The British Museum is Romanticism’s Cultural Battleground

Written by Marion Gabriel

We’ve all been to the British Museum. At least once. Whether to follow grandma in her obsession with antique Asian porcelain, or out of boredom on a rainy Sunday afternoon. 

It is true that, with more than 60 galleries, a research library, as well as education programs; the British Museum has much to offer. To Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director between 2002 and 2015, “the museum remains a unique repository of the achievements of human endeavour, and there is no culture, past or present, that is not represented within its walls. It is truly the memory of mankind”.

Yet, very contested works inhabit the British museum. Several of its possessions, including the Greek Elgin Marbles, the Benin bronzes and the statue Hoa Hakananai’a have been claimed by foreign governments. The marbles were stolen from the Parthenon in Athens by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century before they were sold to the British Museum. The Benin bronzes were also looted from the Edo people, native group of Nigeria, during the Punitive Expedition of 1897. The statue Hoa Hakananai’a from Easter Island was taken by another British ship in 1868. The three countries have not recognised the UK’s legal ownership of these artefacts, but the British Museum has rejected most requests to return the ancient treasures. Legally, the British Museum Act of 1963 states that exhibits can be kept in London for their preservation. The museum’s curators also argue against their handover, maintaining that objects are safer in London than they would be in Lagos, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, or Kinshasa. 

Collective ownership is certainly ambiguous. As Tiffany Jenkins puts it in her book Keeping Their Marbles: “the sculptures have been in the British Museum for two centuries: visited, written about, argued over, sketched, painted, referred to in parliamentary debates, and above all, revered. Surely, according to the logic of identity politics, they are also part of British history?” If accusations of cultural vandalism remain unresolved, museum collections have long been seen as problematic by the adamant “woke culture”, which attacks and censors museums. But empty critics do not undo historic power relations. What truly matters sits behind glasses, in the empiricist relation established between observer and observed. 

When walking through the British Museum, you aren’t free to touch or interact in any physical way with the artefacts on display. Instead, you are invited to observe them from a distance while absorbing curated facts about them. Exhibits are thus removed from their social context and rendered discrete objects through which one can gain knowledge about the world. Modern-day curators are far from unsensible to the ‘true life ‘ of the objects, or to their historical and social contexts. Instead, they recreate this life inside the museum’s walls, while shaping interactions between observer and exhibit. Exhibitions become sites of transformation, where the conditions in which the artefacts are exhibited move away from the objects’ essence and given a new meaning.

The British Museum’s experience is meant to be all-encompassing. With imperial domination and colonial exploitation as running themes, people, places and exhibits recreate a context of British violent imperial activities in the 18th and 19th centuries. The past is re-enacted in places fixing memories in a box, with normative qualities monopolised for the eyes of thousands of visitors. The large collections are undoubtedly overpacked and overcrowded, but their expansiveness allows to indulge in a more reflective meaning. Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ materialises within the British museum: the knowledge gained, independent of previous experiences with the artefacts’ origins, makes all experience possible. By extension, the museum implies, this is how civilised people relate to the world in general.

Under closer scrutiny, the museum revives the civilisational order of imperial Europe in the present. By displaying artefacts in large and bright areas, the British museum recreates artefacts’ subjectivity as objective forms of knowledge. We can be part of the history of British colonialism, both in the past and present. What we experience is timeless and universal. More than a site of violence, the museum is then a site of conscience, where knowledge is acquired within its confines. History only makes sense in these terms. But how can museums be universal if they are built on the theft of antiquities from around the world, yet located in Europe for the benefit of audiences there?

This power relationship is the quintessence of Romanticism’s objectivity: our experience of the British Museum stands as bearer for culture and knowledge about the world. 

One may argue that this is merely a clash between subjectivities contending against the legacies of imperial history. But these are not cultural discords. No evidence will ever challenge visitors’ views that the British Museum is London’s best institution for human history. It is then less an opinion than a way to project symbolic violence, a kind of identity politics emerging out of power relations. So arose the idea that “the museum is not just a device for slowing down time, but a weapon in its own right”.  

This is not a phenomenon restricted to culture and arts. Politics will debate Schopenhauer’s philosophy of will, in which individual will is objectified as the essence of the universe and given objectivity, making history a normative rendition ordering political life. In sum, listen to what political leaders say and you’ll be fine. But perhaps no field has surrendered so entirely to the violence of Romantic thoughts as the arts, where the British Museum and others compete over which of them has the ultimate claim to objective knowledge. With power relations as the main criteria for understanding history and human existence, Romanticism is the string holding the British Museum’s exhibits together. It makes sense of the fact that anthropology, coming from death and loss, is yet turned into knowledge. 

Romanticism’s war on knowledge does not end there. The museum becomes the container and manifestation of the essence of the will. Claims to colonial plunder are automatically misled. No longer can we think twice about what we see, because true knowledge, outside of space and time, is in front of our eyes. Yes, this goes the other way around too: the visitor can come with its own subjectivities and decide that exhibitions are not for them. But this power is considerably reduced compared to the curator’s projection of will. 

At the moment, the British Museum advertises its new exhibition, called “unlocking Ancient Egypt.” Knowledge curation is once again presented as the only outcome of an identity existing for that time, and by sharing it through aesthetics and re-creating subjectivities in a morally acceptable context, it resolves problems of historic legitimacy and colonial identity. This is outrageous. The British Museum thus demonstrates that Romanticism’s war is still ongoing. Yet, it remains to be won, which is why it is worth fighting for. 

Featured Imagery: The bust of Sir Hans Sloane at the British Museum by Julian Simmonds. The bust has been moved from a plinth and placed in a cabinet with contextual notes about slavery.


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