Very recently I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum in London, England. It was a place that had long been on my “to do” list. From the scope of the building itself, to the individual objects and their imaginative presentations – the experience did not disappoint. The visit was awe inspiring and enlightening and fed my love of history and material culture. I don’t think I was alone – the faces of many of the school children there spoke volumes.
The vastness and variety of the collections of the British Museum speaks to more than just the objects themselves. These artifacts speak to how we as humans have evolved, survived, worshipped, expressed love and made war. A simple mortar and pestle tells of how we shaped the agricultural revolution and used food as a means of communion, while ancient but beautiful sculptures of people, gods, and animals show the very human impulse to create art not only for the sake of beauty, but in an earnest attempt to try to understand our environment and experiences.
For me, among the highlights of the British Museum is the Enlightenment Room which is an eclectic mix of books and objects that speaks to the obsession with collecting that characterized the life of Hans Sloane, the British physician whose library and cabinet of curiosities formed the basis for the British Museum. The obsession with collecting, coupled with the power balance of colonialism, helped in part to create the extensive collections of the British Museum. As you inspect the mummies you can almost picture a late 19th century expedition to excavate these objects and bring them to Britain. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that laws were passed that prevented many of these types of practices.
Of course, what this has resulted in now are issues of ownership over many of these antiquities. There are questions of who exactly these objects belong to, and where it is that they should be housed. The debate is a common one in the museum world and in many ways the British museum has handled it deftly, discussing the debate in great detail in a number of its exhibits where it is most relevant, for example, in its presentation of The Elgin Marbles.
Issues of repatriation are complicated, and by no means can generalizations be made. The types of objects and their sources are all factors to consider, as are the circumstances under which they were came to be where they now reside. There are also questions regarding the potential benefits or pitfalls if these objects were to be returned.
In an episode entitled, “Mummy of Hornedjitef” from the BBC podcast, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which explores one hundred key artifacts from the collections of the British Museum, Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif was asked about how she felt about seeing Egyptian mummies on display in a museum so far from their original home. Soueif replies that, “Ultimately, it’s probably no bad thing to have Egyptians obelisks, stones and statues sprinkled all over the world, it reminds us of ages of colonialism , yes, but it also reminds the world of our common heritage.” As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, describes it, the objects are a means to tell the history of the world as “one shared story,” or as Soueif says, “an ongoing joint project, where one lot of people picked up where another had left off.” Undoubtedly, this theme of a common humanity speaks to the visitor of the British Museum as they are able to experience (for free) a concentrated collection of objects from different places and eras in one setting. In addition, the museum provides a center for scholarly research in the fields of history, anthropology and archeology, among others.
For those wishing to explore the artifacts of the British Museum, or issues of repatriation in more detail, I would highly recommend the BBC podcast series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, or its accompanying book, just recently published. Historians, writers, and other persons of note provide insight into the artifacts and their potential meanings in understanding the evolution of humans and their culture, while several episodes also deal with issues of repatriation that affect museums today. The podcast can be accessed for free online or through iTunes, and the book is widely available.