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AS A child my first visit to the British Museum ignited a passion in me leading to a lifelong interest in history. The knowledge that I was looking directly at real artefacts used by humans is incomparable to any representation — a book will feel like a book, a film or TV programme will feel like a film or TV programme.
Seeing the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial is an experience unique only to itself. There is nothing that comes close to explaining history and engaging children in it, to my mind, than the objects that made history themselves. That interest eventually turned into an archaeology degree, currently a masters in artefact studies, and the end goal is to work in museum collections. Anyone who works in the arts and heritage sector is aware of the many problems in our industry; the low wages, the cuts to state funding — generally speaking, you get into museum work for love not money.
While current political discussions on museums are starting to question their validity, heated debates on the way our more contentious objects have been acquired are simmering. Collections in Western museums acquired through colonialism, war booty or even just misguided (but sometimes well-meaning) antiquarians and anthropologists collecting in the period of enlightenment, have sparked protest and calls for repatriation. This is starting to feel somewhat disheartening at a time when the very existence of museums as a public resource faces the axe from successive neoliberal governments.
I am sure that these woke commentators do not want us to go the way of local libraries, but as in so many other areas, overly hard criticisms of soft targets like us can really undermine our defence. While I believe we absolutely should learn about museums’ darker sides, and there should be an honest, open and critical approach to how collections are acquired and the way they are exhibited, it is essential we are all clear on why museums are imperative to education and showcasing human achievement.
Anthropological and archaeological collections don’t just allow people to view the material stuff of history, such as the bust of a long-dead king or Roman general, but the material objects of every-day life. You can look at an object and find it relatable or aesthetically pleasing, thus building human connection across time and space. A museum exhibition can challenge a narrow world view, make people question assumptions they had about a culture or inspire a lifetime of appreciation for cultures new to them.
Whilst there is a lot to be said for making it clear how we gained certain objects, and being critical of that process, there is also an anti-racist argument for museums too: museums allow people to learn about a microcosm of different societies that may no longer exist, they may be unable to afford to travel the world to experience them, or they may be physically unable to. They help us grasp the concept of a single humanity, through different examples of its existence at different stages of civilisation.
From the antiquarian idea of the museum to museums now, they have come a very long way. In the 18th century when the earliest museums were first established, entry was often only available by appointment and the curious visitor, if deemed unsuitable, was denied entry. Following the enlightenment period as collections grew, museums became more accessible to everyone in order to make them more financially viable, that money could then be invested in research, conservation and new acquisitions.
There is a lot to be said about the collections which do not get displayed, many museums and archives are now finding space to store collection a pressing issue. It’s an issue I’ve started to become more aware of and critically engage with now I am involved in this industry, and there are many debates to be had about the objects that have sat in storage for decades that could be repatriated, released on loan, or at least redistributed to smaller, local museums so that accessibility to learning resources is improved outside the major museums in big cities.
It’s important that we remember the complexities and nuances of the issue at hand without demonising museums and their staff, most of whom are overworked and underpaid like so many public-sector workers who generally are trying to provide services that are important and beneficial to us all.
This doesn’t mean that people should not be allowed to protest or be outspoken about the more unsavoury aspects of museums, but a methodology should be carefully considered that doesn’t end up hurting the wrong people. Harassing visitor services staff, screaming “thief” in their face, or filming them while aggressively interviewing them – something which I have witnessed colleagues experience and have similar experiences of myself, is never justifiable.
These methods are an attack on working-class people who wield no power over acquisitions, collections management or curatorship of displays. If you want to effectively spread awareness while making any real change, you have to first understand the nuanced historical contexts of how each object or collection is acquired, and then understand that museums are bound by government legislation.
The British Museum, for example, is bound by a 1963 parliamentary Act, and each case of repatriation is taken to the High Court of England and Wales and decided by a judge. Repatriation of objects is dealt with at the highest level and pressure should thus be targeted at that level. It is comparable to going into a McDonald’s and accusing the service staff of being directly responsible for capitalism – this poorly researched approach only comes across as worker bigotry rather than any effective, meaningful activism.
Furthermore, we should pride ourselves on the fact that all the national museums and galleries in Britain are free. This is not true of many other countries in Europe. It means we offer places where people can learn, have fun and see their heritage, for free. It means low income families can afford to have days out with their children, and hard-working tourists who have saved to come here can see some of our greatest attractions without paying.
We should love and be grateful for our museums, because they play a big role in helping to inspire the next generation of artists, historians, scientists, archaeologists, and so many more wonderful professions from people who may never have been able to afford an entrance fee, as they did for me; more importantly they tell us about who we are and where we have come from – not as country but as a species. The fact that we collect, catalogue, protect and cherish our past and display it for free sends an unambiguously positive and progressive message about our society and the value we place on humanity itself.
Anastasia Burke is a masters student in Artefact Studies at UCL and has worked for several different museums. She writes about artefacts on her Instagram @dawnofantiquity
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