The British museum is set to reopen on Thursday, after over five months of closure during the CCP virus pandemic—but with changes to displays to reflect the “exploitative context of the British Empire.”
A portrait bust of Sir Hans Sloane, the earliest founder of the British Museum, was taken off its pedestal and put into a display case in the Enlightenment Gallery with a label saying “slave owner,” The Telegraph reported on Monday.
The British newspaper said that the bust’s new position is among artifacts “that explain his work in the ‘exploitative context of the British Empire’,” and other artifacts will also get “new labels explaining how they were acquired by the museum through ‘colonial conquest and military looting’.”
Sloane was a physician as well as a collector. It’s believed that the funding of his collection was from both his medical career and his wife, an “heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica worked by enslaved people.”
When he died in 1753, Sloane bequeathed to the British nation his 71,000-item collection, which became the founding collection of the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum.
Hartwig Fischer, the museum director, told The Telegraph that “dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated” history. The new display will make “the relationship between the Enlightenment era, colonialism, and slavery” explicit.
“We have pushed him off the pedestal where nobody looked at him, and placed him in the limelight,” Fisher said.
“The British Museum has done a lot of work—accelerated and enlarged its work on its own history, the history of empire, the history of colonialism, and also of slavery. These are subjects which need to be addressed, and to be addressed properly. We need to understand our own history.”
Curators told the Telegraph that the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated the decision to highlight the museum’s history from this angle.
Non-profit organization Save Our Statues (SOS), however, argued that the label is not a fair characterization of the museum’s benefactor.
“Sloane was not a slave owner, he married the widow of a plantation owner who received 1/3 of its income (i.e. did not own). Sloane was a doctor who gave free surgeries, donated his salary to the hospital & established the Foundling Hospital,” SOS wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.
The @britishmuseum label is incorrect. Sloane was not a slave owner, he married the widow of a plantation owner who received 1/3 of its income (i.e. did not own). Sloane was a doctor who gave free surgeries, donated his salary to the hospital & established the Foundling Hospital.
— Save Our Statues (@_SaveOurStatues) August 25, 2020
Movement to Remove Statues
A petition started in June for the removal of Sloane’s statue called it an “insult” that “sends chills down” the petition writer’s spine.
“I believe it is a time to put an end to glorification of pain and suffering,” the petition reads.
SOS initiated a counter petition on Tuesday to “save his statue from the historically illiterate who are attacking” British history, heritage, and culture.
SOS argued that we are “merely custodians of” history, which shouldn’t be erased or rewritten.
Both petitions aim for 1,500 signatures. The original petition had around 1,300 while the counter petition had around 1,400 on Wednesday morning.
DUP Councillor Billy Walker of Northern Ireland, where Sloane was born, called the campaign to remove Sloane’s statue “ridiculous,” citing the contributions of Sloane.
“This man did so much for the world—he gave us the concept of free museums; he found a cure for smallpox; he pioneered science and medicine to do away with magic for treating illness; he promoted the use of quinine against malaria; he discovered milk [drinking] chocolate; he was the first man to lead both Royal Colleges; he treated the poor for free. The list is endless. He was no slave trader,” Walker told the Belfast Telegraph in June.
After the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, there has been a renewed campaign to remove statues of people with connections to colonialism, slavery, or that may exacerbate racial tension.
On June 7, the statue of 17th century English slave trader and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbor by protesters. It was temporarily replaced with the statue a BLM activist before the replacement was removed by the local council a day later.
The toppling of Colston’s statue inspired “concerned academics, think-tanks, lawyers, politicians, and students” to form SOS, the coalition “to protect Great Britain’s exceptional and irreplaceable historical and cultural heritage,” according to the organization’s website.