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Opinion | Jul 9, 2008

Love The “universal Museum” And Despise The Others: Comment On Article By Tristram Hunt

When I read the article entitled “How one cultural vision has lessons for the whole world” by Tristram Hunt, in the Observer, July 6, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk I really did not know how to take it. Some of his panegyric statements about the British Museum and its Director shocked me whilst I thought others must have been, as it were, said with tongue in cheek. On looking more closely, I realised that Hunt is a Lecturer in History at University of London and therefore I concluded that the article deserved more than the usual cursory reading.

No one will dispute that the British Museum is a great tourist attraction in London and by all standards, a great museum. But can one say that the museum has become “a place of respect, mutuality, and enlightenment in our increasingly antagonistic multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. And it is a model which other museums around Britain need desperately to follow.”?

If there is no respect for other ethnic groups in present British society, is the British Museum the place to find such a respect? Is it not rather the contrary that much of the lack of respect for other ethnic groups can easily appear, in the eyes of the visitor, to be justified on the basis of what is exposed in the museum? Does one really gain much enlightenment in this respect from a visit to the British Museum that will contribute to mutual respect in a multi-ethnic Britain? Is one not more likely to come out with the impression that the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group (if one may be pardoned for using such an imprecise expression) or should we say “Caucasian” group, has been helping others to develop?

I am not sure that I have understood what Hunt means by the statement that “it is a model which other museums around Britain need desperately to follow.” In what way is the British Museum a model, “a place of enlightenment, mutuality and enlightenment”? Are the other museums in Britain lacking in this? Is there any evidence for this assertion? I have more familiarity with the British Museum than with the others but I will be surprised if other museums, such as the Manchester Museum, were found lacking in these aspects as compared to the British Museum. Or is Hunt suggesting that they follow the model of the “universal museum”? He surely knows that the “universal museum” cannot be established without much violence to the rights of other peoples and that our age cannot accept colonial and imperialist practices.

Hunt draws a picture of the museum which many museum specialists and visitors will not recognise: “This notion of the museum as a secular if not valueless site offering a neutral location for nurturing civic bonds within an increasingly diffuse urban culture is essential to Macgregor's vision for the BM. Whether it's the new Enlightenment Gallery or the Hadrian exhibition, the spirit of the BM seems to be about an unpatronising notion of intellectual inclusion for all citizens of the world. It is a global vision of cultural exchange and humanism. And in our fraught age of mass migration, post-colonialism and the communal repercussions of terrorism, this approach offers a cosmopolitan ideal - beyond race, ethnicity and religion - which is vitally important to the oiling of our mixed, transient cities”

Citizens who are antagonistic to one another because of a prevailing racist ideology are not very likely to be reconciled by any museum however hard it may try. Life in an antagonistic urban society can be reflected in a museum and not the other way round. Museums are more likely to reflect what goes on in society. There is no society that reflects what is going on in its museums!

Is Hunt really trying to convince us that the British Museum has an unpatronising notion of intellectual inclusion for all citizens of the world? Is he saying that the British Museum under MacGregor has abandoned the self-proclaimed God-given right and, indeed duty, to collect, preserve and organize the artefacts of mankind in the vision of Greco-Roman traditions of which the British are the legitimate heirs, to the exclusion of peoples like the Greeks who believe they have the right to stolen Greek artefacts? Are we to believe that the Africans and Asians enter into the vision of MacGregor and others in any intellectual assessment other than that of providers of certain examples of the human ingenuity?

We need not spend much energy on “a cosmopolitan ideal - beyond race, ethnicity and religion - which is vitally important to the oiling of our mixed, transient cities”. Is the cosmopolitan ideal exclusive of race, ethnicity and religion? Is it beyond these factors in the sense of not taken them into account or recognizing them? Is it the kind of cosmopolitanism which works so long as we accept Western European ideas and modes of thinking and do not challenge the epistemological hegemony of Europe? Is it that kind of sophisticated upper-class world which functions well so long as we accept to sink all our ethnic, religious and racial differences in a Caucasian Western European mould?

Tristram Hunt describes the museum as “a shining product of the 18th-century Enlightenment - which enunciated precisely those ideals of citizenship, cosmopolitanism, and learning - the British Museum is uniquely positioned to make this case.” The European Enlightenment may have made great contributions to science and learning and formulated certain ideals or principles of citizenship and cosmopolitanism but surely a reading of David Hume, Hegel and Kant makes it clear that these ideals did not apply to the non-European peoples whom they considered as not being really human or in any case not equal to the Europeans. The British Museum may be in a position to fulfil the ideals of the European Enlightenment in so far as Africans and others are not included in mankind. Indeed, the role of the British Museum has been to show how advanced Europeans were and what benefit slavery and colonialism brought to the African peoples. In this sense, it is really a product of the European Enlightenment. The conception of the museum may have been from the Enlightement philosophy but surely all will agree that the realization, the construction of the museum, the amassing of huge and diverse collections from all over the world was only possible in the colonial and imperialistic age.

