Museums on Trial

Activist-led tours of our major museums can help us to read history against the grain.

Workmen unload a portion of the Parthenon frieze before affixing it to the wall in the new Elgin Marbles room of the British Museum, London. (Photo by Chris Ware / Keystone Features / Getty Images.)

In December 2018, Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, cautioned against calls for museums in Britain to restitute exhibits from colonised cultures. He argued that ‘we might also reflect on where that line of thinking can lead. Some fear, first of all, the objects — and then the people’.

Hunt was responding to a growing movement in Britain and worldwide in support of the ‘decolonisation’ of museums and heritage institutions. Museums including the VA, the British Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford have all recently started to place more focus on exploring the provenance of their objects. This isn’t entirely a new discussion. The controversy over the Parthenon sculptures (‘the Elgin Marbles’), which have been displayed in the British Museum from 1817 started almost as soon as they arrived in Britain. Lord Byron lamented the ‘walls defaced’ and the ‘mouldering shrines removed / By British hands’ — albeit from a desire to see the ancient world crumble romantically. There was a Parliamentary Select Committee held in 1816 which concluded, unsurprisingly, that the Marbles could be kept in Britain and had been acquired properly. The Greek government disagrees, and so apparently does Jeremy Corbyn, who has pledged to return the sculptures if he becomes prime minister, considering them to have been looted.

More broadly, UNESCO have had a committee on the restitution of cultural property since the 1970s. The sheer complexity and longevity of the issue makes clear that the question of museums being full of stolen goods is not uniquely British, but an imperial problem.

Museums are social spaces, and sites of cultural expression and education — but they are also sites of acquisition and cultural hegemony, and they are firmly rooted in imperialism. Empires were spaces of violence and exploitation, even as those desires and motivations were cloaked in a supposedly humanitarian impulse — the arrogant ‘civilising mission’. Fundamentally, empires were spaces of knowledge control, based on hierarchies of beliefs and ideas. The categorisation and cataloguing of the world, including colonial peoples, was central to the imperial mission. The work of collectors like the Earl of Elgin and Flinders Petrie and the development of some of Britain’s proudest cultural institutions can only be understood through an imperial lens. While collections of sacred objects and the continued holding of human remains are especially contentious, the entire process is built on colonialism.

The argument is often made that material needs to be kept in Britain for safe-keeping, echoing colonial discourses around expertise, imbued as it is with the image of the civilised metropole. The argument that these items are part of British history is true enough, but they exist specifically as part of Britain’s colonial past, and unless the violence of that past is acknowledged, these objects and exhibitions become sanitised representations of imperial history. And so, increasingly, people visiting these museums are questioning what they see. The idea of critical museum tours — for example, the Uncomfortable Art Tours run by Alice Proctor — have emerged as ways to help people engage with museum cultures critically, whilst still being able to visit these institutions (Proctor also produces badges and stickers that are branded DISPLAY IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT). Visiting the British Museum, the Tate, or the VA with a critical eye can be an interesting and enlightening experience, fundamentally because it helps to make clearer where power lies in the histories being presented.

A critical guided tour, which takes you around the museum or gallery and points out why and how its picture of the world was constructed, doesn’t just shape your view of that one institution. Learning to think about heritage critically is a vital skill. The ability to read history ‘against the grain’, as Walter Benjamin advised, is the ability to question the stories being presented as facts. Thinking about what silences there are in these spaces, what they leave out as well as what they put on show, is perhaps one of the most important historical skills going. Reflecting on these problems does not, as Hunt fears, lead us down a path of nativism and closed borders, but helps us to understand how the world, as it is today, is rooted in its history.