The British Museum has hired a curator to delve into the history of its eight million objects, many of which were obtained during the colonial era.
Historian Dr Isobel MacDonald is to lead the museum’s History of Collection research, which will examine how objects have arrived since its 1759 founding.
Several of the items in the museum’s collection are subject to claims, including the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from Greece; the Benin Bronzes; the Rosetta Stone and the four-tonne Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Easter Island.
A museum spokesman told The Art Newspaper it was likely that issues such as the ‘role of the slave trade and empire’ would be ‘relevant’ to Dr Macdonald’s research.
The museum’s original collection of 71,000 artefacts were left to it by its founder Sir Hans Sloane, who had links to the slave trade.
In August, bosses at the state-funded museum took down a bust of Sloane from a pedestal but were later warned by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden that they risked losing taxpayer support if they removed artefacts.
The museum’s new appointment is the latest in a long line of institutions probing Britain’s past.
Last week, the British Empire was branded ‘far worse than the Nazis’ during a controversial debate about wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churuchill’s legacy at a Cambridge University college.
He was described by academic Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, as a ‘white supremacist’ who benefited from Britain’s ‘heavily skewed national story’.
And a wave of protests by Black Lives Matter demonstrators last year sparked a campaign which has seen statues of figures with links to the slave trade targeted.
Most famously, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour by protesters.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also unveiled a new commission last month that could remove statues and alter street names in the capital that are deemed offensive.
It was followed days later by the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee voting to remove statues of prominent figures William Beckford and Sir John Cass over their connections to the slave trade.
The British Museum has hired a curator to delve into the contested history of its eight million objects, many of which were obtained during the colonial era. Pictured: The Parthenon Marbles, which are popularly known as the Elgin Marbles. They were taken from Greece’s Acropolis by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, when he was serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803
Several of the items in the museum’s collection are subject to claims, including the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from Greece; the Benin Bronzes (pictured); the Rosetta Stone and the four-tonne Hoa Hakananai’a statue from Easter Island
Although Dr Macdonald was hired last March, her work has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
A museum spokesman told MailOnline: ‘The primary purpose of this curatorial role is to carry out a high level analysis of the history of the Museum’s collection.
Historian Dr Isobel MacDonald is to lead the museum’s History of Collection research, which will examine how objects have arrived since its 1759 founding
‘It will look at the wider patterns of how different types of object from different parts of the world entered the Museum collection over the last 250 years and place those in a broader historical context.
‘It is not the purpose of this role to examine the specific histories of contested objects.’
However, they confirmed the role would encompass the slave trade and the British Empire, adding it was not ‘solely’ focused on those ‘issues’.
Dr MacDonald published her PhD thesis on Sir William Burrell, who when he died in 1944, donated his 9,000-piece art collection to Glasgow, the Scottish city in which he was born.
These pieces now form the Burrell Collection, which is housed in the city’s Pollok Country Park.
She is quoted in The Art Newspaper as hoping to ‘develop a different way to look at the history of such an important institution that will allow us to better understand how the collection came together.’
A museum spokesman added to the publication that while there had been previous studies into how ‘specific objects and collections’ came to be in the institution, there had been ‘less attention on the overall history of the collection.’
A museum spokesman told The Art Newspaper it was likely that issues such as the ‘role of the slave trade and empire’ would be ‘relevant’ to Dr Macdonald’s research. Pictured: The Hoa Hakananai’a. The four-ton, 7ft 10in Easter Island statue is regarded as one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s 900 famous stone monoliths, or moai
The museum’s original collection of 71,000 artefacts were left to it by its founder Sir Hans Sloane, who had links to the slave trade
It has not been revealed when the research will conclude or in what form the results will be published.
Greece has long campaigned for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed the marble pieces from the Acropolis in Athens while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
Both the Government and the museum say they were taken legally from Athens and have been painstakingly preserved in the UK.
Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, previously said in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was ‘not a burglaries case’ as he sought to dampen any claims on the items.
Sir Hans Sloane was once celebrated for founding the British Museum, but then his bust was removed from the institution
By the time of his death aged 92 in 1753 Sir Hans Sloane had collected more than 71,000 items.
Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.
The physician, born in Ulster in Northern Ireland in 1660, had a number of wealthy and aristocratic patients including Queen Anne and Kings George I and II.
In 1687 he sailed for Jamaica, then an English colony, as physician to the colony’s new Governor, the Duke of Albemarle.
Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum. Pictured in 1729
Slaves from West Africa were imported to Jamaica in mass in the late 17th century to make the country more profitable.
Sloane worked as a doctor on slave plantations where he assembled a collection of 800 plant specimens, as well as animals and curiosities.
