The way we were: The Grand Central and Egyptian Saloons, British Museum, c1836

Opening up the British Museum

Honesty about how exhibits were acquired is a necessary first step in addressing our imperial past


This article is part of a Museums Special in the November issue of The Critic. You can read Alexander Larman on Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum here, and David Ekserdjian on the possibility of the Royal Academy selling the Taddei Tondo here. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Since the killing of George Floyd last May, there has been an immense amount of discussion and debate, much of it very heated, as to how museums, galleries and public institutions should respond most effectively — and appropriately — to the Black Lives Matter movement.

It has not been at all an easy discussion and although everyone has made statements as to how determined they are to change, none was more forceful than the statement issued by Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, on the museum’s blog on 5 June that “The British Museum stands in solidarity with the British Black community, with the African American community, with the Black community throughout the world. We are aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere.”

The British Museum has inevitably been at the forefront of this debate, since its formation, its subject matter and its internationalism, while they have in the past been its greatest strength, are at the same time so obviously connected to the activities and mindset of imperialism over the last 250 years. It has an immensely tricky, if not impossible, task to steer a path between the radical restitutionists, now led by Professor Dan Hicks of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, whose book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press, £20) is published this month, and those angry journalists, commentators and politicians who believe that any form of response to the criticism is a gross form of political correctness, an indulgence in irresponsible wokeness.

It is hard not to ask the question: how and where were these great heads of kings and pharaohs acquired?

Since I was sceptical of the views of those people who responded so angrily to the news that Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, had been taken off his pedestal and reinstalled in a display case as a slaveowner, I thought I would revisit the galleries and analyse the nature of the museum’s recent response to the climate of public opinion and current political and cultural circumstances, in order to see how far it was legitimate and to what extent, if at all, the hostile response of commentators was justified.

Since the museum reopened on 27 August, the public is now only able to enjoy a circuit of galleries on the ground floor, beginning with the original grand early Victorian, neoclassical galleries devoted to the Ancient Egyptians, through a set of galleries devoted to Greece and the Parthenon Marbles, to the African Galleries down in the basement, the Enlightenment Gallery on the east side of the museum, ending up with an installation of Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile in one of the King’s Galleries, built to house George III’s library, before departing through the shop.

I thought the amount which there is to see is well judged, giving just enough to make visitors feel that they have not been short-changed, whilst it is presumably either impractical or impossibly expensive to allow them to wander more freely, given the current health risks, although there are quite a number of galleries which are roped off, which makes one desperately want to see them. It reminds me of the strategy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, when it was closed for a period of ten years between 2003 and 2013 and showed only highlights of its collection in a building next door with very nearly the same number of visitors as before.

On the occasions when I visited, most visitors seemed to like and appreciate being directed round the museum on a well-defined route, instead of being faced with the enormity of the museum’s collection as whole, never being quite sure which galleries to focus on and where to go and wandering about somewhat aimlessly, a bit lost. There is an atmosphere of slow-moving interest and studious intensity, very different from the noisy overcrowdedness, the hustle and bustle of international tourism, tour guides leading their groups with loud voices and flags which has too often been my experience of the museum’s ground floor in the past.

So, the question is: how has the museum responded to the questions raised by Black Lives Matter? The short answer is that it has supplemented the displays with a set of additional texts, not necessarily obvious to visitors, which give information on the theme of “Collecting and Empire”, which address the issue as to how the objects were acquired and giving a feel for the history of the institution and its historical role navigating the globe and accumulating artefacts which were not always acquired in the most defensible circumstances.

One starts in the great run of galleries on the west side of the building, designed by Robert Smirke and opened in 1846. There is the Rosetta Stone, which was originally acquired by Napoleon’s army from the fortress in Rashid (Rosetta) in northern Egypt and then shortly afterwards by the British army as a result of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801.

There’s no way round the fact that the Benin Bronzes were acquired as a result of a military expedition

It was presented to the British Museum the following year and had painted labels which described how it had been “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” and “Presented by King George III”. There is information about the script on the stone and the interpretation of its hieroglyphs by two early nineteenth-century scholars, Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion.

As one looks left and right down the full length of the gallery, it is hard not to ask the question: how and where were these great heads of kings and pharaohs acquired? What were the circumstances whereby such enormous stone carvings were cut out of their original setting and transported back to Great Britain as imperial loot?

