‘The British Museum stands in solidarity with the British Black community, with the African American community, with the Black community throughout the world. We are aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere.’ So blogged the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, shortly after the death of George Floyd. Many such messages were rushed out by institutions, colleges and businesses at the time. It was never really clear why. Why did one cruel death, above all the other cruel deaths always happening in the world, require this collective response? What led Dr Fischer to assume that ‘the British Black community’ must be at one with the aims of Black Lives Matter? How much did he and the Museum in general know of the ‘spirit and soul’ of that movement when he declared that they were ‘aligned’ with them? And why is it the business of the leaders of a great public collection to take a political stand for a highly controversial and borderline-violent campaign?
I ask these questions now, because Dr Fischer has used the Covid interval to reorganise this, the greatest of all British collections. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, in advance of the museum’s reopening this week, he explains that he is moving the bust of Sir Hans Sloane, whose vast collection has remained one of the three founding elements of the BM since it started in 1753. ‘We have pushed him off his pedestal,’ says Dr Fischer. Now Sloane is to be locked in a display cabinet ‘alongside artefacts that explain his work in the “exploitative context of the British Empire”.’ This new Chamber of Horrors also features Captain James Cook, who mapped Australia, and others whose artefacts come from ‘colonial conquest and military looting’. ‘Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial,’ says Dr Fischer.
In that spirit of truthfulness, it might be worth pausing to consider the life of Hans Sloane.