De-collecting the British Museum

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Collage of British Museum with sign saying it is closed due to the collections de-collecting
Collage of old map, compass, old writing and old ship
Collage of animals and butterflies displayed on wall
Collage curio closet with 19th century animals and shells
Collage of caryatids from Athens Acropolis
Collage with pages and illustrations from 19th century dictionary

De-collecting the British Museum

Following a Europe trip, I wondered: What would happen if the British Museum's artifacts returned home?

Mixed media accordion book, two-sided, 28 panels
Folded: 4.5" H x 6.5" W x 1.5" D
Unfolded: 4.5" H x 44" W 


This book came about after a most unusual travel experience. Within the same week I saw one half of the Parthenon frieze at the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the other half at the British Museum in London. While both museums had signage explaining that the missing halves were at the other museum, the language in Athens was, understandably, more pointed about why the missing portions were in London - and had been for two centuries.


But what was particularly emotional for me was seeing the beautiful and graceful Caryatids at the Acropolis Museum, originally a set of six that held up the Erechteion roof on the Acropoplis.  Ever since studying Ancient Greece as a 5th grader, I had been a little in love with the Caryatids. At last, in Athens, I finally "met" them, but was pained to see that one of the sisters (as I thought of them) was missing; she was, of course, at the British Museum, having been removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century along with the rest of the Parthenon pieces. The gap in Athens was profound for me, as was the lonely singularity of the Caryatid in London.

At the same time, I was struck by the fact that the Caryatid and other Parthenon pieces in London were far better preserved than their counterparts in Greece, as they had been saved from two centuries of Athens pollution. I wondered about the tradeoff. 

I was further immersed in the issue while perusing an enormous room dedicated to the topic of "collectors and collecting." There, hundreds of cases displayed thousands of specimens "collected" from across the globe by 18th and 19th century British explorers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Birds, shells, feathers, lizards, leaves, insects - all had made their way to the British Museum, which opened in 1759 as the world's first free, national, public museum. Its mission was to be "a museum of the world, for the world." Today the museum concedes that  some of the ways in which objects entered the British Museum "are no longer current or acceptable."

That vast room of specimens entranced, educated and horrified me. The excitement of discovery and new scientific understanding was clear. But so was the magnitude of the theft and destruction.

I came home filled with questions and feelings. I make no claim to understand the issue of museum colonialism or how to resolve it. I simply came home needing to make a book about it.