Since the gallery was last comprehensively displayed in 1981, when funding was provided by Henry Moore, by then a very wealthy man, it is perhaps not surprising that much more information is given about the subject matter of the objects on display than the circumstances of their acquisition, but on my second visit, I realised that new display panels have been added, which do provide the information I was seeking, including a description as to how Lord Prudhoe, Duke of Northumberland acquired the Lion statues of Amenhotep III in 1829 on an archaeological expedition up the Nile. He got permission by way of the British Consul General in Cairo and presented them to the British Museum in 1835 (not surprisingly, the labels are invariably very insistent that works were acquired by firmans (permits) from the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, since it was these permissions which Lord Elgin used to legitimise his acquisitions when questioned by Parliament). As I was looking at the Lion statues, I overheard a father telling his small children, “These must have been stolen,” so the issue as to how things came into the collection is now of widespread interest. It is obviously best to be open about it, as the British Museum increasingly is.

Elsewhere in the same gallery, there is a label which describes how so many of the Mesopotamian collections were acquired by Austen Henry Layard, one of those omnivorous Victorian public servants who became so fascinated by the Assyrian remains at Nimrud on his way to take up a post in the civil service of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) that he spent six years from 1845 to 1851 excavating them, publishing two volumes on Nineveh and Its Remains in 1848 and a best-selling shorter version, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, in 1851 in a series published by John Murray called Reading for Rail.

However much one may now possibly lament the circumstances in which some of these great Assyrian artefacts were originally acquired, I find it hard to think that anything would be gained by any calls for their restitution. Potentially, of course, there is much to be lost, given the fact that so much of Syria and Iraq, where these objects were first excavated, has been a war zone. It is surely a more intellectually defensible policy to be open about how, when and where they were acquired and treat this as part of their long history and as a vehicle for cultural and historical education.

Next stop on the tour is the first of the Greek galleries (Room 13), full of smaller Greek objects, painted vases from Athens, helmets and terracotta scent bottles from Corinth, statuettes from Egypt, and black-figure painted vases. Here there is the second of the labels on “Collecting and Empire”, which describes how the Exekias amphora was acquired by purchase from the posthumous sale of Edmé-Antoine Durand, a French collector, who had himself acquired it from an Etruscan tomb in Vulci, near Viterbo. In looking up information about both the vase and the collector, I couldn’t help but note that the information supplied by the British Museum’s online catalogue provides ample information about the nature and status of the object, but no more than detailed bibliographic references if one wants to find out more about its previous ownership and the circumstances of its acquisition, something which presumably could, and should, be rectified.

Room 17 has a label devoted to the Nereid Monument, one of the greatest works in the museum, excavated by Charles Fellows, a mountaineer turned archaeologist and friend of Byron, who travelled widely in Asia Minor in 1838. His book A Journal written during an Excursion in Asia Minor led Lord Palmerston to seek permission from the Ottoman authorities for the export of Lycian antiquities. The label provides a useful description of the legalities of excavation under the Ottoman Empire: permission was sought under the terms of a firman and the export of antiquities was only banned in 1869. So, these objects were acquired legally, according to the laws of the land at the time.

I would be mad to make any comment on the Parthenon Marbles and I have fortunately never been asked to do so, only to say that the 1930s classicism of its display, which I used to find very gloomy, I now find very uplifting, particularly the quality of the spotlighting on the sculptures from the two pediments at either end of the room, which make them glow in the otherwise crepuscular light.

Once one comes to the African Galleries, down in the basement behind the Great Court, the politics and circumstances of acquisition become much more complicated. One can feel that the museum has chosen, for understandable reasons, to focus on showing as much as possible of African culture of the recent past as of works which were acquired as a result of military plunder at the end of the nineteenth century. As one goes down the stairs, one passes a work commissioned from the Ghanaian artist Owusu-Ankomah in 2006 to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade (it is not correct to think that museums did nothing to mark our terrible role in developing the North Atlantic slave trade before this year). Then, as one enters the main gallery, there is a spectacular large terracotta pot by Dame Magdalene Odundo, born in Kenya but who has lived most of her adult life in Britain, and a big, characteristic work made out of liquor bottle caps and recycled metal foil wrappers by El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor resident in Nigeria.

