World Encyclopaedia: Richard Cork Discovers an Enlightening Array of Exhibitions at the British Museum

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When Neil MacGregor became director of the British Museum in August 2002, plenty of his admirers thought that he had gone mad. After all, he was a brilliant director at the National Gallery, and could easily have stayed on there until retirement beckoned. Instead, he plunged into the infinitely larger, more turbulent problems of an institution riddled with grave financial problems and unease among the staff. The BM might well have been renamed the Beast of Bloomsbury. It is colossally complex, filled with highly diverse collections and difficult to administrate. Even Sir John Pope-Hennessy, an instinctive autocrat who had presided over the Victoria and Albert Museum with imperious resolve, was defeated by the BM. He found it resistant to change of any kind and left the director ship for a teaching post in New York as soon as he could.

MacGregor is made of sterner mettle. Although he has only just settled in, the mood already seems very different. We hear far less about deficits, and far more about fresh exhibitions that seek to redefine the British Museum's identity. Taken together, these ambitious shows make a new year's visit hugely pleasurable. In Norman Foster's luminous Great Court, where serenity now prevails after the absurd initial rumpus over the use of "the wrong stone", a "Buried Treasure" exhibition makes explorers of us all. It contains work as spectacular as The Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, unearthed by chance during the Second World War. But this magnificent tour de force in silver, dating from the Roman era in the 4th century AD, is only the most sumptuous of many fascinating objects displayed here. The Hoxne treasure, the biggest hoard of Roman gold and silver ever uncovered in Britain, was found by a farmer searching for his mis-laid hammer. As for the palaeolithic hand-axe, the earliest man-made artefact found in north-west Europe, it was stumbled across by someone walking their dog on a quiet Norfolk beach.

North of the Great Court, the new 5.5m [pounds sterling] Wellcome Trust Gallery makes us think about how people across the world use art to help them cope with the fundamental challenges of mortal existence. Called "Living and Dying", the show boasts as its masterpiece Hoa Hakananai'a, a monumental carved figure from Easter Island. Ever since Queen Victoria donated it to the BM in 1869, this grave presence has presided over the ethnographic collection with immense, unforced authority. Its name is translatable as "stolen or hidden friend", and the statue was probably first displayed around AD 1000 as an ancestral figure in an outdoor setting. Afterwards it became the focus of a birdman cult and relief images were carved on the back. But the islanders still regarded it as a symbol of leadership, and in 1914 the young avant-garde sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska used it as the springboard for a heroic, not to say blatantly phallic, carving of his friend Ezra Pound.

However ancient these artefacts may be, such objects speak to us directly about the fears and hopes of the communities who produced them. In the tradition of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, The Atomic Apocalypse is four papier mache images of outstanding figures from the Book of Revelation: Pestilence, War, Death and Famine. While Death's skeleton bestrides the globe, Famine rides a grasshopper and leers with predatory glee. Suspended from the ceiling, the entire installation is unashamedly grotesque. At the same time, its vitality testifies to a quickening resolve, as if its makers were determined never to be defeated by the dangers around them.

Very little evidence of mortal peril can be detected in the latest and grandest of the BM's current attractions. Intended as the climax of the museum's 250th anniversary celebrations, the "Enlightenment Gallery" occupies resplendent premises in a Greek Revival room where the library of George Ill was previously housed. …