Director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor, right, is in Canberra to deliver the Robert Hughes Lecture. National Gallery Director, Rod Radford, speaks with Mr MacGregor in front of the John Olsen work, "SydneySun".

Director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor, right, is in Canberra to deliver the Robert Hughes Lecture. National Gallery Director, Rod Radford, speaks with Mr MacGregor in front of the John Olsen work, SydneySun. Photo: Graham Tidy

The boss of the British Museum, who will conduct the inaugural Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture at the National Gallery of Australia today, knows the importance of material ''things''.

When it comes to art history, Neil MacGregor says it is important the ''things'' seen in museums are acknowledged when admiring landscape paintings and portraits of days gone by as they remind viewers of the losers, the underdogs and the brutality of history.

''Things'' will be at the centre of his sold-out discussion, The Shock of the Thing, which is a tribute to the late Robert Hughes. The lecture will focus on how he believes objects are a great force for building understanding across time, cultures and people.

Director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is in Canberra to deliver the Robert Hughes Lecture.

Director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is in Canberra to deliver the Robert Hughes Lecture. Photo: Graham Tidy

During his discussion, that also draws inspiration from Hughes'book, The Fatal Shore, he plans on referring to objects such as a drum belonging to a group of African slaves and a box containing the eye of a priest who was wrongfully assassinated.

''The 'things' that museums and galleries collect and show have great power. It is these 'things' from many cultures - the documents, the texts objects that let us hear the voices of those who were dispossessed,'' Mr MacGregor said.

''The 'things' give back to those people who, throughout history, have not had a voice and that is why they are so important now as we're trying to rewrite a history that makes sense for the whole world and it will be a history of the people who were historically dominant and those who were historically dominated and to write a more equal account of what happened.

''What Robert Hughes did so well is reminded the English speaking world and particularly the British derivative reader of today of the brutality of earlier British life. So many of us have been brought up on this cosy and charmingly uncontentious march towards democracy, freedom and equality and of course we all know this is nonsense and for most of the history it was a very brutal society with very explicit public cruelty in it and The Fatal Shore is one aspect of that.''

Mr MacGregor's National Gallery of Australia seminar will now be referred to as the annual ''Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture'' which will continue the legacy of the late art critic who presented the first discussion of this kind in 1992.