Both are statements of the vitality of contemporary African art and the extent to which it is now mainstream in British culture. Alongside these two works, there is a wall text which acknowledges that “Significant portions of the collection were acquired in the context of the colonisation of large parts of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, by Britain and other European countries”.

There is no way round the fact that the Benin Bronzes in the gallery at the end of this sequence were acquired as a result of a punitive military expedition in 1897, when British troops deposed the King, annexed the Kingdom of Benin to the British Empire and looted the royal palace, as a result of which the British Museum acquired 304 brass plaques. They are spectacularly beautiful, displayed almost too tastefully. What should the museum do about the fact that these objects were acquired not by purchase, but by plunder? This is the issue which is the subject of Dan Hicks’s new book, which advocates restitution.

Curiously, which I did not know, and is not revealed on the accompanying wall text, the British Museum sold more than 30 Benin Bronzes back to the Nigerian government between 1950 and 1972 on the grounds that some of them were duplicates. What is indicated in the small print is that the museum has been working with the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments for the last few years in a discussion group called the “Benin Dialogue Group” and they are planning to open a museum in Benin City in 2023, which will involve long-term loans. This feels like the best approach: to work collaboratively their African counterparts on projects like this, as well as sponsoring projects that conserve material in Africa; in other words, by working together in a spirit of reciprocal generosity.

Elsewhere in these galleries is a description of how the British Museum petitioned to acquire a wooden carved Yoruba door which had been displayed at the Wembley Exhibition and how the Yoruba refused to accept any form of payment, regarding it as a great honour that a work from their culture should be included in the displays of the British Museum.

Relocated: Sir Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack

It became a ceremonial gift, rather than a purchase, a relic of amicable global cultural exchange, done for purposes of mutual cultural understanding, and one can feel the sense of nostalgia for an era when this was the international mood and works of art were treated as subjects of scholarly study, as compared to the much more aggressive restitutionism which is now dominant.

Finally, one comes to the Enlightenment Gallery, installed in the King’s Library in 2002 and containing the bust of Sir Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack, which was the cause of so much apoplexy when it was reported that the founder of the British Museum had been taken off his pedestal and redisplayed in a display case which describes him as “Physician, Collector, Slave Owner”. The truth is that the bust was probably ignored when it was on its pedestal in the way of so much commemorative sculpture and civic statuary.

I am totally in favour of what they have done. The display case contextualises and interprets Sloane’s life in the light of the fact that he was involved in the slave trade. He spent two years of his life, the most productive of his scholarly career, in Jamaica, where, like everyone of his time there, he chose to ignore the fact that the economy of the sugar plantations was made possible by the north Atlantic slave trade; and when he came back to London, he married the widow of a wealthy plantation owner, which gave him the resources to continue his collecting.

The British Museum is absolutely correct to bring it to our attention and not to disguise it

You could argue, as some commentators have, that the display distorts the totality of Sloane’s life and career as a scholar, collector and doctor, but museum displays work on the basis of simplifying history and it seems to me entirely legitimate that the museum has chosen to address the extent to which Sloane himself, and the museum as a whole, have been made possible to such an extent by the growth of empire and the profits of the slave economy.

It is an inescapable fact that Sloane, as well as being a naturalist of infinite curiosity and an insatiably voracious collector, who tried to bring a live alligator on board his boat back to England from Jamaica in 1688, also turned a blind eye to the cruelties of plantation life and married a plantation owner. These are facts of history which we have hitherto chosen to ignore. So, I have come to the conclusion that the British Museum is absolutely correct to bring it to our attention and not to deny or disguise it.

In fact, having seen what they are doing, I suspect that the museum is only taking the first steps in what is going to be a long journey: being much more open about the circumstances in which the collection has been acquired; allowing it to be the subject of discussion, display and debate; not shirking the responsibilities of ownership; and helping and working with those countries from which the objects were forcibly removed. In reading the blog post which the Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif wrote recently on her resignation as a trustee, one reads of her frustration that discussions of this sort were moving so slowly.

My own feeling is that these debates are much better held within the walls of the museum than solely outside and that demonstrating an interest in the way the museum collections were acquired is the way forward.

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