British Museum – or: the imperial hangover!

Unbelievably, I’m done with my Masters and thus also LonDONE (sorry for this bad pun, which is however part of an advertisement campaign in the tube…). Due to the high prices and the continuous humidity, I fled the city almost immediately after my last exam was over.

Unfortunately, due to my Masters Programme, I had little time to experience London beyond the realm of my daily trip to the centre and the rare visits by friends dragging me to the numerous street markets. However, there’s one thing that stuck to me during one of my rare exploration trips to the British Museum – I have discussed it since with friends and flatmates – Brits and non-Brits alike: the Imperial Hangover (unfortunately, a quick google search showed me that I’m not the one who invented the term after all), which allegedly led British Comedian John Oliver to say

The entire British Museum is basically an active crime scene

The British Museum is Britain’s largest museum and, according to Lonely Planet “one of the oldest and finest in the world”. In fact, the museum, founded in 1753, is impressive. The huge building show-casts a host of exhibits from early Egypt until today, covering allegedly all of Asia, most of Africa, both Americas and, of course, Europe. Entrance is free, except for the special exhibitions (at the time of my visit: ‘Germany – memories of a nation’ :)). Entering the museum, I (unsurprisingly) quickly lost my sense of directions and was amazed to stumble from Ancient Assyria to the Romans and arrive at an impressive host of Ancient Egyptian treasures, sarcopharguses and even mummies, that reminded me lively of my visit in the Museum in Cairo. However, what struck me throughout the whole journey through ancient history and art was the total omittance of any mentioning of how the British had obtained these treasures. Of course, there is no mystery to how most of the treasures made it to Europe: imperialism. This, of course, is not only the case for the British Museum but is the same for example in the German Pergamom Museum or the French Louvre. The raids during the long history of imperial conquest and rule not only destroyed millions of lives (through mass killings, oppression and enslavement) but also brought an immense number of cultural artefacts from the alleged ‘uncivilized’ world to Europe. Nowadays, some countries have asked for their treasures to be given back to where they came from, but have largely been ignored.

flickr picture by Neil Howard: Assyrian Statues in the British Museum

flickr picture by Neil Howard: Assyrian Statues in the British Museum

To be fair, I’m not a historian or anthropologist or museum person in any other way, so I cannot estimate the value these treasures have historically, culturally (and also financially) for one country or the other. Also, a lot more qualified people have written about the matter already.
Still, even as a laie visitor, the unapologetic and unreflected attitude obvious throughout all exhibitions I visited quite struck me. In a paper on “Museums, Representation and Cultural Property” published in an anthropology journal, I found the following lines on exhibition practices:

Objects should be shown 'in context', i.e., with appropriate information to counteract, or to make explicit and therefore to undermine, the privileging effect of the museum habitus, and to provide insights into the cultural background of the objects and those who made or used them 

In the British Museum on the contrary, despite it being painfully clear how the treasures made it to the small European island, the structural and physical violence of imperialist raids and oppression that led them to be available to millions of visitors in London each year is rarely mentioned. Most items are tagged as ‘presents’ to either famous British officials of the time or to the British crown as such. Instead of using the Museum as a possibility to process the violent past, the tags and descriptions gloss over it, mentioning the violence of imperialism in passing, which makes them appear benign to the unaware visitor. For example, the centre of the Egyptian part is the famous Rosetta Stone, which was “discovered” by the French in 1799 and then conquered by the British army and brought to London in 1802.

The famousIMG_2429 Benin Art, which Nigeria has also demanded back was taken by British officers in what the descriptive text describes as “punitive raid” for the killing of several British officers by Benin’s emperor Oba Ovoranmwen, who h
ad demanded custom payments from them. While the museum description mentions the raid as well as some details about the distribution of the resulting booty, it does not offer a broader picture of the events. The whole story is told in a great 2003 piece in the Guardian, which puts the raid in the historical context of the feverish imperial race over the division of Africa among the great European powers, illustrated by a quotation of Oxford professor John Ruskin from 1870:

“This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men.”

All this made me wonder about the (subconscious or conscious) reasons for this omission of the historical context of both the state of the Benin empire before the conquest as well as details about the context of the ‘punitive raid’, which would have helped to expose the dynamics, was due to the fact that the British colonial history with all its cruelty and pain is common knowledge to the British people, that they are tired of talking about it, putting it into context, reflecting upon it…
But I have been growing up with a cruel and painful history linked to my nationality, one that comes up whenever I travel and one that inspires new exhibitions about different perspectives, different focus points of it every year in all major (and minor) German cities. I have also been brought up with the idea, that you shall never omit and never forget. Friends who grew up in the UK agree that the empire is not sufficiently treated at school, and at least some articles expose a continuing reluctance to talk about this part of the past. Excluding thus this rather simple reason leaves two more complicated explanations that come immediately to mind: Imperial Hangover and Eurocentrism.

  1. Imperial Hangover: omission of knowledge and contextualisation is multifaceted and possibly personal, for some people it is too long ago, for others too far away, for some it is shameful, for others – and this is the Imperial Hangover I mentioned above, which is probably the most shocking one as it cannot be reduced to mere laziness and ignorance. Within a setting of imperial hangover the mention of colonial power is painful as it reflects the loss of formerly held power that is gone. What this shows is both a nostalgia that is inadequate given the tragic of the historical events linked to Britain’s colonial history. It also reproduces a sense of entitlement, based on Eurocentrism.
  2. Eurocentrism: The main reason why this part of history (or at least its ugly sides) can so easily be brushed away and ignored even though it is NOT that long ago is: it was not in Europe! We can see the effects of proximity and continuing Eurocentrism everyday in the “global” media that gives different value to deaths in different parts of the world. Many people have been talking about the mismatch between the media and political reactions to the recent Paris attacks and the ones in Lebanon. Eurocentrism is much more complex than racism, but essentially boils down to a still prevailing subconscious assumption of “European centrality in the human past and present” (Barkawy/Laffey 2006). Quite naturally this is linked with colonialism – but also in a tragic way shows that colonialism is not simply “over”.

Museums are expressive (ideological) institutions rather than interpretive (‘scientific’) ones.

This quote from the already mentioned anthropological article by Brian Durrans who happens to be involved with the British Museum, captures the essence of this blogpost. Museums do have the responsibility to educate but they also capture the mood and status of a society itself. What I noticed at the British Museum is not a unique failure of the UK to deal with their painful past. I think British people are just as reflected as any other people in the world. In fact, I visited a museum in 2014 in Serbia, which gave a much more amplified sense of omission regarding the Yugoslav Wars. Moreover, the indifference and urge to forget rather than reflect goes for every state ever engaged in the enterprise of imperialism, colonialism and conquest (including Germany). But the British Museum gives an astonishing account of how history is radiating through societies: Museums, which are the ones that shall remind us of our past, the ugly and the pretty one alike, do not simply showcast what WAS but they also show what IS and therefore just as much offer an insight into the psyche of the visitors’ contemporary society as they offer a glimpse into the societies of the past.

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