Thursday, October 14, 2010

Please remove your hard hats: the British Museum's wretched 'History of the World in 100 Objects' is mercifully over

It would be funny were it not so outrageous. This morning, BBC Radio Four's Today programme went to the British Museum to help BM director Neil MacGregor unveil the 100th object in its 'History of the World in 100 Objects' project. The final object was the one chosen by those listeners credulous enough to have bought in to this shameless exercise in imperialistic self- aggrandisement.

At the given moment, MacGregor pulled back the veil to reveal a solar-powered lamp and charger. The sense of anti-climax was palpable. This merely underscored what Radio Four presenter Evan Davies described as "the nonsensical secrecy" in which the entire project has been shrouded.

Evidently many people had expected the 100th object to be a credit card. And in fact when the veil was removed, a credit card –the 99th object – was there, sitting beside the solar charger. 

"The credit card can only be used in advanced societies, societies that are urban and developed," explained MacGregor, adding: "In a way, we wanted to cheat – you'll not be surprised."

No, we weren't surprised. The British Museum has been cheating nations and communities out of their cultural heritage for 150 years. But this dismal collaboration with the BBC has taken the post-colonial project to new depths. Cheating doesn't get near to it.

Having watched big capital drive untold millions into ever deeper immiseration and poverty through mortgage derivatives, credit default swaps and any number of other Wall Street black magic tricks, we now have to watch the Universal Museum sector collaborating with the BBC to promote the tool most likely to exacerbate and perpetuate that process of credit-enslavement.

"We wanted the solar-powered lamp," said MacGregor, "but also the charger that gives mobile phones to the world because the mobile phone is, of course, the credit card in large parts of Africa and South Asia." 

In other words, the credit card is the very mechanism that allows the banks and financial speculators to continue their relentless exploitation of the world's poor.

Well, to hell with the British Museum and its Faustian pact with late capital.  My choice for the 100th object is a hard hat (above left) of the kind worn by the 32 Chilean miners, freed over the last twenty-four hours to universal jubilation.

But before we cry 'Arriba!', let's swing the media spotlight onto the Bolivian silver mines of Potosí, where the mineros can expect to live for no more than twenty years after starting work in the toxic mines polluted with every imaginable heavy metal. When, in the mid-16th century, the Spanish heard of the rich silver deposits in Potosí, they enslaved the indigenous people to mine the silver before shipping it back to Europe where it effectively kick-started European capitalism. 

As Patrick Stack has pointed out, between 1545 and 1824, some 8 million Indian and African slaves died in the process of producing silver for the Spanish Empire. No wonder they call it The Mountain that Eats Men.

Neil MacGregor, in his naiveté, believes technology "gives a whole range of people power over their lives," blithely ignorant of the fact that it also gives banks the power to enslave the poor of the developing world.

But of course, MacGregor is not remotely interested in solar-powered mobile phone chargers. What his odious 'History of the World' project is designed to do is disguise the deeper agenda of the Universal Museum, the foundations of which are being steadily eroded by those very nations subjugated by the colonial project 150 years ago. 

Shame on the supine BBC for conspiring so uncritically in such a loathsome carnival.

For an exploration and analysis of Marx's theory of primitive accumulation of capital, see the catalogue of the current exhibition – The Potosí Principle at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which includes an abridged version of my paper on the Universal Museum.



Thanks for your critical comments on the dubious enterprise of the BBC and the British Museum. The real question is, for whom is this project intended? Persons with no idea of history, especially colonial history and completely ignorant of the issues facing the so-called universal museums and their ill-gotten cultural objects of others?

The reaction of the British Museum to demands for restitution from African, Asian and Latin-American countries has been to develop schemes and stories that would obscure the role of the British Museum and the histories of the acquisition of objects such as the Benin Bronzes instead of meeting the claimants and finding a solution. I recall here Macgregor’s ridiculous theory that the materials used to make the Benin Bronzes came from Europe and that this somehow authorises the British Museum to keep the looted objects.

MacGregor has openly stated that we need new histories and seems to be on the way to writing his own world history which hides the true history of the rapacious nature of the Western interventions in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
I leave it to the historians to correct the misleading impressions the BBC and the British Museum seek to create. In the meanwhile, I shall treasure all my existing books on colonial history and ensure that my son, nieces and nephews and others read them before they come to the bogus history of the world by MacGregor .and co

Al said...

Having spent the past six months researching the debate surrounding the British Museum and the Universal Museum Declaration (UMD), half of that time dedicated to reading responses to and reviews of A History of the World as well as analysing the series itself, I have become familiar with both sides (if one can distinguish two defined camps) of the debate. The two main objectives of my research - to clarify who instigated the UMD and to explore whether there may or may not
be a relationship between AHOTW and the UMD - came out of reading both Tom's and Dr. Opoku's work and therefore I would like to contribute to this vast discussion two simple facts (if you believe in such things!). Firstly, the 100th object was officially always expected to be a disappointment, where would the fun be in missing an opportunity to give the people of the UK something to grumble about. Lastly, the project was intended as one may have guessed predominantly for the Radio 4 listening inhabitants of the UK - who else would appreciate fully an enlightening 'new' history allowing one to feel more a world citizen than ever before!
Thankyou both for your inspiration; to Tom for his guidance and to Dr. Opoku for passionate words albeit that none have been replies to my emails!
Alexandra Rowson

Tom Flynn said...

Thank you for posting a comment. Two points. Firstly, the fact that the History of the World programme may have been intended predominantly for UK-based Radio 4 listeners, as you suggest, does not make it any less pernicious in my eyes. That is the obvious soft target audience to start with. This is what business people call 'low-hanging fruit' and the British Museum is a business, however much it may wish to disguise that fact. Secondly, this is no 'new' history and nor is it very enlightening (apologies if I missed any intended irony on your part). As to who instigated the Universal Museum Declaration, that was ostensibly the product of a consensus reached by the Bizot Group of museum directors (exclusively western museum directors, I hasten to add, so in no sense representative of "world citizens"). Furthermore, one can detect the dead hand of the British Museum behind other museum projects right now, so determined are they to gain the upper hand in this post-colonial battle of ideas. They are even now feeding in to the forthcoming exhibition of 'Modern British Sculpture' at the Royal Academy, scheduled for the end of January, which, largely thanks to their influence, has been turned into another lament for a lost Empire. See the RA website for classic British Museum rhetoric about Britain's former heyday as the centre of the universe.

Finally, I'd be most interested to see the results of your research, should you ever see fit to publish it.
All best wishes,