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The British Museum Distorts History and Denies its Racist Past

The British Museum Distorts History and Denies its Racist Past

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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

Is the author referring to the British Museum of TODAY or one of a century ago. I think if you look at all States at this time they all peddled their own propaganda.
The British Museum of today is extremely respectful of other cultures and does a fantastic job of preserving these treasured items, it is also balanced in its approach it frequently loans artefacts to Museums in the country of origin. Also, bear in mind that a lot of people visit London from all around the world, it is an excellent way to share in human achievement with everyone, it is entirely open, there isn't even a fee to visit any British public Museums, it could not be more open and exclusive.
If anything the British Museum doesn't impose their expertise and insight when description artefacts enough, it so factual and politically correct. You are referring to long gone days of empire. We as accept this, it is part of our historical culture but assuming we still think this way today is entirely incorrect, we welcome the diversity of the world and wish to enjoy it. A Brit.

The images you just distributed can easily be brushed aside
I mean lets face it that's why when you compare Europe, Kemet, an Asia or Eurasia, Latin America to Sub Saharan Africa you can tell which race has and advanced civilization, culture an which race, ethnicity's doesn't. how else can you explain why they keep claiming everyone originally came from them or everybody's culture is their culture if they are just like us why don't they have the same things we do back where they came from

hell when the European explorers discovered Sub Saharan Africa they written and said there is nothing on this continent an when they did find people either they were surprised or not surprised that the population that they found is living primitively an to this day the very same people the Europeans have discovered are no different than the ones we know today. after the European explorers left the continent they went to Asia and Latin America an guess what they found and abundance of advanced civilization an culture, but of course to the negroid race from their perspectives they think white people took ("stole") their so called civilization, culture ("oh but white people are racist towards us, and enslaved us, an oppressed us. and invaded our lands an colonized us, and took our resources") and that's how an why they live like the way they are. that didn't stop the Asian, Latin American nations from progressing. than again they already had an advanced civilization before the European explorers have arrived. and who could forget the Mongol Empire when the mongols took most of Eurasia, that did the same thing as the blacks are accusing whites for. but that didn't stop eastern Europe from continuing in fact they must be that super tenuous if they had their land taken from them so easily for all that bravado they keep claiming and saying black power. the naive, ignorant, oblivious, unbeknownst, benighted, vacuous, troglodyte's don't seem to realize why cant they replicate another civilization, culture that the white man allegedly stole an indicting white people for a crime they didn't commit because blacks whether they know it or not in reality and actuality the negroid race are genetically inept an incapable of building, reconstructing, repairing anything that they themselves have destroyed

they didn't make iron tools, furniture if they were capable all this time than how come they cant create tools that is made out of bronze, copper, silver, steel, Titanium and has anyone here seen blacks paint their house let alone traditional houses an create clothing, furniture for themselves an why did they not bring their culture, carpenter skills, techniques with them just like the Asians, Latin Americans. Icelandics that originally came from Scandinavia brought their stuff into Iceland.

The images you just distributed can easily be brushed aside
I mean lets face it that's why when you compare Europe, Kemet, an Asia or Eurasia, Latin America to Sub Saharan Africa you can tell which race has and advanced civilization, culture an which race, ethnicity's doesn't. how else can you explain why they keep claiming everyone originally came from them or everybody's culture is their culture if they are just like us why don't they have the same things we do back where they came from

hell when the European explorers discovered Sub Saharan Africa they written and said there is nothing on this continent an when they did find people either they were surprised or not surprised that the population that they found is living primitively an to this day the very same people the Europeans have discovered are no different than the ones we know today. after the European explorers left the continent they went to Asia and Latin America an guess what they found and abundance of advanced civilization an culture, but of course to the negroid race from their perspectives they think white people took ("stole") their so called civilization, culture ("oh but white people are racist towards us, and enslaved us, an oppressed us. and invaded our lands an colonized us, and took our resources") and that's how an why they live like the way they are. that didn't stop the Asian, Latin American nations from progressing. than again they already had an advanced civilization before the European explorers have arrived. and who could forget the Mongol Empire when the mongols took most of Eurasia, that did the same thing as the blacks are accusing whites for. but that didn't stop eastern Europe from continuing in fact they must be that super tenuous if they had their land taken from them so easily for all that bravado they keep claiming and saying black power. the naive, ignorant, oblivious, unbeknownst, benighted, vacuous, troglodyte's don't seem to realize why cant they replicate another civilization, culture that the white man allegedly stole an indicting white people for a crime they didn't commit because blacks whether they know it or not in reality and actuality the negroid race are genetically inept an incapable of building, reconstructing, repairing anything that they themselves have destroyed

they didn't make iron tools, furniture if they were capable all this time than how come they cant create tools that is made out of bronze, copper, silver, steel, Titanium and has anyone here seen blacks paint their house let alone traditional houses an create clothing, furniture for themselves an why did they not bring their culture, carpenter skills, techniques with them just like the Asians, Latin Americans. Icelandics that originally came from Scandinavia brought their stuff into Iceland.

“History is written by the victors” “To the victors go the spoils” There are reasons why these old chestnuts came to be. However much we may hate these ideas there they are. We cannot change the past. Will returning these items to present date Nigeria do anything to reconstitute Benin? Unlikely. What will happen to the Parthenon friezes if they are return to Greece? My take is that they would be sold by the Greek government in order to cover part of the enormous national debt, they would then disappear into private collections never to be seen again.

To compare the “looting” (love the use of inflammatory language) and preservation of artifacts from countries and civilizations which no longer exist to the rape and attempted genocide of modern peoples such as in the holocaust is disingenuous.

Go ahead, trace the ownership of the artifacts to the decendants of the person who carved them or owned them and return them to that person, not to some government official who may or may not have legal ownership or who may or may not be part of a properly constituted government who will take care of artifacts and preserve them for future generations as does the current institutions where such artifacts reside.

If a country wishes to claim something as their own, can prove it is from a culture indigenous to that country or geographic area and can provide adequate insurance that the artifacts will be taken care of and be available for future research then let them make a claim and work it out with the current institution holding the articles.

Please note I said “holding”. To my way or thinking these items are not “owned” by museums and institutions, they belong to all of us. We are all branches of the same tree. Regardless of what our ancestors might have thought I would hope we have advanced somewhat in our thinking and no longer view others as superior or inferior based upon skin colour or area or origin. 

HMF

This article is absolutely disgusting & I will be happy to stop coming to this website. Referring to europeans as racist is frankly a misrepresentation of history ... since the word racist wasn't even invented until recently
people write garbage like this trying to signal their high moral character
very disappointed in this

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