At some point in our lives, we’ve all heard of the museums that all art enthusiasts love to talk about due to their glory and historical value, holding significance in antiquity. However, one of the most popular museums of all time also happens to be the oldest national public museum and globally, the most controversial one. This causes us to think about some important highlights and current arguments about the renowned British Museum.
Montague House, Bloomsbury, Photo by: British Museum
The British Museum was actually founded in 1753 in the House of Montague, but it opened its doors to a global audience later in 1759 with the aim of exhibiting a diverse collection of antiquities from multiple cultures. The museum has three points of operational guidelines: to hold the collections in perpetuity, to be open to anyone who is interested or wishes to learn, and to have the collections curated by full-time specialists.
At the time of the opening, the museum was based on the coin, map and manuscript collections of Hans Sloane whereas now, it contains 8 million objects from all around the world with approximately 1% (80,000 items) on public display. According to most visitors, the factor that makes the British Museum most interesting is the diversity in the collection of its artifacts. One can find objects from Ancient Egypt or from Ancient Greece like The Parthenon Sculptures.
However, as of the past couple years, we have started to hear a growing number of remonstrations claiming that the ethical issues should distract ourselves from being simply fascinated. The main idea of the controversy is how much of the collection’s pieces have travelled across the world, meaning that the objects originally belonged to another geographical location, culture, and overall community. Human rights lawyers denounce the accusation of exhibiting “pilfered cultural property” such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes. Similarly, on this matter, a human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC stated that “the trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.”
The Parthenon Marbles at British Museum
Another issue is the way that the museum exhibits controversial objects, and the fact that it has publicly announced they have no intention of removing them from display. To fully understand the issue, we have to take a look at what sparked the discussion. The British Museum recently re-exhibited items that were owned by Hans Sloane, which are believed to reflect the context of slavery. On this issue, Mr. Oliver James Dowden, a well-known British politician, sent a letter to the museum that suggested not to take any action that has politics as motive and not to remove any items to attempt to contextualize the items so that the visitors could keep learning about them in their entirety. However, there are individuals who are not satisfied with the current state, one of them being the art historian Alice Procter. She expressed her opinion on this matter in her book by saying, "Whether you're deliberately collecting with a political agenda or not, you're collecting in a political world. And so it's always going to reflect that kind of status and worldview that you're part of". Also, as a cause of this issue, it is now an undeniable fact that the artifacts which had a political background have a negative effect on the availability of museums to ethnic minorities who have faced discrimination in the past. In this regard, Lizzy Moriarty who is the former deputy director of business developpement and international relations at the British Museum stated that many factors were preventing more visitors from visiting the museum and through the survey or research of the audience, the activities would be designed and carried out in a more favorable way since the British museum targets 11% of their visitors to be of ethnic minorities
In summary, there are well-known lawyers, politicians, and art enthusiasts who have serious concerns about the moral implications of having certain items displayed and the debate certainly makes us think of whether the artifacts’ creator’s motives should be taken into consideration in terms of availability for exhibition.
British Museum is world's largest receiver of stolen goods, says QC,The Guardian
British Museum 'won't remove controversial objects' from display, BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54325905
Art historian Alice Procter is on a mission to decolonise museums and galleries in her 'Uncomfortable Art Tours',ABC https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-14/art-tour-guide-galleries-museums-racism-colonialism-exclusion/12241850