Tuesday, 15 January 2008

'British' Museum ?

Today is the anniversary of the opening of the British Museum in 1753.

Partly because it’s free, partly because it’s only 15 minutes away from where I work, but largely because I think it’s the best way to use public museums and galleries, I often nip out for a cheeky visit at lunchtime. Usually a half hour looking at a couple of specific galleries, rather than trying to digest three millenia in an afternoon.

I love it, but I do have a problem with the British Museum: It actually has very little to do with Britain. In fact you’ll find out much more about the Assyrian empire than about how our own ancestors lived. This is because in the past 255 years much of the museum's contents has been built up by the assorted plunderings of the British Empire. Not surprising given Britain’s historical role in the world - (although it’s highly dubious to try and now retro-fit our own values - I think we could now trust the Greeks to have the Elgin Marbles back).

This pre-occupation with the Classical world was probably the product of opportunism and an ideological empathy for empire as the by-word for civilisation and culture.As a result, the development of these islands in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, and the culture of the Celts, Saxons, Picts, and Norse, were eclipsed or relegated to footnotes. So school-kids are still taught a disproportionate amount about the Romans in Britain, as if nothing much was going on before or until ‘real’ history begins with the middle ages.

When Little-Englanders say that we are ill-informed about our own history, their remedy is usually more lessons featuring Elizabeth 1st, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. But actually studying the complex and subtle interactions of all the peoples that made up ‘the British’ from earliest times might give kids (and most adults) a better understanding of our own ploygot and mongrol identity .

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