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The British Museum Distorts History and Denies its Racist Past

The British Museum Distorts History and Denies its Racist Past

Thomas Melin/ University of Gothenburg

The British Museum in London is rewriting history to appear in a better light and defend itself against demands to return objects to their countries of origin. This is the conclusion of a new PhD thesis in archaeology from the University of Gothenburg.

‘Manipulation of the past is not a new phenomenon. The most infamous examples of this can be found in the ways totalitarian states often record their history, like when the Soviet government retouched photos in order to remove persons who had become undesirable. But that museums revise their own history in a similar way has never been documented before,’ says Staffan Lundén, author of the thesis.

The study looks at the British Museum’s representation of the so-called Benin Bronzes. The objects became known in Europe after the Britons conquered and looted Benin City in present-day Nigeria in 1897. Many of them ended up at the British Museum, and today some of them belong to the most well-known objects in the museum’s collection. They have come to play a key role in the discussion on who owns the cultural objects that were looted from various countries during colonial times.

Benin Bronzes at the British Museum.

Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. (Mike Peel/ www.mikepeel.net)

The British Museum’s version unfounded

Today the museum promotes the view that the Western world’s discovery of the sophisticated Benin Bronzes helped change the prevailing view of Africans as inferior. The museum’s own scholars are assigned critical roles in the important discovery that the objects indeed were of African origin and not the result of external influences.

‘Nobody has ever looked closer at whether the museum’s story is true. My review of the scholarly texts about the Benin objects that were published in the early 1900s shows that the British Museum’s representation of history is completely unfounded.’

The source material, which also includes other publications from the museum, mainly guide books, instead reveals that the museum for a long time promoted a hierarchical view of the world that held Western culture as superior. The scholars at the museum who in the early 1900s wrote about the Benin objects claimed that they were a result of Portuguese influences.

A Benin Bronze plaque on display in the British Museum.

A Benin Bronze plaque on display in the British Museum . (Michel wal /CC BY SA 3.0 )

Legitimised derogatory stereotypes

Lundén’s research also shows that the museum’s scholars did not help change the view of Africans. Instead they spread and gave scientific legitimisation to the stock stereotypes of Africans, such as the likening of Blacks to apes.

‘It’s remarkable that the museum’s so-called information about itself and the history of the Benin objects is totally contradicted by the source material. The study shows that the views conveyed by the museum are strongly characterised by wishful thinking, by the museum’s own traditions and by Western cultural values.’

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the International Congress of Orientalists of 1874.

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the International Congress of Orientalists of 1874. ( Public Domain )

‘Reason to be critical’

The museum’s need for arguments against the return of objects is a strong driver of its rewriting of history and glorification of its past. According to Neil MacGregor, director of the museum until last year, the Benin objects exemplify how the British Museum ever since its opening in 1753 has promoted tolerance and respect for cultural differences. Thus, he that the objects provide a ‘key argument’ against the return of objects in the museum’s collections.

Paradoxically, Lundén concludes, while the statement of objectivity and impartiality is central to the museum’s defence against the return of objects, it seems that the ownership issue strongly contributes to the biases in its representations.

The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum, London.

The Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum, London. ( Public Domain ) There was controversy in July 2016 when British MPs proposed returning the artifacts to Greece.

‘The public tends to hold museums in high regard. They are considered trustworthy sources of impartial and scientifically based information. This is particularly true for big and well-known museums like the British Museum. But there’s definitely reason to be critical of the knowledge they convey,’ he says.

About the Benin Bronzes

Benin Bronzes is the most common name for the objects looted from Benin City in 1897, but they were executed in many different materials: brass, bronze, coral, ivory, coral, terracotta, textile, wood etc. They are dated to the period from the late 15th century to the 19th century and were used for a variety of political and ritualistic purposes in the Benin kingdom. Some objects were placed on altars, some were used in ceremonies and others were wall decorations in a former royal palace.

Drawing of Benin City made by an English officer 1897.

Drawing of Benin City made by an English officer 1897. ( Public Domain )

Thesis title: Displaying Loot. The Benin objects and the British Museum. An electronic version of the thesis is available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2077/45847

Top Image: One of the Benin Bronzes ( Son of Groucho / Flickr )

The article The British Museum Distorts History and Denies its Racist Past by Thomas Melin was originally published by the Benin Bronzes  .

Comments

Actually the real problem is the politically correct idiots ruling every country in the EU. In the Netherlands where i live they even change titles of works in museums because its supposedly offensive. Its this kind of idiotic thinking and idiots crying racism every chance they get that's forcing places like the one in this article to adjust everything so no one can be offended.

Really weak to blame the museum. Especially in a country like the UK where they actually have Sharia Courts now because immigrants immigrate and then don't adjust to the place that's letting them in. That's the real cause of stupid stuff like this.

Axel. Is it really ‘political correct idiots’ as you say, the same with your comment about being ‘racist’. A wrong is a wrong, period. No matter who did it or when it was stolen.

As with the material being returned that was stolen from many people during the time of NAZI Germany, it should be the same with anything that was stolen from individuals or countries as the ‘spoils of war’. The PR campaign of taking things for scientific research or ‘if we didn’t take it, it would not survive’, or just plain greed etc etc is just that ‘public relations’.

That which was stolen, anything taken without permission be definition is theft. As a matter of principal, ethics or just plain doing the right thing to address that which was wrong, should be returned..

Both the British and the Dutch/Netherlands when they where colonial powers treated people as inferior where ever they went and invaded. That is why invaders stole so much when they invaded another country, they where ‘superior’. That is called ‘racist’.

It is interesting you mention the UK where some of the immigrants do not adjust to their new environment. I spent a year living in China for a year. I was not so surprised that I meet a lot folks from your country, but I was shocked that most of those that I meet treated the locals as garbage.

Is that not being racist, a sense of someone being better, as being ‘more superior’ then those of the country that they are visiting. You tell me?

“The problem is”… that there are those who like to believe that they are not racist, sorry, but you yourself sound racist.

We have our own too, here across the pond. It’s called the Smitsonian Institute. It’s a government sponsored  ‘cover-up, steal and hide’ institute, disguised as a muesum. Any questionable artifacts are taken for ‘study’ and immediately thereupon disappear.

Both sides are not being quite honest about their true arguments and standing. This has nothing at all to do with the past or racism. It stems from a more recent and forever lingering Limey versus Frenchy...Anglican versus Catholic animosity issue.

Always ask what is being held in the hand behind their back...not the one they are showing you...

Many objects in such Museums would have long since vanished into private collections or been destroyed (not uncommon for stones from monuments etc to be removed for building construction) if they hadn't been taken by the British.. Does that justify their being taken / stolen in the first place? No.. but it's still the reality and it's lucky they were taken before such a fate could happen.

Just a shame that many of the objects in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali weren't taken before they were destroyed. Such things are the worlds heritage as much as that of the area where they were found.

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