The British Museum Reopens to a World That Has Changed

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LONDON — After being closed for 163 days by the coronavirus pandemic, the British Museum on Thursday became the last of Europe’s major museums to welcome back visitors.

As at other institutions these days, there were hand sanitizer stations and one-way routes, a limited number of visitors, and many masks. But the museum has made some more permanent changes, too.

Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, said in an interview that the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests around the world had “altered the awareness of everybody.” The events made him want to intensify the museum’s work addressing its links with slavery and colonialism, he said.

The museum made two main changes for the reopening, Mr. Fischer said. The first was moving a bust of Hans Sloane — a physician and collector of curiosities whose holdings formed the basis of the museum when it was founded in 1753 — from a plinth in a prominent gallery to a display case. Now Sloane is no longer simply celebrated as a natural history collector, but labeled a “slave owner.” The vitrine contains other objects related to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

The second move was the creation of a guided route around the museum called “Collecting and Empire,” with plaques that explain how certain items, like a bark shield from Australia, had made their way into the museum. (The plaques stress that most of the items were bought or donated to the museum, not stolen.)

“Our task is to elucidate the history of this institution, and the history of every object in it,” Mr. Fischer said about the alterations. “Openness is really at the heart of this.”

The changes he announced may seem small, but they caused a stir in Britain this week.

The decision to move the bust, which Mr. Fischer first outlined in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, angered some traditionalists. Save Our Statues, a campaign group, said on Twitter that it showed “such disrespect & ingratitude to a man whose generosity has helped preserve so much world history for millions to enjoy.” Other Twitter users pointed out that Sloane had not owned any slaves himself, but that his wealth came from plantations owned by his wife.

Mr. Fischer said he does not use social media, adding that he was aware of the fuss, and that he stood by the decision. People will always complain, he said: “You just have to do the right thing.”

This week it was mostly social conservatives who criticized the museum, but in June it was rebuked by social justice advocates when it issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In the statement, Mr. Fischer said the British Museum was “aligned with the spirit and soul” of the movement. That idea was widely mocked online.

“Did our lives matter when your STOLE ALL OUR THINGS?” Stephanie Yeboah, an author, wrote on Twitter. “If we matter that much to you, give it back.”

The lack of diversity among the museum’s senior curatorial staff also came into the spotlight in June, when a BBC interviewer asked Mr. Fischer how many of the museum’s 150 curators were Black. He said none were, adding that it was a “big issue we need to address.” (He was actually wrong, a spokeswoman for the museum said: The museum has one Black curator, an archaeologist.)

Mr. Fischer said the museum had been trying to address its links to colonialism and slavery since before he joined, in 2016, by researching the origins of items in the collection to work out how they had been acquired, and involving communities associated with the artifacts in curatorial decisions. The new text that explains Hans Sloane’s links with slavery had been “co-written with the Black British community,” for example, he said.

“It’s not a beginning when it comes to facing our own history,” Mr. Fischer said, adding, “You’ll see much more of this in the future.”

For years, the museum has faced calls to return key items from the collection to their countries of origin, including the Benin Bronzes, a dazzling collection of hundreds of artifacts taken by British forces in a brutal 1879 military raid. The treasures are now scattered in museums and private collections around the world. The British Museum has said it would loan some of the items to Nigeria when it builds a new museum to display them, but has resisted calls to return them permanently.

When asked about looted items in the museum’s collection, Mr. Fischer reacted strongly. “This collection is not based on looted objects,” he said. “There’s eight million objects in this collection,” he added, most of them acquired by scientists and collectors with genuine passion and interest in world culture. “I think that’s what’s really at the heart of this institution,” he said.

“This is the most extraordinary place to learn about humankind and its history,” he added. “And it’s also an extraordinary place to come in for conversation, debate,” and “respectful exchange,” he said.

Debates in Britain around the legacies of colonialism and slavery have become increasingly shrill since a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, was torn down in June in Bristol, England, during a Black Lives Matter protest. This week, newspapers and social media have been consumed by a flap over the 1740 song “Rule, Britannia!” which is traditionally performed at the Last Night at the Proms, a concert wrapping up an annual festival of classical music, broadcast on the BBC. The patriotic song’s chorus includes the line, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, dismissed calls for the song to be dropped from the event. “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Some supporters of the British Museum say it can’t win in this climate. “The British Museum is the kid at school that everybody’s decided to mess with and bully,” said Bonnie Greer, a Chicago-born playwright and journalist, in an email. Ms. Greer, who is African-American, was the deputy chair of the museum’s board for four years and hosted a series of talks there earlier this year about how cultural institutions can reckon with colonialism’s legacy.

“They do a lot and should talk about it,” she said. The fact the museum doesn’t blow its own horn, she added, was likely “a British thing.”

Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist who resigned from the museum’s board last year in protest over a range of issues, including its colonial legacy, said dethroning Sloane’s bust and the new trail “seemed excellent.”

“I think it is starting to move,” she said.

On Thursday at the museum, a dozen visitors said in interviews they had heard about the Sloane bust in the news media.

Kath Miller, 73, said it was good that the museum wasn’t hiding his links with slavery. “He probably wasn’t a nice person,” she said, standing in front of the bust. “He doesn’t look it.”

Maria Morte, 50, said she had read about the bust in a newspaper. “Doing this, it’s very with the times, isn’t it?” she said.

“I think it’s a good decision,” she added. “Before it just said about his travels and how his great collection came about. But the legacy of slavery, you can’t ignore.”

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