Helmets, Museums, and Colonialism: What the Staffordshire Hoard Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Two stunning replicas of a battle helmet from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found have gone on display to the public.  The so called ‘king’s helmet’ was pieced together from thousands of fragments and two replicas created for display at Birmingham Museum and the Potteries Museum.  This kind of thing always gets me thinking about the political and colonial nature of many museums, not specifically because these pieces are particularly political, but because replicas and recreations force us to ask uncomfortable questions about how museums are curated.

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Marble relief, Slab II from the West Frieze of the Parthenon: two horsemen. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Famously, Greece has called for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles (Elgin Marbles) for many years. They are currently displayed in the British Museum in London, and Britain shows little sign of respecting Greece’s claim.  Another famous example from the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone has a royal decree from 196BCE written in three different scripts, which proved vital in the deciphering of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script in the modern period. Like the Parthenon Marbles, their country of origin wants them back.  Currently, a copy presented to Egypt by the British Museum is displayed proudly, and perhaps also with political intent, near where the original would be.

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Three line Hebrew funerary inscription from the entrance of a tomb which may have contained the remains of Shebna, the royal steward of King Hezekiah; much damaged. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Where one places an artefact matters.  I remember in my first year of university being taken on a brief tour around the British Museum by one of my lecturers.  He paused at a rather worn piece of rock, unceremoniously displayed high up on the wall immediately to the right of the entrance.  One could easily miss it when entering the room, and indeed I nearly did.  He explained that this artefact was thought by many biblical scholars to be the lintel from the tomb of Shebna, a royal steward of King Hezekiah of Judah, who was rebuked in Isaiah 22:15-16 for building himself too grandiose a tomb.  The placing of this lintel in so insignificant a location was testament to the opinion of the person who designed the room.  He conceived of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah in a way considerably removed from those of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and instead named this particular room after ‘the Levant’.  The lintel therefore, was placed away from the most prominent places, relegated to its small perch near the entrance.

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Flanked by cannon, Egypt’s placing of the Rosetta Stone replica has been interpreted as a political statement by some. ©Creative Commons

Similarly, who looks after and displays  artefacts matters.  The assumed right to keep things found in occupied and/or raided lands is an example of colonialist thinking still embedded in Britain’s collective psyche.  Repatriation of our museums’ treasures has the potential to cause great embarrassment.  Given that we still can’t quite admit to ourselves the extent to which our colonialism was and is a moral outrage, admitting it to the rest of the world by repatriating high profile artefacts seems a long way off just yet.  Of course there is a counter-narrative, part of which suggests that it is better for say the Parthenon Marbles to be at the British Museum because it is ‘part of everyone’s heritage‘ and can benefit academia and culture more effectively.  Of course this raises the question of why the British Museum has the ability to make unilateral decisions about the fate of what are effectively stolen artefacts in the first place.  Britain, it seems, continues to flex its colonial muscles, it just does so by using its cultural and academic influence more than its military influence.  It has not learnt from its apparently former colonial ways, it’s just adapted them.

Overall however, it must be said that museums are of tremendous benefit to society.  Doing away with everything in them would undoubtedly be to our detriment.  I’ve often thought about this conundrum and wondered whether a museum based almost entirely on replicas and reconstructions could work.  Would people still visit the British Museum if everything looked the same, but you knew that little was original?  And of course there is the issue of academic study.  Some artefacts are required ‘in the flesh’ for study and copy, even a near identical one, will not do.

Part of the solution I suspect, is to consider how we think as a society, the stories we tell ourselves, and how we can address the issues that arise from them.  Like museums, academia is political.  The commodification of education at all levels is testament to this.  Knowledge is not pursued primarily because it is a social good in and of itself, but because our ability to gather it is an indicator of how much use we may be as homo economicus, the mythically consistent and rational capitalist.  In essence, our way of seeing all of these issues is short-sighted.  Society doesn’t benefit nearly as much or as equitably as when it views itself primarily through the lens of the common good.  Part of that is understanding that if humanity is to progress in unity, it must also respect and celebrate difference.  Properly funding museums and academia, as well as respecting people’s rights to their own cultures and histories, are necessarily inherent to this.  The British Museum must return all of its stolen artefacts and replace them with copies.  Indeed it already contains many copies and replicas and these also have the power to draw a fascinated crowd.  The importance is not in whether these artefacts are original, but in the stories they tell us about ourselves, where we have come from, and where we may be going.

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