One glass case in particular had to be avoided. Inside it were two elaborately carved elephant tusks that I gathered were from the city of Benin, and while that itself could be explained to the line of children I was dragging along behind me, the ominous reddish-brown deposit that still clung to cracks in the ivory could not. So a detour was made around the walls of the Africa Room at the American Museum of Natural History. The children came from schools in Queens, the Bronx, and Harlem, and most spoke English. But talking about that exhibit would need a diplomatic finesse, and a happily managed dissimulation, far beyond the talents of a foreign student working as a guide in 1960.

What was really needed was a man like Neil MacGregor—the Director of the British Museum since 2002, previously the Director of the National Gallery in London, and a former editor of The Burlington Magazine. MacGregor is rightly admired for...


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