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10 April 2024

A reckoning for the British Museum

Haunted by scandal, the museum has become a “black hole” for artefacts. It’s time to bring it down, says Noah Angell.

By Kathleen Jamie

Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe that unhappy spirits can walk, slam doors, go bump in the night? Do you believe that objects can retain potency even, or perhaps especially, if violently uprooted from their culture of origin?

Here’s a less occult question: does anyone actually know what is in the British Museum (BM), that five-hectare compound, with its many-levelled 18th-century building plus its various outposts and stores? It is reputed to house eight million artefacts, not necessary fully catalogued, of which only a tiny fraction are displayed. As Noah Angell writes: “The British Museum is only marginally an exhibition space; in material terms it’s mostly a site of disappearance.” The objects disappear, and disappear again. This book closes just after the scandal broke about the hundreds of thefts from the museum, the subsequent sales on eBay, the resignations: proof, as the author has it, that the BM has no claim to being a safe steward of anyone’s cultural artefacts.

Noah Angell, an American in London, is an artist interested in storytelling and oral history. He comes from North Carolina, “a place of many ghosts” where “trauma is soaked into the land”. It was where the slave-dependent plantation system was first established, and where, as a child, he says he saw and sensed uncanny figures in the woods. “Haint” is the word there, noun and verb, for ghost and haunt. The plantation system is gone, unless you accept what Angell says, that it is internalised in the US psyche, in racialised politics and extrajudicial violence. Plantations enriched 18th-century men such as Hans Sloane, “who didn’t plant a damned thing” but used his wealth to collect artefacts, animals and plants, and whose collection became the basis of the British Museum, founded in 1753 .

An oral historian, Angell keeps his ears open. In the pub (the book often repairs to the various pubs of Bloomsbury and Holborn, where Angell’s interlocutors may feel more at ease) he overheard a tableful of BM workers telling ghost stories, and so it began. He put a notice on the museum’s internal noticeboard, and began tracking down people with unnerving stories to tell. He conducted interviews across seven years, often with the lower-waged non-curatorial staff: the cleaners, janitors and security wardens, especially those on “permanent nights”, whose task it is to patrol the “endless bloody corridors” and places the public doesn’t see. Sometimes those nights are disturbed.

Many of his interviewees wished to remain anonymous, as they didn’t want to appear ridiculous. But their stories tell of strange figures “photo-bombing” tourists’ pictures, of mystery footsteps and books that fall off shelves in empty rooms. There are glimpses of rushing figures, “sentries”, and figures in frock-coats. (Some ghosts, it has to be said, are very much alive. One cleaner was discovered actually living in a cupboard in the museum.) There are presences, sightings, strange floating orbs of light visible on CCTV, but not to the staff sent to check. There are wilful doors, such as the heavy oak fireproof ones that close off Room 41, where the Sutton Hoo treasures are shown. These need the wardens’ full bodyweight to shut and secure at the end of the day. They remain shut all night, except when CCTV shows that they’ve opened themselves of their own accord.

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Then there are the “restless objects” themselves: tales surfaced of how the medieval Christian relics reacted badly when their gallery was converted to one of Islamic artefacts. Of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, represented by figurines originally looted from mortuary temples, which caused trouble when moved into a new gallery space, where the figurines couldn’t oversee the door. They were moved back. The Nereid Monument – an entire tomb – is said to make music, and is also given to creating or attracting orbs of light. Perhaps, staff say, someone attached to the object came with it. Perhaps there is something in “stone tape theory”, an idea conceived in Bloomsbury which postulates that buildings and objects operate as “recording devices”, absorbing energies.

And what energies they have had to absorb. The Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes are only the best known of the contested artefacts. The Elgin Marbles, Angell writes, “brand the UK as an unrepentant kleptocracy”. The Benin Bronzes represent another episode when the British colonial machine could stand accused of looting, theft and violence; they were taken even as their home city burned. Scattered across many museums, some are now trickling back to Nigeria – but not the BM’s.

These objects, and the millions of others, all have their stories, and if Angell and his interviewees are to be believed, many have their disquiets, angers, sorrows and pains. That is before we even begin with the human remains: the mummified children, the coffins containing headless bodies, “a gathering of the dead as loot”. In the museum there are 6,000 “sets” of human remains, actual bodies or artefacts made from human tissue.

In this account, the museum is not so much a place of display and education, with the occasional thrilling ghost, as seriously unnerving. Angell says he wasn’t much aware of the UK’s colonial past when he began his project. But he has come to conclude “there is something dangerously out of balance in the heart of Bloomsbury”; that the “British Museum is a hive of unrest”.

A hive of unrest; and a vast oubliette. A symbol in plain sight of Great Britain’s great forgetting: of its colonial past, its violence and avarice. Forgotten or elided with a sleight of hand, objects associated with the slave trade are filed under “Africa”, not “Britain”.

The museum’s core function, Angell says, is storage. There are basements where few venture; no one fully knows what is down there. There is rumoured to be an entire Ethiopian monastery. There are certainly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian relics, admitted to the museum after the bloody Battle of Maqdala in 1868, in which hundreds of Abyssinians were killed and a staggering amount of loot was auctioned off by the British soldiery. Agents of the British Museum were there in person, bidding away. There is a shooting range and an air-raid shelter. The River Fleet runs under the museum, in pipes. There exist energies and spirits that are “mournful, aggrieved, homesick, ungrounded”. The headless bodies are in the basement, in their coffins “like a foundation sacrifice”.

A reader might well do as Angell did himself: come for the delicious ghost stories but stay for a complete takedown of the British Museum project. It is, the author says, a “black hole”, “an opulent and obscene trophy case”, a relic in itself, a colonial-era experiment for which the slave trade was foundational, and which, like a ghost, cannot admit it has outlived its time. What to do? “We live in a time of colonial reckoning, and a time of the reclamation of indigenous knowledge.” Bring it down, he says. Let communities reclaim what is theirs, and let the house of spirits fall.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and essayist. Her most recent book is “Cairn” (Sort of Books)

Ghosts of the British Museum: A True Story of Colonial Loot and Restless Objects
Noah Angell
Monoray, 256pp, £20

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[See also: Inside the rise of Ziggy Stardust]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward