Don’t look back in anger
Objects are guiltless. A Roman spearhead bears no responsibility for the slaughter of Celtic tribes, nor is a looted African bronze to blame for the actions of the imperial looters. Only humans have moral responsibility for the actions of humans; the beautiful or mundane detritus of our lives is ethically inert. So I follow Tristram Hunt in his balanced and thoughtful recent piece in Prospect (“Museum peace,” November). Museums and galleries are teaching places in which context is all and through which wider moral debates can properly be conducted.
I don’t think it’s the job, however, of curatorial staff to direct the visitor towards a simple viewpoint. Once we impose a singular hierarchy of value—the Jewishness in the story is less important than the slave wealth in the story—we are imposing argument, not opening debate. This is what, after all, the earliest colonialist European museum collections were doing in implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) guiding their visitors to the “truth” that the hoarding culture, symbolised by the rococo marbled grandeur of the building itself, was superior to the harvested cultures displayed like shopkeepers’ wares. Throughout human history, where one culture—Christian, Muslim, Hindu—has enjoyed a technological superiority over others around it, the consequence has been exploitation. The result of that is the world we live in today, and if museums teach one lesson (they shouldn’t), that would be it.
Andrew Marr, broadcaster and author
Britain seems uncertain about its national history, its direction, and its place in the world. Not all of this is new. Our international posture has always been contested. After the Second World War, the right favoured Britain playing its role in the Cold War, while the left wanted the UK to lead towards a more internationalist and less militaristic future. But both retained one assumption of the fast-passing imperial age, namely the belief that Britain could make the world a better place.
More recently, trust that Britain can act as a “force for good” in world politics has waned. The centre has lost ground, and narratives about Britain’s national history have been reinvented. The populist right sees in Britain’s history a tradition of greatness; the activist left sees systemic, racist oppression. Hunt rightly says that most visitors to well-known museums have less acute politics.