The thing about museums: How English museums illustrate the problem with the contemporary historical exhibit

July 2010

Throughout recent history, England has probably extended its reach to more countries than any other colonizing nation. In fact, at the height of its imperial regime, England controlled a quarter of the world’s population. Under the guise of science, anthropology, religious missions and military exploration, the English crown changed the history of hundreds of nations and millions of people.

Today, evidence of that history is unabashedly displayed in English museums.

Brighton’s Pavilion Museum is housed next to George IVs former seaside palace, which was built in the Indo-Saracenic style, a mix of Victorian gothic and indigenous design. This approach was a favourite of British officials living in colonial India, a way to mask orientalist exoticism with feigned respect and appreciation for local art, basically the equivalent of architectural imperialism.

The museum itself is small by comparison but efficiently packs art, tools, clothing and other tokens from indigenous peoples the world over.

Descriptions of these objects glorify ‘armchair anthropology’; a detached and ineffective ethnographic technique critiqued by contemporary academics for its racist essential- ism. The information provided romanticizes the colonial process, using gentle euphemisms when explaining the adventurous ‘collection process’ of what should be declared stolen goods.

The infamous British Museum of London, England’s also glosses over the processes by which artifacts were ‘collected,’ but small and large plaques thanking benefactors for their ‘donations’ are everywhere.

Many of these are personal contributions, which made me question where someone like Major R.G. Gayer- Anderson, who donated the Ancient Egyptian cat statuette, dubbed the ‘Gayer-Anderson Cat’, would have obtained his treasury of historic art. (The Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London, is another of many museums to house Gayer- Anderson’s and his younger brother, T. G. Gayer-Anderson’s, donations).

Despite the fact that a map of Britain’s contemporary and historical political ties could be drawn out based on contributions to the British Museum, it is clear that there is an attempt to depoliticize its collection.

A Tennyson quote on the floor of the Great Court (as you enter the museum), reads: “And let thy feet/millenniums hence/be set in midst of knowledge.” A quote that I believe illustrates the way history and art are romanticized. A self- confessed history-geek myself, I still believe it is important to contextualize historical artifacts to truly understand them.

Political context often goes unmentioned when display- ing said artifacts, in an attempt to maintain what I can only describe as the ‘purity’ of academia, encouraging museum- goers to try and embrace and appreciate the wonders of world history and science without sullying it with implica- tions of cultural theft and global politics.

If one considers the manner in which the museum ob- tained so many of its artifacts, disregarding historical and po- litical context is to disregard a vital part the object’s history. In so doing, we are disregarding the people and the culture it represents. This strikes me as both discourteous and ineffec- tive for an establishment of universal scholarship.

Another important point is that the value of certain his- tories, certain peoples and certain eras visibly changes as one navigates somewhere like the British Museum. Something as basic as the layout of exhibits, I think, illustrates what the institution deems more interesting or important for visitors.

While on the one hand much of the museum’s collection from what we call today’s ‘Global South,’ are stolen pieces of history, it is interesting to note that European territories are still given large wings and sections for multiple time periods while other parts of the world are given smaller and simpler bearings. Despite the British colonial legacy of baseless theft and genocide, the history of the colonized remains less impressive, or less important. 500 years later, Africa is still in the basement.

Tennyson’s quote is an obvious tenet of what the British Museum, and many other museums stand for: knowledge and learning about our past. All I can conclude based on visiting all of these institutions is that we will be in no capacity able to learn from the mistakes of our past if future genera- tions are not taught about them.

And I know I am not the first to say “He who wins the war writes the history books,” so I wonder why it is that centuries of colonial oppression and all its ramifications are not only glorified and venerated by internationally renowned institutions but that their gross misrepresentation goes un- questioned and unchallenged.

It appears that the institution of the metropolitan museum has become another facet of the neo-colonial machine and that education is one more battle to fight in the war for freedom and equality.

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, July 2010

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