British Museum: Sugarcoating History

Posted on January 26th, 2011 by

Artifacts from all over the world line the walls of the British Museum.  Descriptions of the artifacts are close by for visitors to learn about the world’s history.   Who decides and writes what should go into these descriptions?  How do visitors know the information is correct?   Perhaps these questions are worth exploring.

The British Museum exhibits artifacts from every continent and all periods of time.  It displays culture from the beginning of known history to present.  Because of this, the museum is a major attraction for tourists and locals alike.  Many school classes make the trip to the museum to experience and learn from the mass of history available in the museum.

I took a closer look at ancient North America and Mexico for this class.  Being from Minnesota, I’ve had many American history lessons, a number of which were focused on ancient cultures.  The artifacts in the North American room were material objects of the pictures I have seen in textbooks my whole life.  While these pieces were very interesting to see, the descriptions appear superficial.  They give the general date of the piece and, maybe, a small description of its significance.  However, these descriptions fail to include historical context.  For those that give timelines, the piece displays singular-phrase accounts of the goings-on.  Perhaps, if given an audio or personal tour, more historical context would be given.  That was not my personal experience, but that could have been the tour guide on that day.

In the North American room, I took special time to look at the region where I currently live.  Since I’ve performed my own research on the area, the lack of substantial material was appalling.  While the pieces of clothing made of buffalo were described accurately, the accounts left out the extreme dependence on the buffalo in the area and the crucial role they played in daily life.  Because this was such a crucial part of life for many Native Americans, it seems strange, maybe improper to leave this out.  Then, turning to the European influence, the descriptions failed to acknowledge French, German, or Scandinavian influence.  These communities were likely the first to interact with the Native Americans.  Also, the descriptions left out information on the mutual conflict between Europeans and Natives.  Specific to Minnesota, the narratives completely ignored the Sioux Uprising and Massacre of 1863, which is still the largest mass execution.

The absence of this not-so-pretty material upset me.  I am not one to seek negative information, but I am one to seek shared fact.  I’m concerned that visitors to the British Museum seeking the same might not always find it.  I am not certain that my experience can be generalized to the whole museum and every artifact, but I am certain that a little more knowledge wouldn’t hurt anyone.


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