What is the purpose of a book about a museum? This question sprang to mind as I read James Hamilton’s The British Museum: Storehouse of Civilisations, because I was baffled by it.
It could have been a great opportunity to add to existing histories and help readers think about the present-day British Museum. Instead, it presents
a hackneyed and awkwardly written history that does its readers and the museum a huge disservice.
The British Museum has published two books on its history: Marjorie Caygill’s The History of the British Museum and David Wilson’s The British Museum: A History. Unsurprisingly, neither tackles the more difficult subjects relating to the venue, such as the colonial origins of its collections, governance or sponsorship. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s account is equally sanitised.
It is notable that the book is part of a series on “the history of civilisation”, a tone so in keeping with the British Museum’s self-image it might explain the lack of critique.
In fact, it’s hard to find anything new in this book. Like the others, it takes a chronological approach, starting with Hans Sloane’s will, in which he bequeathed his collection to the nation. Along the way, the usual events and themes in the museum’s history are described: Montague House, not-so-public access, the King’s Library, the new building, the dispersal of its collections, the British Library in 1973.
But chronology is a difficult structure: it’s hard to know where to end, or to draw a conclusion about ongoing events. Hamilton draws the main storyline to a close with the opening of the British Library.
That’s surprising because the late-20th century saw a period of turmoil in the museum that related directly to its governance in the preceding centuries. Those events had a huge impact on the museum of today, so it seems strange not to mention them.
Drawing the history to an end in the early 1970s also means that there is no discussion of the former director Neil MacGregor signing the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums in 2002, which doubled down on the British Museum’s prior refusals to repatriate stolen objects.
Indeed, it is hard to discuss the museum without mentioning its colonial origins and present-day responses to them, yet where Hamilton does mention them he is disingenuous, to put it mildly.
Sloane’s connection to slavery is described as income “from plantations his wife had inherited”, rather than his active complicity as outlined in James Delbourgo’s biography of the collector. Similarly, the 19th-century artefacts “arrive” because museums are “institutions of suction, drawing stuff towards them”, rather than being active participants in collecting stolen objects.
The author acknowledges the dispute over the Parthenon marbles, but later appears to dismiss concern about them while simultaneously sighing about protests over oil company sponsorship.
The lack of original content is exacerbated by Hamilton’s uneven style, which veers from pretentious – Sloane’s “courageous embarkation on dangerous travel expressed itself multifariously” – to sensationalist – Sloane’s will contained a “killer demand” that made “hostages” of the trustees.
The book is peppered with faux-academic tropes including footnotes and endnotes. There are appendices containing an odd selection of information, but few primary sources. A lack of precision gives rise to some ambiguities, such as the date the Natural History Museum came into being.
The British Museum is a flawed institution, albeit one that has a significant role in the past and present of cultural institutions. A book that discusses its history, warts and all, and places it in the context of contemporary discussions about museums could enable everyone to have a more informed discussion about its future.
This book is not it.
Head of Zeus imprint, Browns Books for Students, £18.99, ISBN 978-1786691835