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.