The British Museum, Part II: The Negatives

It’s time for Marabou’s analysis of the British Museum Part II in which they address the institution’s not-so-great aspects. In this post, Marabou focuses on transparency of ownership and acquisition processes, colonial language, and questionable display decisions.

In Part I, Marabou talked about issues over ownership in relation to the Parthenon sculptures. The British Museum acknowledges that there is a lot of controversy over whether or not the sculptures in the British Museum belong in Greece at the Parthenon Museum. Where the museum openly acknowledges the public debates around the Parthenon sculptures, it does not engage in public discussion about other controversial objects in their collection. The assertion that all objects in the collection were acquired “legally” (as in “not stolen”) is all about technicality. The following are just two of the many objects questionably obtained by the British Museum.

Marabou trying to take a peek at the Rosetta Stone surrounded by visitors. Grey and pink granodiorite, L: 112.3 x W: 75.7, 196 BCE, Ptolemaic Period, Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone is one of, if not the most popular objects in the British Museum. The public’s fascination is understandable. The Rosetta Stone dates back to 196 BCE and was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is a tablet with an inscription translated into three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (Egyptian language writing that is derived from earlier hieroglyphs and used by everyday people), and Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs set side by side saying the same thing was an incredible resource for scholars. Since Ancient Greek was (and still is) a language studied by a number of scholars it was, for the first time, possible to crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs that were once thought of as impenetrable. What an incredible find! So how did the Rosetta Stone come into the possession of the British Museum, a place that it has resided since 1802? The British were not the ones to unearth or “discover” the Rosetta Stone. It was the French. Napoleon and his troops were making their way through the Mediterranean region, across North Africa and Southern Europe during the late 1700s, meticulously and artistically documenting the ruins of ancient civilizations. It is during these military campaigns that French troops came across the Rosetta Stone. The French were not the only ones patrolling the Mediterranean to expand influence and protect their economic interests, the Brits were there too. The British and Ottomans battled the French and the French lost, ending their expedition in 1801. The British received the Rosetta Stone as a spoil of war as dictated by the Treaty of Alexandria. The Rosetta Stone arrived in England in 1802 and was donated to the British Museum by King George III, as is written on the museum label. Marabou wonders why the documented provenance (history of ownership) of the Rosetta Stone, a 2,000 year old object originally from Egypt, is simply distilled down to a gift from a British king? Wouldn’t saying the Rosetta Stone is a spoil of war provide an even greater understanding of world history? The British Museum says its collection represents the history of the world. Shouldn’t war, pillaging, and treaties (a big part of history from the very beginning) be explained to visitors? Perhaps a spoil of war that was pillaged from Egypt by one’s enemy doesn’t sound that great once put in writing. This provenance doesn’t cement the British Museum’s claim of ownership when Egypt was demanding the Rosetta Stone’s return in 2003. An article from 2003 shared the British Museum’s response to Egypt’s demand:

Vivian Davies, the keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the museum, expressed sympathy with Dr. Hawass’s claim [Dr. Zahi Hawass, an archeologist and former director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, lead the request for returning the Rosetta Stone], but suggested that legislation on the repatriation of artefacts would prevent the relic’s permanent return.

“Will the Rosetta Stone be returned? I would say that our priorities are elsewhere at the moment. We are working with our Egyptian colleagues to preserve the heritage of today rather than concentrate on problems – or issues, perhaps I should say – that are very old,” he said.

“We would like to co-operate with the Egyptians insofar as we can under the law. It is the same law that guides us on the issue of the Elgin Marbles – the British Museum Act of 1963.” This rules that no artefact can be repatriated without the permission of the museum’s trustees.

Mr. Davies added: “Perhaps, if I were in Dr. Hawass’s position, I would feel the same way. We are having constructive negotiations over the loan for three months. It’s a new idea he has produced and we appreciate very much that Dr. Hawass is being constructive on these matters. We enjoy working with him and his staff.”

After 2003, Egyptian representatives repeated the request for the Rosetta Stone’s return (and the return of other looted Egyptian objects in museum collections worldwide) to Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is still on view at the British Museum today.

Marabou_Hoa Hakananaia
Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’) / Moai (ancestor figure), Basalt ,ca. 1000 -1200 CE, H: 2.42m, W: 96cm, Rapa Nui, Orongo.

