Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London’s Imperialist Museums

September 7, 2010 · 4 Comments

While visiting the museums of London over the last two weeks, I’ve noticed that several of them seem to have only been opened for the purpose of showing off how powerful the British Empire was at its height.  This is especially pronounced at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  While I’m normally not much of a fan of imperialism, or any act of a bigger country dominating a little country, both of these museums have made me start to appreciate British Imperialism much more.

Let’s start with the British Museum.  The British Museum may be seen by outsiders as a huge building filled with artifacts that the British stole from all the places they conquered.  This isn’t completely true… Some of the pieces were stolen from countries that were never part of the Empire.  In fact, there have been high-profile claims on British Museum artifacts from countries on four of the seven continents.  The most notable claims are on the Rosetta Stone (which is their coolest artifact, in my opinion) and the Elgin Marbles, which are parts of the Athenian Parthenon.  Luckily for London tourists, in 1963, Parliament passed the British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents any object from leaving the museum’s collection once it has entered it.  This allows the British Museum to continue to be a concentration point for really cool artifacts, like original Roman letters, the Rosetta Stone, and parts of many ancient structures.  On the flip side, I understand why countries would want their artifacts back.  It’s their history, and it makes sense that they want it back.  However, from my point of view as a visitor to London, I’d much rather walk 2 minutes from the Arran House to see the Rosetta Stone than have to fly the whole way to Egypt.

From what I’ve seen of it, The Victoria and Albert Museum isn’t quite so overwhelmingly imperialistic, though that might be because I wasn’t able to visit the international sections of it (yet).  From what I have seen, a lot of the materials was donated or otherwise given to the museum, as opposed to the British Museum’s acquisition by domination feel.  All the same, the V&A made me feel like it was trying to show me how awesome England was in its heyday, and was probably first started to glorify the power of the Empire. Now, it serves as the world’s largest decorative arts and design museum, covering varieties of art like glass, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, theatre and performance, along with sections on Victorian English home furnishings and more “traditional” pieces like paintings and sculpture from ancient through modern times.  Even now, it is a very daunting place (I only got lost two or three times), but at the same time, it is a very fun place.  Where else in the world can you see an Apple computer and a 1980’s Save the Miners mug on display in the same museum as priceless jewelry from centuries ago and costumes from the musical version of The Lion King?

Categories: 2010 MatthewM · Museums

4 responses so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 7th 2010 at 15:22

    Matt, I see where you’re coming from by identifying the spectre of imperialism that lurks in Britain’s museum. But at the same time, maybe you could look at it this way: Britain is using these treasures (and surely not ALL of them were ignominiously plundered) to educate the British about other cultures. I mean, I think we can all agree that seeing a museum exhibit about ancient Egypt is a lot more stimulating, and educational, than reading a section on ancient Egypt out of a text book; if the Rosetta Stone sparks genuine interest in Egyptian history, is it really so terrible to have it on display? After all, a museum is primarily educational.
    We all seem to be pretty quick to criticize Britain’s museums, history and national pride. I have to wonder if this comes from the sense of a sort of self-loathing in American academia. As American students, we’re encouraged to think critically about our nation’s history and culture. We criticize our government openly. We are VERY apologetic for many of our nation’s past transgressions, particularly concerning racism. We even think it’s the mark of a good citizen to be so critical – we’re working toward a better future by recognizing our past mistakes. (Every rule has exceptions, and anyone is welcome to disagree with me, but this has been my experience as an American student.)
    I don’t get this sense from Britain, though. I think they suffer from a little bit of white guilt when it comes to India – it’s hard not to, when there are so many British Indians around – but when it comes to the rest of their vast former empire, the nations who aren’t quite so well-represented in present-day England, Britain still seems to be quite proud of its imperial past. I know we’ve discussed this time and again in class – my question is, do you think this only offends us because we’re looking at it through American eyes, and expect a citizenry to be more critical of its nation? Do you think the British even notice the flaws we’ve been pointing out? Do you think any other cultures would notice these flaws? Do you think we’re being overly critical of a culture we’ve only just begun to understand, if at all?

  •   Matthew Michrina // Sep 7th 2010 at 15:42

    I wasn’t trying to criticize the museums. Though I did bring up that most of the British Museum was plundered (though I admit I exaggerated a bit in describing it), I was trying to focus on a different perspective than anyone else would.

  •   stepheniem // Sep 7th 2010 at 16:01

    I think that anyone (whether English, American, Indian, etc.) who wants to be critical of the museum can be. Sure, we have been taught to think critically about the museums we’re visiting and consider the role they play in English society, but I do think that you could poll a representative selection of Londoners (and other Brits familiar with the British Museum) and they would come to the same conclusions. The museums on our syllabus are there to tell us something about English culture- whether it be to show us the imperial past or provide a link to England’s more insular past. Some of the imperialist guilt that we’ve noticed shows that they are aware. My question would be if England didn’t have its imperial past and didn’t steal (or otherwise acquire these objects, many of which weren’t stolen in a black & white legal definition) what would have happened to them? Take the Rosetta Stone for example; Egypt struggles with protecting and preserving the objects it has in its national museums. If it had never left or were repatriated, what would happen then? While we can certainly criticize the imperialistic nature of various museums, we need to also recognize that they have served to protect these priceless objects.

  •   Karl // Sep 8th 2010 at 05:10

    Many of these stolen artefacts were taken from British protectorates, so at the time of acquisition may not have been technically theft. That doesn’t minimize countries’ concerns for wanting their national heritage back. The US is a different case because our imperialism has been less territorial. We have plundered the cultures of indigenous peoples and have only recently tried to rectify that with the museum in DC. It think we also need to keep in mind historical context. These museums were created in much different times. We are an infant nation with a shorter history of displaying the past.

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