Commentary: Race and the British Museum

The British Museum announced recently that they have moved the previously prominently-placed bust of their founder - Sir Hans Sloane - into a secured cabinet as a part of a display focusing on Sloane's ties to slavery. Cue the outrage of this 'rewriting of our history' and 'woke-induced shame of our imperial past'! Such criticism, I believe, is misplaced; as I have argued elsewhere, such actions are less about rewriting history and more about removing former historical bias, presenting the dual narrative of these individuals as both philanthropists and slave-owners. However, I also have reservations about the steps taken by the Museum.


Bust of Sir Hans Sloane
Sloane bust (image from British Museum)

Connection to Slavery

The British Museum was founded in 1753 after the death of Sir Hans Sloane, an Irish physician and naturalist. During his lifetime, Sloane had amassed a considerable collection of over 71,000 objects - ranging from books, prints and drawings, to plant and animal specimens, and various antiquities from around the world. Most of this collection was amassed after his marriage to Elizabeth Rose, a wealthy heiress to Jamaican sugar plantations worked by slaves. Thus, most of Sloane's collections were purchased with wealth gained through ties to slavery.


Though he had supported various charities and hospitals during his lifetime, Sloane's most significant philanthropic act was his bequest: upon his death, Sloane bequeathed his entire collection to the British public (in care of then monarch King George II), under the condition that parliament pay his executors some £20,000. Agreeing to these terms, an Act of Parliament later that year officially founded the British Museum.


Since this week's announcement, the British Museum's Director - Hartwig Fischer - has defended the new display on slavery. Fischer has reportedly stated a desire and need to place slavery “very openly at the heart of the museum”. Here, I completely agree - as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge our historical ties to the slave-trade. Indeed the Museum deserves credit for taking this proactive approach rather than waiting for a public campaign to demand the action of them (even if it did take them nearly 300 years....). However, I don't think they've gone far enough. Beyond merely acknowledging such connections and responsibilities we also need to work towards doing good and enacting positive change. In this regard, there are many other aspects of the British Museum which can and must also be addressed.


From Slavery to Stealing

The British Museum has a reputation as the world's largest recipient of stolen goods. Take for example the Benin Bronzes. These metal plaques and sculptures were created by the Edo (or Benin) people, and used to adorn the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (now in Southern Nigeria). In addition to being remarkable pieces of art, the Benin Bronzes are also of great cultural significance for Nigeria. In 1897 - long after the death of Sir Hans Sloane - a British force of 1,200 troops forcefully took power of the area, before looting and then burning the Benin City. More than 4,000 sculptures - including the Benin Bronzes - were stolen from the area and its people, and taken to museums across Europe. Many of them still remain at the British Museum.


There are countless other examples of such stolen artefacts that now reside at the British Museum, but what is particularly important to note here is the British Museum's repeated refusal to repatriate any of these stolen goods. Though the Museum has promoted its membership of the 'Benin Dialogue Group', discussion here revolves mainly around arranging terms for loaning the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria rather than repatriating them entirely.


What to do?

The Museum has recently announced a review into its collections, exploring the origins of many of its artefacts. This is very encouraging and pleasing to hear. However, if the action taken as a result is limited to changing labels for their collection, this will hardly be sufficient.


But in a museum where vast swathes of the collection were stolen or looted from their initial owners and cultures, what can be done without entirely depleting the collection? And, actually, would depleting the collection entirely really be such a bad thing if done for the sake of returning stolen goods to their people?


One interesting suggestion has come from British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Referring to the Benin Bronzes, Shonibare suggested the British Museum commission, or produce themselves, 3D-printed copies which they could continue to house and display, whilst returning the original sculptures to Nigeria.


Taking this a step further, the Museum could then create an entire exhibit around the issue of repatriation, pointing to the history of how the objects were initially stolen, when, and why, and the moral and cultural significance of returning them. Surely this would fit well in a museum focusing on human history and culture? Unlike the originals, these 3D printed copies could then be handled by visitors during workshops or demonstrations, adding a new level of visitor engagement.


Perhaps the first step for the British Museum to take though is in raising black voices. Beyond its stolen contents, the British Museum also has some way to go regarding the diversity of its staff. As of 2020, the Museum has only one black curator (out of 150), and has never had a black Director or Deputy Director. Surely including black voices in designing and developing their displays is critical to raise the voices of those who have historically been silenced. So far the actions taken by the Museum seem to indicate more concern for their impact on black lives in the past, with limited efforts to adjust that relationship in the present.


Making History

The most common criticism against this type of effort is that it is 'erasing history'. I would instead argue that this is about learning from history so that we may take appropriate action now. Indeed, we are all history in the making. Museums like the British Museum have a responsibility to present an honest account of our history, without shying away from uncomfortable truths.


I am certainly not against the British Museum's new exhibit drawing attention to the connections between their founder and slavery. However, there is much more they must do to truly consider and reflect upon their history with racial inequalities and injustices.