/

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