David Abulafia David Abulafia

How the National Maritime Museum is trying to decolonise Lord Nelson

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I spent Christmas in Turin, with its superb and often neglected museums that are a particular delight because they are uncontaminated by preaching about the evils of European colonialism. It is not that I have no moral perspective on how the creators of empire across four millennia have acted towards their subjects. But the use of objects in museums to tell a distorted picture in the interests of supposed Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, infused with Critical Race Theory, is a betrayal of what museums are supposed to do. Museums are not political tools, as the Museums Association, with its rants against racism and colonialism, seems to think. Racism is indeed a great evil. But it is essential to look at the past through the eyes of those who lived then, realising that they operated according to different ideas about the world which, unsettling as that might be, legitimated behaviour we would deplore if it were exercised today.

These contemporary political concerns do much more to distort the past than to explain it

A madness has been infecting our leading museums in recent months. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge put together a ‘Black Atlantic’ exhibition that brought together items connected one way or another with the slave trade. Ignoring all other explanations, the captions maintained that the reason a famous prize was offered by the Royal Society to whoever could work out how to measure longitude was that the crews of slave ships needed greater accuracy when navigating their way across the Atlantic. Now the Royal Academy of Arts is launching its own display about colonialism, imperialism and slavery.

The National Maritime Museum has been gravitating in the same direction for the last few years. This is sad because it is one of the most popular museums in London, and attracts large numbers of foreign tourists, who must be bewildered by the persistent attempts to politicise the way we look at Britain’s past.

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