The British Museum: Imperial Artefact14 minute read

An Analysis of the British Museum as an Imperial Artefact and its Cultural Implications in Contemporary Politics in London

London is covered with imperial artefacts. Buildings, institutions, and sculptures all over the city reflect Britain’s history of imperial endeavours. In the post-imperial world, these artefacts have often struggled to readjust to London’s less powerful position in the world. In many cases, their original purpose become redundant while their legacy of imperial practice creates tension with critics in societies who no longer support imperialism. The British Museum is one such artefact. A London landmark, its massive collection of historical treasure annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world. Much of its prestige, plus many of its most famous pieces, were obtained through Britain’s imperial practices. Though it has tried to adapt to decolonisation, its imperial legacy still influences the perception of the exhibits and faces criticism from the public.

The British Museum opened in 1753, and initially focused solely on ancient artefacts acquired from British outposts around the world. It acquired a collection of Greek vases in 1772, the Rosetta Stone (originally from Egypt) in 1802, and the Parthenon marbles in 1816 (Duthie, 2011). The British Museum expanded in the q9th century on the back of expansion of violence and colonialism. Imperial wars and economic endeavours rewarded businessmen and military units in the colonies with human and natural treasures (MacKenzie, 2009). In 1897, for example, a British military force seized a collection of brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin and shipped them to Britain so they could be placed in Museums. Just after 1800, the earl of Elgin took advantage of political chaos in Greece to remove pieces of the Parthenon with ‘legal approval’ from the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, his efforts to move the marble back to Britain required cutting many of the decorations in half to reduce their weight, which resulted in the destruction of much of the collection (Duthie, 2011). To the colonial subjects, the artefacts were taken through blood-soaked or exploitative practices which cast a shadow over the history on display. The museum, on the other hand, profited from increased prestige and visitor traffic among Britons who interpreted the history and the artefact acquisition in a different light. To the British public, the collections served to show the wonders of the empire that Britain had created and the knowledge that Britain had obtained.

The wealth and prestige on show at the British museum contributed to the feeling that the museum itself was an imperial institution. The practice of transporting objects from the fringes of the empire into the museum in London provided an important symbolic backdrop showing that London was the heart of the empire (Duthie, 2011). The great monuments in the museum displayed the wealth and power of imperial Britain, proving that British citizens had global influence. The spectacle of the exhibits served an ‘imperial archive’ to show what the nation had achieved internationally, and sought to justify the expansion of power because of the spread of knowledge that such efforts created (MacKenzie, 2009). Victorian English society viewed the museum as an ‘enlightened institution and an ordered representation of the world in miniature’ (Duthie, 2011). According to this viewpoint, the British were a superior being who were able to control the rest of the world and neatly organize everything they encountered into a logical framework. This required a belief in an inherent power that Britons had over other groups and societies, reinforcing the notion of imperialism and explaining why imperialism was able to work. The British Museum, in its attempts to display and justify its artefacts, absorbed imperial thought into its own ideology and identity.

The current British Museum building was completed in 1852 in the Greek revival style (Duthie, 2011), and was intended to show off the might of the British Empire. In this way, it is quite similar to the construction of the large bank buildings in the 20th century.[1] Those buildings were also built with a large façade and classical style, and were intended to show off Britain’s power in the financial sector (Black, 1999). It seems, then, that the British Museum was to knowledge and culture what the banks were to finance. The appearance of the house itself was just as important to the national image as was the contents inside the house. This type of architecture symbolically wove the political and social values of imperial domination into the fabric of the city (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). The imperialistic legacy becomes almost as permanent as the buildings themselves, since people are reminded of the history when they see the imposing buildings. Even though many may not continuously think about the impact of imperialism in today’s world, the existing bank and museum buildings are constant markers of Britain’s imperial past.

As Britain decolonised, it had to find a new role in the world. It lost its hard power over its colonial dominions, and its role as world superpower diminished as new powers like the United States came to the fore. Many institutions in London had to adapt so as to fall in line with Britain’s new position in the world.

In response to decolonisation, the British Museum shifted away from displaying the might of the British Empire and towards displaying the achievements of humanity as a whole. The official museum website, for example, called itself a ‘museum of the world, for the world’ (British Museum Review). The Museum has also taken steps to ensure that the new artefacts were transferred legally. This included following the instructions set by the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, or Transfer of Cultural Property and the Treasure Act (1996). These agreements set up guidelines to ensure that items were obtained legally, and were not looted in a way that would be damaging to archaeological sites (Duthie, 2011). In this way, the Museum has tried to right some of the wrongs that have benefited the museum in the past.

