April 16, 2012

Should the British Museum really be called the British Museum?

Posted at 12:45 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Clearly, the British Museum is called that, because it’s a national museum, located within Britain. But beyond that, there’s not a lot of logic to the name.

It has been pointed out many times in the past, by many different people, that the British Museum is not really very British. That is to say, that not much of the stuff on display is actually from Britain. You have to really look to spot the exhibits from Britain, amongst all the artefacts taken from other places around the world. In this sense, it is more a museum of British imperialism, than it is one of modern Britain.

From my point of view, many of the artefacts there are legitimately acquired – however, the vague descriptions on the information panels next to them give you little idea of the real stories behind the acquisition of many of the items in their collection.


A pilgrim’s progress
From the Newspaper | M.J. Akbar | 2 days ago

THE British Museum should, in all propriety, be renamed the British Empire Museum. The largest repository of human genius is a magnificent tribute to three centuries of commercial and political power.

The Empire and its diaspora had three overlapping shores: lands that were directly ruled; regions under domination (hence Dominions) and an arc of grip sanctified by treaty (as in the Indian or Malaysian princely states) or justified by gunboat diplomacy (as in China).

Greed was hardly unknown to British conquistadors like Clive, but give his successors credit for one quality: they reserved a part of what they picked up from natives through coercion, bribery or rights of conquest for a national treasury that believed that treasure was much more than currency. The British Museum is an asset from the balance sheet of civilisation.

The worm in this apple is the difference between custody and ownership. Winston Churchill famously thought the sun never set on the British Empire, and then presided over sunset; but by his logic the old colonies were perfectly entitled to dismiss logically the British Museum as the principal warehouse of daylight robbery.

You can therefore either moan about what has been lost, or you can gaze in admiration at what has been preserved. If you are a good Indian, as I am, you can do both.

London is littered with the glory of India since India was the fountainhead of British power and the hunting ground of its grandees. But when I see the theft, plunder and sheer destruction that Indians have inflicted upon their fabled heritage, a carnage that has not quite ended, I am a bit relieved that some British nabobs had the decency to preserve what they stole.

The British sometimes give the impression of being slightly embarrassed by this past. They offer wobbly explanations, as for instance that this or that was obtained ‘legally’. This rather reminds me of vicereines who expected a ‘gift’ of the maharajah’s jewels whenever they were invited for dinner — and woe the maharajah who forgot.

Victor’s logic was equally evident on more substantive matters. Lord Palmerston rationalised Britain’s punitive and illegal opium trade by arguing that corrupt Chinese officials had allowed the ban to lapse. It worked until it worked.

The high point of British rule came in 1918, just 29 years before it crumbled where it had started, India. But in 1918 admirers and advocates were confident that the Empire would last four centuries more.

The British had taunted the caliph that they were the true ‘Muhammadan’ power since more Muslims lived under the British than in Ottoman space. Now their taunt had bite. In 1918 the British became the first non-Muslims to control Makkah and Madina since the birth of Islam.

One Ottoman official refused to surrender when the caliph capitulated, the governor of Madina. He was not wrapped in delusion. He had a purpose. He held on for 10 months because he needed the time to transfer the few, sparse personal possessions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Madina to Turkey. Otherwise, he said, they would end up in the British Museum. They are today in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul.And so the Prophet’s cloak was not on display at the British Museum’s magnificent exhibition on Haj, the journey to the heart of Islam in Makkah. I was privileged to share that journey last week during a visit to London.

The British, unlike say the French, dislike being exhibitionist. But no one can turn an exhibition into a triumph quite like them. Perhaps the British flower in anonymity, since there is no personal signature to such a collective effort. But never has a bureaucracy been more inspiring.

The mellifluous, evocative music of the azaan greeted me at the door. Verses urging humility towards men and reverence before God explained the essence of the Quran.

This was the one God of Abraham; the Haj is an Abrahamic pilgrimage for the Kaaba was built by him and his son Ishmael. A copy of the first written Quran, set down in the time of the Caliph Umar two years after the Prophet’s death, mocked the tribe of sensationalists who thrive on hatred towards the faith by spreading lies about the Book.

There was history: the begum-nawab of Bhopal scolding the Ottoman governor for leaving pilgrims at the mercy of greed or theft; or a selection of flasks to carry back water from the Zamzam, the spring that saved Abraham’s wife Hajra and her son Ishmael from death, which was rediscovered by the Prophet’s grandfather Abd-al Muttalib.

There was wit, as in the quote from the great Persian poet Saadi who noted that a pawn which travelled the length of a chessboard could become a queen, but many a haji who had travelled the length of a desert had only become worse. There was wonder and pride on the faces of hundreds of schoolchildren and adults who flocked to this moving, magical

The British Museum has turned an exhibition on pilgrimage into another pilgrimage.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    04.18.12 at 6:19 am

    The preface to this article states what will be accepted by many:”You have to really look to spot the exhibits from Britain, amongst all the artefacts taken from other places around the world. In this sense, it is more a museum of British imperialism, than it is one of modern Britain”. But then goes on to add what many of us will question:

    “From my point of view, many of the artefacts there are legitimately acquired”. Are you then saying that imperialism was or is a legitimate enterprise? Very few of us who have suffered from British imperialism can subscribe to a view that, intentionally or not, seems to legitimise, post facto, an enterprise that involved slavery, colonialism and all kinds of oppression, violation of human rights and the destruction of many political systems

  2. Matthew said,

    04.18.12 at 7:32 am

    Perhaps I should have explained it better – there are many artefacts there that are not imperial spoils. E.g. ones given as gifts from foreign countries / rulers, ones that were legitimately purchased, ones that have been acquired in more recent times.

    However, the fact is, that as far as I am aware, no comprehensive audit of the provenance of artefacts in the museum has ever been undertaken. Nobody knows the real status of the collection, in terms of how many items fall into different categories.

  3. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    04.18.12 at 2:34 pm

    Readers should look at the report in Guardian today which reveals the dominant aspect of the colonial-imperialist rule of Britain.http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/18/britain-destroyed-records-colonial-crimes In the atmosphere of the colonial rule, gifts should be examined very carefully since the structural violence in the colonial system made the dominated very prone to making gifts to the colonial masters. Hardly any gifts were made by the British colonial officers to the colonial subjects.

    Perhaps it is time that the British Museum gave the public full information about the methods of acquisition of the artefacts in the venerable museum.

    For sure, we know that the museum acquired the Benin objects as a result of Britain’s military attack on Benin in 1897. Whether some of the objects were later purchased at auction in London does not really make any difference. The initial acquisition was by violence. Similarly, many of the Ethiopian artefacts, including the Christian crosses were acquired through the use of force at Magdala. Asante objects from Ghana were also acquired by similar methods. We will also find that Indian objects were also acquired as result of wars.

    More recent acquisitions may have been legitimate but on the whole, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the objects in the venerable museum were acquired through imperialist and dubious methods.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away