Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Banging the drum for the BBC

I'm running the risk of sounding like a stuck record, but that's better than being accused of munching on sour grapes, which is what a guest on BBC Radio Four's Making History programme has just done with regard to my criticism of the British Museum's 'History of the World in 100 Objects' series.

Last Friday I received an email from the Beeb asking if I'd like to contribute to a discussion about whether the '100 Objects' project had been a success. Sadly I had to decline as I had a teaching commitment that morning.  

In the event, when the programme was broadcast this afternoon, a disembodied northern voice ventriloquized a quote from one of my blog items criticizing the project as if it were me phoning in. The discussion then used this as a springboard to emphasize that despite wingeing academics like me —"very much a minority view" (hooray to that) — the '100 Objects' project had been a resounding success with the great British public. The British public are generally in favour of restoring the death penalty too...

The discussion concluded with the panellists being asked whether in their opinion the series had been a success. The response was a unanimous thumbs up. You couldn't hear yourself think for the sound of the BBC slapping itself on the back.

Regular readers of my blog will know that my criticism of the '100 Objects' series is framed within a broader critique of museum culture. I've been muscular in articulating that position at times and if I have occasionally overstepped the mark it is perhaps in some of my remarks about Neil MacGregor. I know him to be a very nice man and my comments were not intended to be hurtful. But this is a blog, not an academic treatise. Moreover, I know why the BBC chose to quote my comments about Neil rather than any of the other (hopefully constructive) points I have made in my blog on this topic. The BBC thrives on conflict, frequently at the expense of a more nuanced discussion.

My critique of the '100 Objects' project does not mean, however, that I don't appreciate the British Museum's collections. As an art and design historian how could I not? Nor does it mean that I disapprove in principle of the public learning about those collections. And while we're on the subject, nor does it mean that I have not listened to some of these programmes myself, and with great interest.

Being a drummer, I was fascinated, for example, to hear the programme about the Akan drum (above left). But that does not preclude me from supporting the desire of many developing nations around the world to have some of those objects returned to them so that they might write their own narratives of those objects rather than have the British Museum write those stories for them.

It's often forgotten that the colonial project was not only about controlling people, land, raw materials, commerce, capital; it was also about controlling history, the stories that are written about those nations and their material culture. There is great power in that process. We cannot turn the clock back on the colonial period and undo the crimes of Empire, but we can return to those formerly subaltern nations the power to write their own histories. Those narratives often begin with material culture, with objects, as the British Museum's '100 Objects' project makes clear. While the British Museum covetously holds those objects, the original source nations can only do as they have been expected to do for the past two hundred years — shut up and listen.

As if it were not enough for Western museums to have expropriated the material culture of colonised peoples during the Age of Empire, they now insist on the right to construct and narrate the history of those objects, to market them, to merchandise them, to broadcast them (what are the economics of this '100 Objects' project? We've never been told). And all without criticism, please.

Now I know what it feels like to have someone speak for you. Next time I'd prefer to speak for myself, even if it is "very much a minority view".