Books | The Museum of Mankind - Museums Association

Books | The Museum of Mankind

A sometimes uncomfortable read of cultural attitudes to ethnographic collections and stories
Decolonising Museums
Profile image for Jan Freedman
Jan Freedman
Andy McLeod and Paul Guzie in the Carpenters’ Shop in 1993

To borrow a quote from Thomas Henry Huxley, “I’m sharpening my claws and beak in readiness”.

I was geared up to writing 650 words about the title of this book. The subtitle did nothing to simmer the heat: “Man and boy in the British Museum Department”. “Mankind”? “Man and boy”? I was ready to take down the patriarchy.

Perhaps I was a little too eager to fight for equality. I had never heard of the Museum of Mankind before. It was an exhibition space for the British Museum from 1970, after it had moved its ethnography collections offsite, until 1997. This book is about the life and times of this successful little museum.

The author, Ben Burt, has worked at the British Museum since 1968 and his career includes a stint at the Museum of Mankind. If anyone was going to write a book about this short-lived venue, it was going to be Burt.

Book cover of the Museum of Mankind book. Image shows various cartoon skeletons in a fantastical scene
By Ben Burt, Berghahn, £89, ISBN 978-1-78920-302-8

It is uncomfortable to read about the sometimes cruel pranks, and the sexism and racism of some of his colleagues of the past, and to think that this behaviour was deemed normal so recently.


This isn’t the most engaging book I’ve read and not one I would give to a family member. But it is a more interesting read for museum professionals. It provides a lot of history about the people who made the Museum of Mankind what it was, the interesting exhibitions, the stores for the collections and the innovative learning programmes.

The main thread throughout is the lack of understanding and respect for ethnographic collections. As the author points out, they did not appear important compared with the more “classical” collections of the British Museum, and were lumped in with miscellaneous collections for years. They were seen as colonial keepsakes from “savages”, “barbarians” and “primitive cultures”.

This attitude was not just rife at the British Museum, but museums in general. We now recognise that these collections are a part of different cultures. They are not in museums to show “primitive art” or weapons from “savages”. Rather, they are a glimpse into how humans live and survive across our planet.

One of the main struggles, as Burt points out, relates to displaying the collections. The curators research the background of the objects and want to provide the public with information about them. But there are difficulties if the narratives are restricted by the voices of those above.
Or when the narratives suit a sponsor and disregard their colonial history.

I did find it refreshing how honest Burt was about the British Museum. Exhibitions at the Museum of Mankind were written to provide contextual information about different ways of life. There was an opportunity for one exhibition to have the voices of native people in it to correct erroneous information, but the British Museum passed on the offer.

Many ethnography collections were “acquired” –often stolen – through the expansion of the British empire. Colonialism has always been portrayed as the greatness of British and other Europeans expanding their territories; it has never been about the native people affected by it. The truth of this history needs to be told in exhibitions. This is what decolonising museums is about, where those deliberately hidden and ignored stories are told alongside objects.

Burt shows his passion for these collections and how they have not been acknowledged for what they are. For 27 years, the Museum of Mankind did give these collections a new and different voice, where their real stories were told.

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