Empire & Decolonisation

Coloniality and the British Museums

Conversations on the decolonisation of museums are increasing in British academia and popular discourse. The recent revelation of thefts from the British museum have once again throw museums into the spotlight, but attention on individual artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone or Benin Bronzes has been intensifying for some time. British museums have started to respond to decolonisation demands, but in a climate where museums directors claim that “to decolonise is to decontextualise”, does this work produce an antirascist, educational atmosphere that addresses the coloniality of museums?

a black and white photo of people inside a building
The Great Court of The British Museum, London

The holdings of many British museums were formed through colonialism and its legacies. Imperial networks were vital for acquiring objects from Asia and Africa through purchase, excavation, and theft. For example, a myriad of Egyptian wings in various British museums display objects acquired through European imperial interventions in Egypt since 1798, and especially after Britain’s colonisation of Egypt, which began in 1882. Other European empires, notably that of France, also yields objects to British museums, particularly through imperialists who used European colonial expansion to travel and acquire cultural artefacts in the Global South. There should be no doubt that British museums are colonially formed. The only question is how this should be dealt with now.

My research focuses on the coloniality embodied by North African objects in British museums. Part of this work involves research on specific objects held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Coloniality proved to be deeply embedded in these objects: from Islamic ornaments taken from Egypt to illustrate British claims about the ‘backwardness’ of Islam; to luxury dishes made from minerals extracted from Algeria by the French Empire; to Amazigh (Indigenous Algerian) pottery collected by British elites who saw Europe as the custodians of African culture. I also visited five other English museums (the Ashmolean, Brighton Museum, Bristol Museum, the British Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum) to explore the coloniality of their displays. Despite overt attempts to decolonise, the experience of museums housing objects from the Global South was largely consistent, starkly colonial, and unexpectedly harrowing.

The Rosetta Stone, currently held by the British Museum, London

Many museums have responded to calls for decolonisation with plaques about imperialism, diversity, or race. Whether the British Museum’s ‘Collecting and Empire’ tour, Bristol Museum’s ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ podcast series, or the Ashmolean’s ‘Our Museum Our Voices’ plaques, these take roughly the same form across many local and national museums, explaining the colonial histories of a small number of objects. Far from systematic decolonisation, though, these betray a merely surface-level approach, like a plaster trying to cover the gaping wound of colonialism. A QR code to a podcast or a sign with a poem might be better than nothing, and some of these attempts (especially the Bristol Museum’s podcast series) reflect a genuine desire to engage with decolonisation. Still, they fall short of earnestly acknowledging the coloniality of museums holistically.

The broader issue that most museums have not grappled with is that acknowledging British colonialism and exploring museum coloniality are not the same. It is one thing to state that Britain had an empire, as the various trails do. It is quite another to explain how violent British imperialism contributed to the holdings of British museums. By failing to do the latter systematically, the sparse mentions of colonialism remain shallow and unanalytical. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum does mention the British Empire in a display about trade in the 19th century. However, their displays on objects from the Global South do not address their imperial acquisition methods, like a display on Algerian Amazigh pottery that never mentions the French colonisation of Algeria. Repatriation discourse rarely figures into museum displays, and despite informative panels about the British Empire as a system of acquiring wealth for Britain, they rarely delve into the specific racist, extractivist, and paternalistic histories of their own objects.

To put it simply, British museums do not present their objects’ colonial histories. Instead, they opt for a celebratory tone. Multiple museums contain praise of Egyptologists like the eugenicist Flinders Petrie or Francis Llewelyn Griffith, an archaeologist praised as a local hero in the Brighton Museum without reflecting on how colonialism enabled his work. Similarly, the Ashmolean has a board celebrating archaeologist John Myres for his excavations in Cyprus without mentioning that Cyprus was colonised by Britain at the time of his work. These museums dedicate space to education about their histories, such as the British Museum’s ‘Collecting the World’ room. They demonstrate an interest in their own histories of acquisition, so the absence of information on the coloniality of acquisitions is a striking silence. By failing to mention colonisation as the context that archaeologists operated in, the celebratory tone that museums often employ obscures imperialism and the violence committed to allow archaeological interventions to occur. Far from Victoria and Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt’s claim that “to decolonise is to decontextualise”, by failing to decolonise, British museums are failing to contextualise at all.

My research has allowed me to reflect on the personal experience of museum coloniality. As a person of colour, I am well-acquainted with histories of the British Empire and its cruelties. I considered my understanding of imperialism, from my family and my current History degree at the University of Sussex, to be sufficient preparation for the coloniality of British museums. However, the museums were unexpectedly distressing, most of all because of the human remains I encountered in all museums but the Victoria and Albert and Pitt Rivers Museums. These are remains that were exported to Britain through colonial systems, predominantly from Egypt, and they continue to be displayed at scale, interspersed with artefacts, and sat in sarcophaguses without explanation or contextualisation. They rarely come with sensitivity warnings and often have no information about the person being displayed. I felt acutely unwelcome, seeing displays of remains that sent a clear, harmful message: the bodies of people of colour are objects, not to be valued or respected.

a large room with many shelves and a large glass ceiling
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

In this way, British museums perpetuate a specific and centuries-old colonial violence: the erasure of personhood. They display corpses as objects of scientific interest and morbid curiosity, denying them individuality and humanity. This, in turn, creates a feeling of personal devaluation and unbelonging: British museums do not see these deceased individuals as worthy of personhood, and if that is the case, how can they value modern communities of colour? Understanding coloniality means not only understanding historic cruelties, but also contemporary plights faced by communities of colour, both in Britain and the multitude of nations formerly colonised by European empires.

Museums reinforce this devaluation in their treatment of “grave goods” – a sterile and insensitive term for items looted from graves, many of which had religious significance to their original owners. Sarcophaguses, protective amulets, and shabtis (funerary figures), for instance, were all used to protect the spirits of ancient Egyptians in the afterlife. These looted artefacts are crammed together in cabinets, often with labels exotifying these historic faiths – the British Museum exemplifies this in its display discussing the “strange-looking” gods of ancient Egypt. Furthermore, by retaining these religious items in Britain, do curators not deny people protection in the afterlife? Though we might not share the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians, it is ahistorical and disrespectful to disregard them entirely. Respect for religious beliefs should not have an expiry date and should not be racially predicated.

One Comment

  1. Well written, well argued and interesting. Explanation and contextualisation including colonisation are all important in our understanding of museum exhibits and must form part of plaques, handbooks and museum websites.

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