A second very popular object in the British Museum’s collection is Hoa Hakananai’a (translating to “Lost” or “Stolen Friend”) a moai (statue carved in a human form) from Rapa Nui (Many know the island by its anglicized and Christianized name, Easter Island). Rapa Nui is also the name of the indigenous population of the island. The British Museum’s catalog acquisition note says the statue, was “Collected during the HMS Topaze expedition to Rapa Nui (captained by Powell) in 1868 and presented to Queen Victoria by the Lords of the Admiralty. She then gifted it to the British Museum in 1869.” The use of the word “collected” is an example of a colonial euphemism for the stealing and taking of objects by white European imperialists. A New York Times article from August 2018 addressed the Chilean government’s ask, on behalf of the Rapa Nui, for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a. In the article, Jo Anne Van Tillburg, an archeologist based out of UCLA and director or the Easter Island Statue Project shared her thoughts on the return of Hoa Hakananai’a. The article says that Van Tillburg,

said by telephone interview that British sailors were taken to a sacred area of the island in 1868, and found “Hoa Hakananai’a” inside a building, buried up to its torso. They bartered for it, and dragged it to their boat in a procession led by a dancing chief.

“However, this was done within a context where the Rapa Nui people were suffering a great deal of deprivation,” she added.

Ms. Van Tilburg said that she had excavated two statues on Easter Island with carvings on their backs — the only others with such decoration among some 1,000 statues. But “Hoa Hakananai’a’s” carvings are unique, she added, as is the type of rock it is carved from.

“Hoa Hakananai’a” represents “the entire culture that inspired it,” Ms. Van Tilburg said, adding that she understood why the Rapa Nui want it back.

But asked whether the statue should be returned, given that it is an ambassador of sorts for the Rapa Nui culture, Ms. Van Tilburg replied, “I am in two minds.”

“If I was asked as a professional researcher to come down on one or the other point of view, it would be that of the Rapa Nui people,” she said.

When objects are said to be “legally” obtained, whether paid for or bartered for, it is important to consider the context in which the exchange is made. When descended upon by imperialist forces, populations may have made decisions under duress. Pressure of imperialists was backed up by armed, military force. If a population was struggling economically, the money or objects obtained in the transaction were desperately needed. Marabou has said this before, what was considered just and legal 150 years ago doesn’t make it just and legal today. To not consider the circumstances of past object acquisitions through a 2018 lens, to not revisit whether some objects should be in a museum, perpetuates the western Eurocentric mindset of entitlement to the world’s cultures and erases past violent and invasive actions perpetrated by European imperialists.

In Room 2 of the British Museum, the theme is “Collecting the World.” An encyclopedic museum’s intent is to gather contents that represent cultures across the globe. The British Museum has certainly done that. In this gallery a text explains that the museum began its collections by receiving donations from patrons (including British kings and queens). Marabou gets the sense that the museum feels it is not complicit in the ways these objects were acquired since the objects were received the as a gifts or acquired indirectly. For example, in the hall of “Collecting the World” there are objects from the collection of the London Missionary Society (LMS) acquired by the British Museum after the LMS Museum closed in 1910. The British Museum openly describes the LMS, established in 1797, as a group that sent missionaries to convert the indigenous people of what is now known as French Polynesia, including Tahiti. One label describing the LMS says, “Objects collected by missionaries on their travels often represented gods, or were pieces central to the ritual practices of the people they sought to convert to Christianity.” The label for an object on display called “Human Figure” from Mangareva, a Polynesian island, says the figure “is thought to represent Rongo, the god of agriculture, bringer of rain and plentiful breadfruit crops. Few such figures survived the destruction that marked the island’s conversion to Christianity in the 1830s.” The British Museum acknowledges the removal and destruction of sacred objects from Polynesian islands, particularly with the intention of converting people to Christianity. However, the museum’s word choice and tone of writing does not highlight the invasion and violence that were part of acquiring these objects. To say that missionaries were “collecting” statues of gods does not communicate a forced removal of one people’s belief system so that another religion can be imposed upon them. Although the description of the figure from Mangareva is direct, the language is normalizing, as if the process of conversion to Christianity was simply the national progression of history. There is an insensitivity in some of the language used when describing the objects and providing contextual information.


On the upper floors of the museum where Mediterranean cultures are on display, there is an enlarged sepia colored photo showing three rows of sculptural heads and four men standing behind the sculptures, three Cypriot men and one British man.


The photo’s caption reads,

Heads of statues of worshippers found at a shrine near ancient Tamassos in 1885. Colonel Falkland Warren, chief administrator of the British government on Cyprus, stands on the right. The Cypriot servants in the middle are a reminder of the role local people played in the discovery of ancient Cyprus.

Marabou finds this text a great example of colonial language. The Cypriot men are described as playing a role in the “discovery” of their own ancient culture. The men are working as “servants,” not fellow excavators. Marabou sees this text as the British Museum’s attempt (approved by the Museum Trustees, as seen by the copyright) to say, “See, the people of Cyprus were involved too! They helped, but not in a major way, we had to assign British military to lead these excavations of discovery.” There is an infantilizing tone of colonial/imperialist language that implies the people who are being subjected to colonialism/imperialism are not capable of caring for their own cultural artifacts. This framing of history attempts to justify the seizure and removal of objects to be “safeguarded” by the colonizer or imperialist. Marabou will continue this analysis of colonial/imperialist language in the British Museum: Part III where they will use the Benin Bronzes (from present-day Nigeria) in the British Museum’s collection as a case study in word choice and the legacy of colonial/imperialist language whose impact can be felt in the twenty-first century.