In practice, overcoming the legacy of imperialism has proven not so easy. As the original homes of the British Museum’s artefacts have gained sovereignty and influence, they have increased claims for repatriation. Kenyans argue that the British Museums collection of masks and headdresses from Kenya should belong in Kenyan museums, especially after the British Museum displayed the masks in Kenya for a short period of time. Greece has long maintained that the British Museum should return the Parthenon marbles, so they can be displayed in Greece with the rest of the marbles at the Acropolis Museum in Athens (Duthie, 2011). This has created tension since the museum continues to claim that it legally owns its current artefacts under British law (Duthie, 2011). In its argument to keep its artefacts, the museum has displayed many remnants of imperial thought, to which ex-colonies have not responded fondly.

The legal tension over repatriation comes down to a fundamental difference in beliefs on ownership, based around imperialistic attitudes. In Britain, the British Museum believes it legally obtained its artefacts through historical agreements and accords, meaning they now rightly belong to Britain. Ex-colonies, on the other hand, believe that the items were stolen from them in the first place, so should be returned to their rightful owners. Greece, for example, believes that the British did not obtain the Parthenon marbles legally, since they got approval from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire, they argue, did not have the right to make decisions about Greek property so any agreement with the empire should be nullified (‘Memorandum on the Parthenon Marbles). In the British Empire, unsurprisingly, British law ruled the day. Because Britain was the prevailing power, and had legislative control over the territories, nobody was able to oppose British decree. Today, the British Museum is still operating under the pretext of British law even though many of the actions in question happened outside of Britain. While nobody questioned that law during the reign of the British Empire, new states now have the sovereignty and legitimacy to counter the claims of the British legal system. The emergence of the opposing legal viewpoint calls into question the legality, or at least the morality, of the British Museum’s imperialist-inspired legal arguments.

In its rejection of repatriation, the British Museum has also displayed some overt imperialist perspectives. The Museum argued that cultural artefacts should remain in London because it is a large global city where people from all over the world can go to see the exhibits for free (Duthie, 2011). This argument, though, is a remnant of imperial thought as it views London as a more important and influential city than any of the other areas where the artefacts might be displayed. Museum curators have also claimed that they need to hold the artefacts because the original homes do not have the institutions necessary to protect and display the history and heritage (Duthie, 2011). That line of thought suggests that the home countries lack the resources or knowledge to adequately handle historical artefacts. It harks back to imperialist perspectives that believed that Britons were intellectually superior and thus needed to control institutions in the colonies to ensure their quality. That line of thinking ignores the benefits that other institutions can bring to the historical display of the items, and fails to question the benefits of its own methods of preservation and display. There are many reasons to question where the British Museum is actually the best place to display the artefacts. While some areas are politically unstable and are unlikely to be able to protect the artefacts, not all are. Greece, for example, already has a museum ready to display the Parthenon marbles. They would be exhibited high up and using natural sunlight within the Athenian climate, in the way that the Ancient Greeks intended for them to be displayed (Duthie, 2011). The Acropolis Museum is located in Athens, itself a popular tourist attraction that attracts lots of visitors from around the world. Even though the Greek Museum would be able to protect the marbles better than Elgin did when he moved them to London, the British Museum maintains its position that the marbles should stay in London.

The context of a historical display is crucial, and many feel that the British Museum’s imperial legacy provides a negative context for its exhibits. MacKenzie (2009) maintains that the museum has had difficulty recreating the natural, social, functional, or spiritual contexts that are necessary to understand the artefact’s use and historical significance. If the artefacts were moved to the sites where they were created, their story would be situated within the context of that nation and culture. It would be presented by groups with a more intimate knowledge of the history of the artefact and the ways that the local people used or viewed the artefact. Instead, they sit in a large building originally constructed to show off Great Britain’s domination over the world. Rather than being displayed in the place of their origin, they are displayed in Britain as part of a historical landmark in Britain. The museum, and thus the exhibits inside it, act as memorials to Britain’s past empire. According to Freud, the siting of those memorials conjures the ‘lives, ghosts, and spectres’ of the imperial history in the minds of viewers (Cherry, 2006). The artefacts are inexorably tied to the imperial history of the museum. Though the collections are based on a region or civilisation to provide the necessary context, their place within the museum as a whole makes their connection to imperialist thought inescapable. Instead of belonging to their original history and location, their location gives them a connection to British history which was created by imperialist practices.

