2018 - 2019 Modern Volume 9

Decolonising the British Museum: where do we start?

If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. It is going to have to stay put.

(David Cameron, asked to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India in 2010)

It’s been a year of reckoning with power. #MeToo, of course, but also an interesting (if small) exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. ‘#The PastIsNow’ brutally re-evaluated Birmingham’s relationship with its slave-trading history, exploring new interactive ways of displaying Britain’s difficult colonial past. Sumaya Kassim’s article, ‘The museum will not be decolonised’ is a great introduction to the issues it tackles.

So when I visited the British Museum recently, these ideas were at the forefront of my mind. The British Museum was formed as part of the colonial determination to collect, display, understand and control other peoples – so how, as Kassim asks, ‘Can the museum be decolonised?’

The Parthenon sculptures (Elgin Marbles)

An obvious start, but worth a second thought! An enormous gallery houses perhaps the most famous(ly controversial) objects in the museum. The Greek government’s request for the Elgin Marbles back is cautiously addressed in a leaflet explaining that “the current division [of sculptures, between Athens and London] allows different and complementary stories to be told”, and that the Elgin Marbles’ arrival “promoted the high regard that the European Enlightenment already had for ancient Greek civilisation.” A slightly unconvincing reason to keep them in London; but this particular case of Greek nationalist rhetoric is not justified by history. Removed by Elgin with the then ruling Ottoman government’s permission from 1801-1805, after two millennia of damage and repurposing of the Parthenon itself, their preservation in London mainly reflects the Ottoman government’s laissez-faire attitude to Greek heritage, coupled with a very Victorian obsession with Europe’s classical legacy (admittedly, a significant justification in the ideology of empire). More importantly, transporting this vast collection would be a huge and possibly damaging undertaking, to achieve a limited symbolic victory in terms of redressing the colonial power imbalance. But that’s by no means the case for most things in the British Museum.

‘Cradle to Grave’, part of Pharmacopeia (highlighting the ‘Living and Dying’ gallery)

Presented by the Wellcome Trust and created by textile artists Susie Freeman and doctor Liz Lee, this enormous tapestry/sculpture shows the way in which medicines and drugs, both prescribed and everyday, are a central thread in the lives of most Britons. It has been at the British Museum since 2011, but still attracts attention and feels especially relevant now, to my own degree in which I study the colonial history of science, and to the American opioid crisis which is a pressing political issue. The interweaving of pills with wine, cigarettes, and reading glasses emphasises that “maintaining well-being is more complex than just treating illness” whilst explaining that each person will take around 14,000 prescribed pills in their lifetime – a staggering number. It reminds us that western medicine, often obsessively pharmaceutical, is not the only way to preserve life and has never been the inevitable course of ‘progress’ in the history of health and medicine. It’s another fascinating field in which new, less Eurocentric perspectives wait to be uncovered. The visual context made it more powerful, right behind the famous Hoa Hakananai’a statue (from Easter Island, around 1200CE). The introductory text for ‘Living and Dying’ noted that “Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that this display contains the names and images of deceased Indigenous Australians.” With Hoa Hakananai’a in the corner of my eye, I was reminded how the British Museum’s displays were formed to privilege the European viewer and service their need for understanding, knowledge and thus power. The violence of colonisation can be physical, of course, but this provides a powerful reminder that violence can be intellectual and cultural too – this is the legacy museums must tackle.

‘Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives’

This temporary exhibition, running until 4 August 2019, is free, and its upstairs location means it attracts fewer visitors, so it’s much easier to follow a path through the objects. The curatorial stance is clearly reappraisal and it’s refreshing, blending current work from artists like Michel Tuffery with objects such as the striking Chief Mourner’s costume, or heva tupapau, bought by Cook on a second voyage to Tahiti by trading red feathers. The traditional veneration of men like Cook and Joseph Banks is critiqued well; a personal highlight was the painting of Aboriginal activist, Burnum Burnum, giving his famous ‘claiming of England’ speech at Dover in 1988, which outlined the harm colonisation inflicted on his community. It would have been even better to see the speech in full next to the painting, as it is blistering compared to the opening sentence (which was reproduced in the label).

This newer style of exhibition, combining artefacts with artistic responses, is an interesting trend. Sometimes it’s valuable to have an emotional commentary on contentious displays; sometimes it can feel lecturing. This exhibition mostly gets the balance right and the artistic inclusions don’t overwhelm the narrative.

The British Museum collections have fascinating stories attached to them and their colonial past is just one element of that. But active decolonisation through curatorial choices is an incredibly important goal for all museums, however challenging it might appear – and it can reveal new stories in even the most familiar museum. There’s much more work to be done.


David Cameron’s response: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/18/koh-i-noor-diamond-given-britain-indian-government-crown-queen-mother For more of the Koh-i-Noor’s story, I liked William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Sumaya Kassim’s article: https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/

The British Museum has some catalogue info about the Parthenon sculptures to start with: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=461683&partId=1&searchText=parthenon+galleries&page=1

King’s College London’s specialist Centre for the Humanities and Health has lots of discussion about Pharmacopoiea https://humanitiesandhealth.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/pharmacopoiea-or-how-many-pills-do-we-take-in-a-lifetime-a-wellcome-trust-exhibition-at-the-british-museum/

More about Hoa Hakananai’a at https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/hoa-hakananai-a/kwHuDcNF0g4yRg

More on Burnum Burnum: https://upliftconnect.com/colonized-england/

Further Reading

‘There’s more work to be done’: further reading
The recent Sarr-Savoy Report on returning objects from French museums to former African colonies has sparked controversy and debate: The report is here: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf

The Art Newspaper has several articles discussing its implications: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/restitution-report-2018

and the Guardian summarises its impacts: