Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

How British are the British Museum and the National Gallery?

August 25, 2009 · 4 Comments

St. Martin in the Fields

St. Martin in the Fields

I’ll start by saying what a thrill it was to go to St. Martin
in the Fields today. As a classical music fan, I’ve long admired the recordings of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the fields. 18 Handel_ Water Music Suite #1 In F Hopefully, that is the Air from the Water Music Suite #1 in F by Handel, recorded at St. Martin in the Fields. I enjoyed the trio today, but especially relished the chance to take in the space where the Academy plays.

On another note, I’ve enjoyed (despite being overwhelmed by) both the British Museum and the National Gallery in the last two days. Even though Henry and I only got to see the Egyptian statues before the British Museum closed yesterday, we were in awe of the sheer scope and grandeur of the place. We had a similar feeling at the National Gallery today.

This leads me to the chief irony of both of these museums, namely that neither is all that ostensibly British. The British museum has a section for nearly every part of the world, while the National Gallery is dependent mainly on work by mainland European artists. What makes these museums British then? I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that Britain (both in the empire era and even today) has thought itself something of an arbiter of all world culture. Our Burton reading yesterday mentioned that the visitors from India in the 19th century approved of the British Museum’s India section, all but saying one need not go to India but rather London to understand Indian culture. Similarly, today I saw French and Italian tourists in London today admiring Pissaro and Titian at the National Gallery.

This British “arbiter of all world culture” role, if it indeed does exist, is a very powerful role that is potentially also very problematic. Certainly it is convenient for a traveler or student to have all of this in one city. However, some time ago, I heard about a nation (I believe it was Egypt) demanding a few of its artifacts back from the British Museum. Besides being a tricky legal issue, I feel this says a lot about the power dynamic between Britain and the rest of the world which has come about both as a result of colonialism and the powerful role Britain has had in relation to most of the world since WWII. For some reason it just seems natural and unproblematic to us in the west that the Rosetta Stone should be permanently in London, because we perhaps have subconsciously come to believe that the British have a natural right to something with such value to civilization, without thinking critically about who actually created and contributed to that artifact.


Thoughts on this “arbiter” theory or what it could mean (presuming its reasonable)?

Categories: Aidan
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4 responses so far ↓

  •   jonesma // Aug 25th 2009 at 19:44

    The Greeks have the same issue with the Parthenon Marbles being in Britain. Essentially they were chiselled off the parthenon by Lord Elgin, and now that the Greeks have a very good museum to house them in, they obviously would like them back. Britain, however, is not giving up one of their prized exhibits so easily.

    On the question of “how british are the museums”, isn’t that entirely the point of what we’ve been studying though? British culture is indeed such a melting pot now, that wouldn’t that mix be represented in their museums too? I think that calling it the British Museum is entirely appropriate as England, and more specifically London, is so international now. As the museum represents many different cultures, so too is the city a mix of races, religions, and cultures.

  •   Sean Williams // Aug 26th 2009 at 07:11

    Several issues here. Firstly, I agree with jonesma’s point that the ethos of British culture has shifted to be the accumulation of cultures and ethical standpoints over the past century. However, how many Bangladeshi/Australian/Turkish/Eastern Bloc artefacts are there in the BM? Not many. The museum simply displays what are some of the world’s most awe-inspiring objects – no matter if they were once under British hegemony.

    Secondly, how much right does Egypt really have to reclaim the Rosetta Stone, for example (the Elgin Marbles are a separate issue)? Egypt was a sub-Mediterranean culture with polytheistic religion and ties with Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa and the Levant before the Arabs arrived. Very, very few modern Egyptians have any cultural ties with the ancient civilization which inhabited their land. So do they have more of a right to the Stone as the British? It should really be wheeled around the world, but the BM would never have that…

  •   aidanoshea // Aug 26th 2009 at 11:15

    Here’s a recent commentary on the Elgin marbles Campbell referred to, for those of you unfamiliar (as I was until today) with this particular story:

    Mr. Williams, I agree with your point about the Egyptians and the Rosetta Stone, it was simply the most prominent British Museum artifact I could immediately think of and in retrospect it was a poor example. The post was simply supposed to raise a question about what it means that Britain has so many of the most prominent works of art and cultural artifacts, and point out how interesting it is that anyone with an interest in these still must come to London to see them firsthand. For the record, I’m with you on wheeling them around the world, or at the very least discussing such a plan.
    – Aidan

  •   russella // Aug 26th 2009 at 18:52

    First off, I think Aidan needs props for being the first one to get a comment posted from the outside world– props given.

    Secondly, American is dealing with a similar (although much smaller scale) thing with NAGPRA. Obviously, America is not dealing with a fully fledged country, so they don’t have the same international pressure. Basically any time you get an imperialistic entity they are going to take advantage of their underlings. But it seems a little ridiculous for them to be asking for stuff back. (obviously with NAGPRA you are dealing with dead bodies and therefore have a much more sensitive subject)

    Although, I do recall a story about how Shiva(yes the Hindu god) sued a British museum in order to get back a statue that was his initially. I sadly don’t have a link to this and can’t seem to find it on a google search, but I swear I heard about it on the radio. Anyway, good show sir.

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