Back whenever-it-was, February I think, I started this blog with great enthusiasm and then – with equal enthusiasm – flaked out. I am a consummate overthinker and I definitely overthought this project, in loads of ways, until I felt utterly defeated.
My biggest worry was – and still is – whether there were certain objects it would be inappropriate for me to write stories about. The British Museum’s collection reflects human creativity over huge tracts of time and space, and is open to ‘all studious and curious persons’, which is an excellent thing. It is wonderful that these artefacts are accessible to all, and extra wonderful that they are displayed in a global context – but having access to something doesn’t mean it belongs to us.
The British Museum was not always a beacon of post-colonialism, we all know this. Many artefacts were acquired through transactions that were decidedly unbalanced. I hesitate to say they were all stolen: more often it was a subtler kind of theft, one in which they were willingly handed over by somebody working at a disadvantage. Perhaps they lacked the knowledge to accurately assess their situation, or (and) the power to exercise choice. It is reductive and disingenous to claim that these items are stolen: all the word does is crush debate. It draws attention away from the fact that one people’s domination of another is not always smash-and-grab but far more insidious.
My issue was, and still is: as a white English person, do I have a right to try to make up stories about these objects and the cultures they originated in? My knowledge about certain parts of the world is pretty minimal, and I reckon anything I turned out would be Orientalist at best. It’s not only that, though: I feel that I have no right. I don’t know shit about women in early twentieth-century Nigeria and I suspect that even after years of research I still wouldn’t know shit about it because I would still be a white English person. I have not experienced what they have: to approach it with such glaring ignorance could only be insulting.
With cultures like ancient Rome, which have been part of my educational canon since I was yea high, or perhaps feudal Europe, I would fudge it. These pieces are mostly very tight-focus, anyway, without much broader cultural reference. Furthermore, they are part of a cultural history I have shared in, and which has not oppressed or been oppressed in any way that matters to anybody right now. I would have no problem with ‘impersonating’ somebody from that background.
But how dare I give a ‘voice’ to a minority I am not part of? I’m a storyteller, not a journalist, and even so that is not the way to move forward. We should be creating ways for those people to make themselves heard*, not telling their stories for them. That’s just another kind of theft, isn’t it?
None of what I’ve said is particularly new. But it is something I have been giving a lot of thought whilst writing this blog. Viz: what is and isn’t it OK for me to write? Is it a cop-out to ignore whole galleries because I don’t feel entitled or equipped to address the artefacts within them? Would it be right to imagine an ancient Japanese artefact transplanted to a London living-room, or write about the experiences of a white missionary in Mughal India? I don’t want to disregard other cultures, but my discomfort with writing about them means they will be under-represented in this blog, and I am grappling with whether that is acceptable or not.
*and actually this is something the BM does very well, particularly in its acquisition of work by contemporary artists: El Anatsui and George Nuku are notable.