The lingering imperialist influence of the museum stands in contrast to the waning influence of imperialist attitudes more generally. Faced with financial and international pressure, Britain gave up much of its institutional hard power over its colonies. As Britain’s leaders faced the new reality, their ability to control the affairs of their colonies slipped as the colonies gained sovereignty. After the Second World War, Britain also had to contend with the rise of multiple world powers. Rather than being the centre of international politics, it had to start cooperating with the likes of the United States, India, and China in order to promote their favoured policies on the world stage (Darwin, 1988). Once Britain abandoned its political imperial power, it seems that imperialism quickly dropped from the British public eye. Thompson (2005) suggests that imperial power was rapidly extinguished from British national identity after Britain lost its colonies. This could be because the British public no longer viewed imperialist control in a positive light, so people did not want to support an institution connected to oppression and lack of liberty.

British imperialist thought was most able to stick around in areas of soft power, since its inherently vague nature he lack of concrete definition for soft power allowed imperialist norms to continue despite opposition to such control. By continuing imperial forms of soft power, Britain was able to protect the benefits that imperialism brought even though physical imperialism had died. As colonies transitioned into independence, Britain tried using economic aid to get friendly regimes put in place in the new countries (Cain and Hopkins, 1993). That way, even though it didn’t technically control the new state, Britain could use their political connections and similar ideology to convince the new states to do what it would like. Britain would then retain the benefits of imperial power by controlling the action of other states, but without the physical imposition of imperialism. Britain has also continued to exert soft power through its charity and development aid. Every year, Britain gives developing countries aid to help them develop and achieve economic growth. It chooses certain development programs and goals in order to help the countries develop in certain ways so as to line up with Britain ideologically and politically. The imperial mind-set continues to influence people in their thoughts that they know the best ways for another country to develop and believe it is their responsibility to help others.

The continued existence of imperial thoughts in soft power is consistent with the continued existence of imperial influence on the British Museum. Since the artefacts do not overtly control how others operate, their influence falls in the realm of soft power. The British Museum’s imperial collection provide economic advantages and prestige which would be lost if the artefacts were to move elsewhere. Even though the museum no longer physically loots foreign treasures, it wishes to keep the objects it already has because of the advantages that they bring. Though they do not support imperialism directly, the museum’s curators continue the tradition of imperialist beliefs because of the benefits that British imperialism historically provided.

The British Museum gained prestige, and much of its collection, because of Britain’s imperial practices. War and economic domination contributed to the collection of the artefacts, and the museum was set up to display the wealth and power of the empire. Since decolonisation, those imperial legacies have caused problems with the new states who want ‘their’ historic artefacts back. The British Museum has rejected those repatriation claims, though, because of lingering imperialist philosophies which it uses to justify its continuing ownership of the artefacts. Those philosophies likely do not exist because of the support for direct imperialism, rather, they continue because of the benefits that imperial practices brought, and continue to provide to the post-imperial world.

[1] Appendix I shows the British Museum next to the Bank of England. The classical style and columned, imperial facades are both intended to project the wealth and status of the British Empire.


Black, Iain S (1999) ‘Rebuilding ‘The Heart of the Empire’: Bank Headquarters in the City of

London, 1919-1939’ in Art History 22.4. pp 593-618.

‘British Museum Review’. The British Museum. Accessed 7 December 2015.

Cain, P.J. and A.G. Hopkins (1993) British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990.

Harlow. Longman Group Limited.

Cherry, Deborah (2006) ‘Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire’ in Art History

29.4. pp 660-697.

Darwin, John (1988) Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post-War

World. London. Macmillan Education LTD.

Duthie, Emily (2011) ‘The British Museum: An Imperial Museum in a Post-Imperial World’ in

Public History Review 18. Pp 12-25.

MacKenzie, John M (2009) Museums and Empire: Natural History, Human Cultures and

Colonial Identities. Manchester. Manchester University Press.

‘Memorandum on the Parthenon Marbles Submitted by the Government of the Hellenic

Republic’. Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture. Accessed 7 December 2015

Schubert, Dirk and Anthony Sutcliffe (1996) ‘The ‘Hausmannization’ of London?: the Planning

and Construction of Kingsway-Aldwych, 1889-1935’ in Planning Perspectives 11. pp


Thompson, Andrew (2005) The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from

the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Harlow. Pearson Education Limited.


Appendix 1

British Museum
‘The British Museum’s Top Five Masterpieces’. The Telegraph. Accessed 9 December, 2015.
Bank of England
Walvin, James. ‘Slavery and the Building of Britain’. BBC.
Accessed 9 December 2015.
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