He was helped by both English planters and enslaved West Africans – Akan men and women mainly from present-day Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
Hans Crescent street sign on Harrods building, Knightsbridge
Once back in England, Sloane married Elizabeth Langley Rose, heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica worked by enslaved people.
It was profits from the plantation which contributed substantially to his ability to collect.
Sloane bought natural and artificial curiosities from travellers and colonial settlers around the expanding British Empire, ranging from North America and the West Indies to South and East Asia.
He housed his collection at his home at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place in London and later purchased No. 4 as the number of artefacts grew.
In 1742, Sloane moved with his collections to a manor house in Chelsea (the former home of King Henry VIII, on what became Cheyne Walk).
What has been named after the collector?
- Sloane Square was created and a statue erected in the nearby Physic Gardens shortly after his death;
- Sloane Street, Sloane Avenue, Sloane Grammar School and Sloane Gardens were also named after him;
- His first name was given to Hans Street, Hans Crescent, Hans Place and Hans Road, all in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea;
- Plant and animal-related discoveries including Sloanea (plant genus), a moth called the Urania sloanus, the Spondylurus sloanii species of lizard and Chauliodus sloani, a species of deep sea fish.
Source: British Museum
He said: ‘The Elgin Marbles are part of the Parthenon sculptures which were brought to the UK by Lord Elgin with the explicit permission of the Ottoman empire, the government in place back then and which had been in place for more than 300 years.
‘This is not a burglaries case – we’ve got to be very clear about this. They were taken down, this was supervised, and they were shipped to the UK completely legally.’
The marbles were removed by Elgin between 1799 and 1810 after he received permission from the Ottoman empire, which ruled Greece at the time.
Elgin claimed he was worried about damage being done to the marbles, but their removal was criticised at the time by figures including Lord Byron.
According to a House of Commons briefing paper from 2017, the UK government’s position is that ‘issues relating to the ownership and management of the Parthenon sculptures are matters for the trustees of the British Museum’.
Last year, the museum removed a bust of its founder from a pedestal and labelled him a ‘slave owner’.
The effigy of Sir Hans Sloane was moved to be housed alongside artefacts that explain his legacy in the ‘exploitative context of the British Empire’, curators said.
Sloane, whose 71,000 artefacts became the starting point of the British Museum after he left them to the state in his will, funded his collecting through his wife’s family’s sugar plantation.
Sloane Square in London is also named after him.
The bust now sits as part of a display which explains his work as a ‘collector [and] slave owner’.
The museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, said the institution had deliberately ‘pushed him off the pedestal’. Mr Fischer added: ‘We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge.’
The move was part of an overhaul of the museum’s collections to acknowledge its links to slavery and colonialism that will eventually involve ‘redisplaying the whole British Museum’.
Other artefacts, such as those taken by Captain James Cook on his voyages, will be labelled to show they were acquired through ‘colonial conquest and military looting’, the museum said.
Mr Fischer told The Daily Telegraph: ‘Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated and, at times, very painful history.
‘The case dedicated to Hans Sloane and his relationship to slavery is a very important step in this.
‘The British Museum has done a lot of work – accelerated and enlarged its work on its own history, the history of empire, the history of colonialism, and also of slavery.’
Neal Spencer, the curator behind the Sloane display, said the Black Lives Matter movement had provided ‘a certain level of urgency’ to the overhaul.
He added: ‘We want to be upfront about Sloane’s collection being at the root of the British Museum.’
During last week’s online debate at Churchill College, Cambridge, participants discussed ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ and looked at his ‘backward’ views on empire and race.
It was held as part of a year-long ‘inclusivity’ review.
Contributor Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said: ‘The British Empire was far worse than the Nazis. They lasted longer and killed many more people.’
On Churchill, he added: ‘There is no debate. His white supremacy is pretty much on record and the question here is why does Churchill still hold the level of popularity that he does? It’s almost like he’s been beatified – a saintly figure beyond reproach.’ Professor Andrews has previously accused Britain of being ‘built on racism’ and called RAF airmen who bombed Nazi Germany war criminals.
He also belittled Sir Winston’s contribution to Britain, saying: ‘Was it Churchill out there fighting the war? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I’m pretty sure he was at home.
‘I’m pretty sure that if Churchill wasn’t in the war it would have ended the same way.’
The comments were condemned as ‘execrable’ by the former leader’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames.
The former Tory MP said: ‘I think Sir Winston’s reputation will withstand, with some ease, this sort of rant.
‘I do think it’s terribly disappointing that views like this are advanced at Churchill College.
‘While there is every justification for historians examining the Churchill story, it’s extraordinary that it should be seen in this way by a very limited audience.
