A Fit of Absentmindedness
To professional activists in Britain, every year is Year Zero.
George Osborne is the archetype of an Edwardian huckster. A curious mix of Freddie Threepwood and Kenneth Widmerpool, the former chancellor of the Exchequer is a type of quintessentially upper-class Englishman who has no reverence for any patrimony, is often unwise, ahistorical, and myopic, perfectly trained in amorality, without any true patriotism or connection to the land beneath his feet, one who would not think twice before selling off anything that comes for a bit of laugh and profit. “Closing a deal” is the highest virtue to this sort.
The Osborne Doctrine of 2010 to ’16 aspired to produce a “golden decade” of business deals with a predatory and mercantilist China. That particular idea was, in retrospect, only slightly better than what Osborne managed to achieve in his current tenure as the chairman of the most famous museum in the world, the British Museum, as he recently negotiated the de facto return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, in the twelfth year of a Conservative government.
A British museum statement on the deal reads in part, “we operate within the law and we're not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity…But we are seeking new positive, long-term partnerships with countries and communities around the world, and that of course includes Greece.” If a country’s historical justification for artifacts in a national museum hides behind legalism, national decline is all but named.
British law bars the government from giving away cultural artifacts. But that is only a matter of a change in governance. All this is happening under a Tory government anyway, in a museum chaired by a Tory, with a Labour leader far more radical than Tony Blair waiting in the wings to change the law. In any case, only 16 percent of British people want the Parthenon sculptures to remain in the U.K., a scathing testament to a nation cursed by increasingly parochial politics and the combination of liberal self-loathing and conservative neglect of historical education.
For good or for bad, the empire was what shaped modern British identity. Without that shared memory and shared story, the U.K. might as well be relegated to warring (or street-fighting) tribes and nursing homes. Britain arguably acquired an empire in a fit of absent-mindedness over a cup of tea, or so the saying goes. That is, as everything else, a half-truth. There was of course no grand centuries-old plan for territorial annexations or acquiring protectorates; it was a transaction that came along the way during various phases of great power rivalries with France and Spain.
What was planned, however, was a careful curation of the greatest knowledge base in history. As Ben Wilson wrote in his phenomenal Empire of the Deep, the Royal Navy after Trafalgar was a peerless global force, which, while not tracking piracy or human-trafficking, was dedicated to the causes of science and history, dispatched to the poles, mapping oceans, islands, building and listing lighthouses, and measuring depths. Colonial officers, likewise, were some of the finest amateur historians, and their contribution to archaeology and history remains to this day unparalleled, from the Greek marbles to the Egyptian Rosetta Stone, Benin bronzes, Brahmi scripts, and Mauryan bronze excavations.
With the rise of powerful European states, museum curation became an act of public empowerment and enlightenment. Artifacts that were otherwise lost to time—ignored by the intellectually unworthy or on the verge of destruction in their homelands—were given a place in London for the world to come and learn. However, the slow receding of once-vigorous states has resulted in predictable consequences. Without a strong and proud state patronage and the resultant ideological vacuum, “interpretation” of history has been left to radical activists and amplified by diversity bureaucrats. The Horniman Museum in London, for example, began the process of returning its collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria, as the director of the museum spouted regular decolonization nonsense about how the gesture was “moral and appropriate.” One is left to wonder what the director’s idea of a museum is.
Similar stories are found all over Europe and America. Repatriation and reparation are the managerial buzzwords in stately homes, museums, and universities. New York museums have recently decided to return 161 artifacts to the Greek government, and Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, solemnly stated that they “are facing up to our historical and moral responsibility to illuminate and come to terms with Germany’s colonial past.” Even France, arguably the most culturally proud Western country, recently published a government sponsored report titled “Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics.”
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One of the last British museums I visited immediately prior to my move to the U.S. was the Tate, where I had a chance to chat with an elderly docent in front of the famous painting of the Battle of Jersey. The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 is a flat canvas large war painting by John Singleton Copley, and is about one of those rare moments in modern history where a British land was under partial occupation by foreign forces. The painting, in a classical three-quarters ratio, depicts a freshly shot Pierson pale from blood loss and rolling over, with shocked townspeople fleeing the chaos of urban warfare and a dazed drummer fallen on the floor, as Pierson’s African servant Pompey returns fire with a determined face.
Chatting with the elderly docent notably confused by the suddenly imposed cultural moment, I was made aware that they have been gently “guided” by the museum bureaucrats suffering from post-George Floyd induced collective hysteria, to focus on Pompey’s race and apologize for the fact that he was an African servant of a British officer. A universal story of national unity, sacrifice, and heroism, reduced to a crude anecdote reflecting current racial piety and reparation rhetoric in one of the world’s finest art museums.
Of course, it will not stop at Benin bronzes, or Elgin marbles, just like statue-toppling across the United States did not stop with the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Cultural revolutionaries are rarely satiated by concessions. To the mass of professional activists who decide the discourse, every year is the new Year Zero. Ultimately, we are approaching the stage where the very act of state-sponsored collections for museums will be synonymous with condemned colonialism, prompting the return of all artifacts into the hands of either weak states or a few powerful neo-feudal oligarchs. And that would be a deliberate act of civilizational vandalism, a fit of philistinism that would truly impoverish us all.