The British Museum has announced the appointment of a curator to study the history of its own collections. On the face of it, nothing could be more anodyne. The history of collecting has been a fashionable topic in academic circles for decades. What sort of people collected, why, and how, tells us much about their cultural assumptions and their ways of seeing the world. It would be mildly surprising that the BM has been so slow to catch on – except that there seems more to it than scholarly pursuit of knowledge.
While the research will indeed cover ‘wider patterns’ of collecting, the Museum announced that it is ‘likely that issues such as the role of the slave trade and empire… will be relevant to some of the research undertaken’. Given what is happening elsewhere, I would venture to suggest that slavery and empire will probably dominate the whole project.
We have recently heard a curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford proclaim that ‘an enduring brutality… is refreshed every day that an anthropology museum like the Pitt Rivers opens its doors’ in a tendentious book about the British in Africa. The Victorian and Albert Museum intends to highlight how ‘slave profits have seeped into the V&A galleries’. Jesus College Cambridge is trying to remove an artistically important memorial to one of its greatest benefactors from its College chapel; and Cambridge University has set up a commission to enquire into its links with slavery. The National Trust has been busy pointing out connections with slavery among its many properties. We are all aware of a general trend, overtly backed by some universities and local authorities, to stigmatise a multitude of historical figures for real or imaginary connections with slavery or the empire.