Does Hunt really believe by positioning “the BM as a museum of all mankind, MacGregor helpfully gets round the issue of restitution of such looted goodies as the Elgin Marbles or Benin Bronzes? I do not know how far the question of restitution is important for Hunt but I can assure him that contrary to what he seems to think, the activities and statements by people like MacGregor and his supporters have greatly revived the issue of restitution and created awareness among many that there is serious unfinished business as far as the British Museum and similar museums are concerned. The role of the British Museum in the acquisition of cultural artefacts from the British colonies and other places has also come to the limelight. As a historian, Tristram Hunt surely knows that historical injustices such as the British invasion of Benin in 1897, the looting of the Benin bronzes, the burning of the city and the execution of the Benin elite as well as the exile of the Benin king, Oba Ovonramwen, are not quickly forgotten. Instead of hoping these cruel activities of the British colonial regime can be forgotten or avoided, historians can make a very useful contribution by stressing the need to make amends and to heal the wounds of the past. They could point out that this healing process can take ages but that we should nevertheless try, even though it is often said that human beings never learn from history. Do the historians also never learn from history?

MacGregor whom Hunt admires so much is fairly conscious of the awful history of British colonialism and imperialism. He does not directly admit the imperialistic nature of the British Empire and try to make conscious atonement but rather tries to avoid the whole issue by proposing that we rewrite history - a dangerous path.

Hunt who has in previous paragraphs emphasized cosmopolitanism, that the British Museum is a museum for all mankind and hopes to avoid awkward issues such as the Eligin/Parthenon Marbles, underlines the Britishness of the British Museum: “But what MacGregor has also pulled off is a smart restatement of the Britishness of the museum. Unlike so many cultural attractions in the capital, the BM feels much more of a national than London collection. It helps that MacGregor is a Scot who believes passionately in the Union and in the signs and symbols which help underpin it. And it's not just spin: MacGregor has been assiduous in ensuring that world-class BM exhibitions then travel the UK to promote a national sense of ownership”.

So is the British Museum a British institution for Britain or is it an institution for all mankind? Hunt is nearer the truth when he presents the British Museum as a British institution. It is an institution linked to the British colonial and imperialist power. Whether we like this or not, we cannot run away from the historical facts. We cannot rewrite history as some would like to. I will not presume to teach a British historian, British colonial history but should he ignore British colonial history as well as the history of the museum and present the British Museum as an institution for all mankind? There is a dangerous historical revisionism at work here.

Hunt has undoubtedly, an unlimited admiration for Neil MacGgregor: “Yet the real achievement of MacGregor is to show the power of cultural leadership. Of course, his is a privileged institution with deep pockets, but what he has implemented is not a building programme but a significant cultural shift. Too many museums assume increasing visitor numbers is about vanity projects - new cafes, interactive galleries, extra wings and IT solutions. Or hackneyed outreach strategies which often means little more than ferrying in ethnic minority kids from the local schools. None of
which offers the rigorous intellectual access of the BM.”

Hunt is entitled to express his appreciation of MacGregor as Director of the British Museum but must this be coupled with the
depreciation of others and the pouring of scorn on other museums that are not, to use Hunt's phrase, “with deep pockets”?
What does Hunt really have against “new cafes, interactive galleries, extra wings and IT solutions.? Should the increase in number of visitors not require added facilities? What does he have against extra wings and IT solutions? Is he perhaps worried by the intrusion of modernity in the “reflective space”? It appears he does not like many people visiting the museums. Should access be restricted to persons of certain educational level? Is this a class aversion against the masses? And what is this scorn on “hackneyed outreach strategies which often means little more than ferrying in ethnic minority kids from the local schools. None of which offers the rigorous intellectual access of the BM?”

Hunt does not seem to have much sympathy for those he calls “ethnic
minority kids”. I presume he is referring to African, Caribbean or Asian kids. Should they not at least have the pleasure to go from time to time to some British museums which may not be as good as the British Museum which their parents probably dislike? Hunt should find out from African groups such as Ligali why some of the African parents do not take their children to the British Museum and what are the relations between such groups and the British Museum. Hunt should explain what he refers to as “the rigorous intellectual access of the BM” which he would like to offer African and Caribbean children but which is not available in other museums.

I must confess that I did not understand the last sentence of Hunt:
“And it's high time, in the name of access and inclusion, other museums started shutting their gates more often”. Is this meant to reduce the number of hours one can stay in the museum? In other words, you open at 10 am. and close at 12 pm. and ask all visitors to leave. They can return at 2 pm when you re-open on purchase of new tickets. Presumably, the cafeteria will be open but will be full since all visitors will go there at about the same time. In any case, Hunt does not seem to favour cafeterias and coffee bars on museum premises.

How will this frequent opening and closing policy work out for the families that go to the museum for a day with their children? Must they buy tickets twice? Perhaps this is what Hunt does not want to hear about, families with kids, presumably those he describes as “ethnic minority kids”, running around as if the place were built for them. How does this opening and closing policy work out for Africans and Asians who, under the illusion that the museums belong to all, have come all the way from Africa and Asia, to visit the museum for a day? Must they come several times in the week instead of spending several hours a day in the museum?

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

This author has authored 235 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: KwameOpoku

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