British Museum marks 250-year anniversary

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A hostile power, attempting to extinguish the Jews completely, wipes their nation off the map of the Middle East and renames the region Syria-Palestina. An army destroys Jerusalem and its temple, and deports its people.

These are not the present day nightmares of the Israeli people, but the facts of historical record - as documented in artefacts in the British Museum.

And tonight the museum's director, Neil MacGregor, will urge us to look again at history, to fulfill "our obligation to try to understand ... to ponder the current situation with some of the distance that the long historical view provides".

To mark 250 years to the day since the museum was first opened to the public, MacGregor will give a lecture setting out the urgent role of the museum in today's world. Its job, he says, "is to slow down conclusions, to complicate the questions, to make the hasty judgment harder".

In particular, he alludes to artefacts that cast light on the situation in Gaza: "You have documents here that non-Jews need to remember, to try to think what the world looks like from that perspective," he says. "In the current Babylon exhibition we are showing the cuneiform tablet that documents the Assyrian assault on Jerusalem [in 597BC], the destruction of the first temple and the carrying away of the population.

"And in the recent Hadrian exhibition, we exhibited the oldest known inscription, dating from AD139, in which the Romans wiped Judaea off the map, literally [renaming the province Syria-Palestina]. Both those seem to me to be historical events that need to be borne in mind in relation to what's happening now.

He also points to a work of art recently shown by the museum by Laila Shawa, which focuses on the plight of Palestinian children in contemporary Gaza...

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