I made the mistake of going to the Room 25 of the British Museum. And then some time later, I decided to take my mother there. And some months later still, I took a group of artists to join me in my empty, hopeful search. As I introduced the first task and everyone set about their way navigating the desolate basement space, my mother informed me – in the way that only a parent could – that I looked like I was about to pass out.
Let’s take a look around a space founded in 1753. A space where artefacts from the country of Egypt occupy entire floors and artefacts from the continent of Africa are lack lustrously displayed in three ill-lit rooms.
Descend into Room 25 with me and find Africa represented as a place without music, literature, chitchat, television, pens, shoes and cutlery. A place that the West ‘discovered’ rather than encountered. A place where many of the worn artefacts’ only narrative is that they hold a particular sheen that has fascinated and excited western art collectors. A place with only one undated photograph of an unnamed Congolese woman as an illustration of what an African might look like. A place where objects can only be dated in centuries rather than specific dates even though upstairs in Ancient Greek Sculpture, the dating is far more accurate. Yes, Ancient Greece has many large, lofty rooms dedicated solely to sculpture. Africa has three rooms dedicated to the whole continent, which of course means the rooms are dedicated to absolutely nothing about Africa.
Come be confused with me as we encounter a space without any geographic sense of curation, a place where the majority of artefacts are behind glass cabinets and kind of put together like an antique market instead of spaciously organised and displayed on mighty plinths. A place where two stolen, ivory leopards are reflected back to the viewing public as being “kindly donated by HRH Queen Elizabeth II”. A place where it was believed that sacred stools should not be left unoccupied, un-sat-on or unattended for then a spirit will place itself there, and yet, the sacred stool we see before us has indeed been left unoccupied, un-sat-on and unattended. In this act of documenting a belief and then displaying the object without any regard for these beliefs, the spirituality of whomever this stool belonged – for we do not know – has been violently and offensively dismissed as superstitious and false.
“Alex, you look like you are about to pass out”
To our left we see school children eagerly drawing Benin brass plaques. They are learning all the wrong things.
I eavesdrop on an older Nigerian gentleman standing by a crude map of Africa asking a British Museum member of staff if there is detailed map of West Africa that illustrates what the geography and borders were before and after colonisation. During this short conversation, he uses the terms ‘colonial, colonies and colonialisation’ more times than are written on the information boards throughout the entire collection.
The roundabout answer to his enquiries is ‘no’. There is no detailed map. There is no detailed history. There is no visible accountability for Britain’s role in the West Africa Conference of 1884 that divided up Africa into most of the countries we know of today.
There is however, something painful for me in this exchange. There is something disrespectful and embarrassing about the Museum’s failure to serve an older man who is simply asking for a representation of what his lands look like.
I realise my folly at simply assuming that with age – i.e the passing of time – can come knowledge and wisdom. As if time is unmarked by power and agendas. I watch this black elder stoop to ask a white stranger – a pseudo-guardian of Room 25 for evidence, for an illustration, for a map, of where he comes from. My blood itches as I am faced with the tangible outcome of systematic racisms and cover ups that continue to deny straight forward access to non Eurocentric histories.
“Well, there is a study room but you will have to go upstairs to the information desk, ask for such and such member of staff and then make an appointment”
Why is the work his to do? Why can’t this information be at our fingertips? Why can’t I recall the year when British troops stole the royal treasures of Benin in 1897 as easily as I can recall the year 1066? Why is Google more transparent about historical fact than this sham of a public resource?
I have taken a group of artists into an incompetent space that lets us all down at every turn.
I set a task to go round the collection as a group and to stop whenever we have a problem. We don’t get very far.
Come leave this place with me in an utterly, deflated daze. I promise that the afternoon will be different.
With thanks to Marion Burge, Seke Chimutengwende, Vivian Ezuga, Ria Hartley, Patse Hemsley, Julia Keenan, Rudy Loewe, Sheba Montserrat, and Yolanda Victoria