Recently, the director of the British Museum, Dr. Hartwig Fischer, released a statement of “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement and the calls for justice against unjust laws and institutions, in the USA and around the world.
I have some thoughts on this.
We all know the BM’s long connection with Egyptology, and the fact that a huge part of its collection contains artefacts acquired in questionable & unjust circumstances (e.g Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone, Benin Bronzes to name a few). In the recent past, Dr. Fischer’s public statements indicate he is (personally) unwilling to consider repatriation and, in fact, seems somewhat proud of appropriation. He once referred to the removal of the Elgin Marbles as a kind of “creative act.” This may have some meaning in a post-modern artistic or philosophical sense, but it is inconsistent with his claim to “stand in solidarity.” Under Fischer’s leadership, the BM Trustees have not, to the best of my knowledge, made any decision that would lead to repatriation of any artefact that was already in its collection. Other museums in the UK have done so, but the BM has not. As a result, Dr. Fischer’s words of “solidarity” seem to lack a background of action. They ring hollow.
On the other hand, I also understand that (for some), this statement WILL be meaningful in a certain sense. As one of the archetypal “British” institutions, this release may encourage some observers to reconsider their views on events in the USA and worldwide. From that perspective, this statement has some value. The key will be following it up, and combating ALL kinds of injustice/violence against BAME peoples; not just physical violence but cultural violence as well. Part of that involves acknowledging unjust acquisitions, and then rectifying them with a genuine move to repatriate artefacts of significant cultural meaning. While such a process carries its own complications and intricacies, there has never been a better time to start than NOW.
MANY people at the BM do amazing work; and I assume Dr. Fischer is sincere with his words. I will also assume that he *intends* to follow them up with some kind of action. However, as the public head / representative of an institution, with genuine power to rectify historical wrongs, his record (at the time of writing this post), suggests this *may* not happen.
I hope I am wrong, but in the meantime I feel obliged to make these points. Like many, I derive benefit from the BM’s resources, and I am grateful for that *privilege.* However, while this conversation is in the forefront of our minds and public discourse, it is important to remember that MANY institutions inflict different kinds of violence on BAME peoples, the economically disadvantaged, and cultural “Others.” We all have an opportunity to be “shaken out” of our routines and habits, and to act in different ways. I hope that Dr. Fischer and the BM Trustees will act, meaningfully, in ways they have not done yet.
This was a hard post to write, as I am keenly aware of my historical silence on this subject. I openly admit to being nervous / timid to publicly state my views, but if I am not willing to engage in ways that may cost me economically or in reputation, then my personal beliefs are as hollow as those I criticize. As such, I am doing something I should have done long ago, and let the results go where they may.
Thank you for reading this long post.
See you on the next episode