The tone of the British Museum’s texts can sometimes come off as detached and othering instead of imparting knowledge about our world history with a sense of care. This sentiment is particularly felt in the museum’s decision to display human remains. The photo below was difficult for Marabou to take and is difficult to share, but Marabou felt it was important to show an example of real human remains on display in a museum because it may rouse a response that words alone would not inspire. When at the British Museum, Marabou saw two sets of real human remains on display. The photo below shows Marabou next to a glass case displaying the remains of a person referred to as “Gebelein man” who died in Upper Egypt more than 5,500 years ago. The second person Marabou saw on display is labeled “Lindow man” who was found in a bog near Manchester, England. The museum describes him dying a violent death sometime between 2 BCE and 119 CE.

The mummified body of a man referred to “Gebelein Man” on display in a glass case at the British Museum. This man lived in Middle Predynastic Egypt, around 3,500 BCE.

Marabou feels very strongly that human remains should not be put on display in museums. The British Museum has a page of its website dedicated to explaining its stance on human remains. If you’re interested in the museum’s policy, it is outlined here in a PDF. On the webpage the museum states, “The British Museum holds and cares for human remains from around the world. Representing diverse cultures over thousands of years, this important collection is a unique record of the varied ways different societies have conceived of death and disposed of the remains of the dead.” Unsurprisingly the policy document says the Trustees of the museum would like to see the collection remain intact and that the collection as it stands provides great opportunities for research and understanding of our world. Similar language is used in regard to the Parthenon marbles. Marabou does not know of any case in which it is ok to present a human as object, in life or death. As of 2005 the UK Museums Association has focused on more ethical handling of human remains. There is active discussion in the UK about whether or not it is ethical for museums to own human remains and put them on display. (In the US, there is a lot of discussion about having human remains, particularly those of indigenous people, within museum collections.) Regarding human remains in museum contexts, Marabou shares the sentiments of Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), an UK organization formed following the 2005 push for just treatment of human remains outside of funerary settings. HAD says it plainly:

  • As human beings we have a duty of care towards every other human person.
  • The ancestral dead retain their personhood as integral and influencing members of the community.
  • Personhood entails the need for respectful interaction.

The British Museum has published a book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, available for download as a PDF here. It is written from the perspective of British Museum employees. In the preface, JD Hill writes, “The motivation for publishing this book is to emphasize that for a museum of any size, it is impossible to separate out issues of repatriation or display from those of conservation, documentation and research in relation to human remains.” Marabou has not read the entire book and is curious to see if the arguments presented can sway their stance. However, if it’s anything like this museum blog post from 2014, Marabou’s stance remains firm. If there are important things to learn from human remains, the state of recreation technology today, whether digital, model making, or other, leaves no excuse for the actual remains of a human being to be put on display in the same manner as a clay pot.

The British Museum is an institution that provides great examples of issues related to transparency of ownership and acquisition processes, colonial language, and questionable display decisions. But we must remember the British Museum is not the only offender. It serves as an example for critique and reminds us what we need to be looking for in our local museums. This was a very emotionally heavy post to write, and Marabou knows it was probably just as heavy to read. This emotional toll reflects the weight of historical legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and the establishment of cultural hierarchies that we live with today. Remember, this weight is not felt equally, some carry a heavier burden than others. It is important that we continue to raise concerns and draw attention to the perpetuation of oppressive, exclusionary, and othering practices in museums. The voices who have spoken out are gaining attention. An October 12, 2018 article from The Guardian, “Not everything was looted’: British Museum to fight critics,” announced that the British Museum is now responding to those who are questioning the ethics of the institution’s collecting processes. Criticisms will be addressed in the museum’s “Collecting History” lecture series. There is skepticism about how honest and transparent these lectures will be. Alice Procter (a kick-ass ally in the fight to decolonize museum spaces – Marabou is dedicating a future post to her), was contacted by The Guardian for comment:

Procter said she welcomed the Collecting Histories series, but added that such projects were often defence mechanisms. She also stressed that even where items appeared to result from fair acquisitions, they had to be seen in the context of colonial relations and power imbalances.

“It’s great that the British Museum are engaging with the fact that people want to know about the provenance of things in their collections, but this huge emphasis on legitimate provenance is often a very incomplete story,” she said.

“There are plenty of things that are fairly given or bought that end up in museum collections. However, in the Solomon Island collection is a feasting trough that was taken as part of a punitive expedition and you can’t talk about one thing without the other.”

How the British Museum and other museums will address their critics remains to be seen, but it is important that they are listening and slowly taking action. Dialogue and momentum are keys to decolonizing and transforming our museums.

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