‘I’m afraid to say I have nothing but contempt for what these people have said.’
Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at Kent University, also criticised the comments, saying: ‘The use of the Nazi metaphor is particularly squalid because [it suggests] what is seen as a moment of human evil that was quite unique in character is not as bad as what Britain had done in the past. It is a way of demeaning Britain’s past.
‘It is almost like you’ve got to come for Churchill because if you can destroy his reputation then the whole of Britain’s past can be undermined.’
The college’s own website says Churchill ‘must not be mythologised as a man without significant flaws’ as ‘on race he was backward even in his day’.
Professor Priya Gopal, a fellow at the college, was chairman at the meeting.
She accused Britain of a ‘national silence’, saying the debate was ‘precisely to bring a long-overdue balance to a heavily skewed national story that has preferred untrammelled glorification to a balanced assessment in the round’.
She added: ‘Historians and scholars who don’t think history should be treated as a comfort blanket or a warm bath with candles have to constantly negotiate weaponised fragility and, quite frankly, a degree of cowardice.’
Last week, Conservative Government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg accused London Mayor Mr Khan of overseeing ‘loony left-wing wheezes’ today after he unveiled a new body that could remove statues and alter street names in the capital that are deemed offensive
The Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm was announced and will include art historian Aindrea Emelife and chairman of City Sikhs Jasvir Singh among 15 panellists.
The homepage of the commission notes that London’s statues, plaques and street names ‘largely reflect a bygone era’ and it seeks to improve diversity in public spaces.
The commission’s team includes an academic who implied that all international examples of white supremacy can be traced back to Britain, and a campaigner who once confronted the Queen to demand she apologise for historical injustices.
One of the most famous objects in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab from Ancient Egypt
The British Museum’s most controversial artefacts
The Parthenon Marbles: The Parthenon Marbles – popularly named the Elgin Marbles after the7th Earl of Elgin, the man who took them from Greece – are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants.
The Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed the Parthenon Marble pieces from the Acropolis in Athens while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
In 1801, the Earl claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Parthenon.
As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site.
His agents subsequently removed half of the surviving sculptures, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.
The Parthenon Marbles – popularly named the Elgin Marbles after the7th Earl of Elgin, the man who took them from Greece – are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants
The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000.
The sculptures were shipped to Britain, but in Greece, the Scots aristocrat was accused of looting and vandalism.
They were bought by the British Government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum. They still stand on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
Greece has sought their return from the British Museum through the years, to no avail.
The authenticity of Elgin’s permit to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon has been widely disputed, especially as the original document has been lost. Many claim it was not legal.
However, others argue that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognisable.
The Benin Bronzes: In 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain. Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy what was then the Kingdom of Benin, which is in modern-day Nigeria.
After ten days of fierce fighting, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes.
After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition.
n 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain. Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy what was then the Kingdom of Benin, which is in modern-day Nigeria. After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition
One of them, a bronze cockerel, ended up being a permanent fixture in the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Many people have campaigned for the cockerel to be returned over the years and in November last year, Cambridge University agreed to return it to Nigeria.
One campaigner was BBC historian David Olusoga who said The British Museum should have a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ where countries have two minutes to take back their artefacts.
Rosetta Stone: One of the most famous objects in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab.
Dating from 196 BC, there is a decree written on it which was issued in Memphis, Egypt, by the King Ptolemy V Epiphanes during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The decree is written three times, in hieroglyphics, Demotic and Ancient Greek.
It is thought to have been found by accident in Egypt in 1799 by Napoleon’s army while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.
When Napoleon was defeated, the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801 meant the stone became British property, along with other things the French had found. It was shipped to England, arriving in Portsmouth in February 1802.
One of the most famous objects in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab from Ancient Egypt
Hoa Hakananai’a: The four-ton, 7ft 10in Easter Island statue is regarded as one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s 900 famous stone monoliths, or moai.
Each of the figures is said to embody tribal leaders or deified ancestors.
It was taken from the island, which lies in the Pacific more than 2,100 miles off the coast of Chile, in 1868 by Commodore Richard Powell, captain of HMS Topaze, who gave it to Queen Victoria.
She donated it in 1869 to the British Museum, where it now stands at the entrance to Wellcome Trust Gallery.
But Easter Island’s indigenous community, the Rapa Nui, want Britain to give back the spiritually ‘unique’ effigy.
Governor Tarita Alarcon Rapu found the sight of the artefact so emotional that she burst into tears as she begged the museum to return it.
The four-ton, 7ft 10in Easter Island statue is regarded as one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s 900 famous stone monoliths, or moai