Tag Archives: john mack

Memory at the British Museum

The Great Court
Bloggers will love ‘The Museum of the Mind’, a new exhibition in The Great Court at the British Museum: odds and sods assembled to support a larger purpose – a sort of physical semantic web. The show is a clever window onto the museum’s vast collections focused on memory in all its aspects. Materials from just about every collection in the building are gathered together, in a well-organised single-room show.

There’s a gorgeous (and specially made) Mexican Day of the Dead shrine to the museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane, an amazing twig-and-shell mnemonic device used by Pacific navigators, ancient Roman and Greek memorial statuary and a Ghanaian coffin carved in the shape of a Cadillac.

The paradoxical thing about clever, information-rich shows like this is that they can only undermine the case for retaining the huge Western hordes of looted artefacts. Once you wrap the object in its human context – making connections – its status actually declines. It may be a beautiful, haunting object but here it’s just part of the information mix – a plaster cast would work just as well. Retaining the originals just seems like more indefensible Imperial greed.

There’s also an instructive comparison to be made between the ancient artefacts, most of which were looted, and the more recent items, most of which were probably bought on the open market or commissioned from their makers: the expropriatory economics of empire vs. the consensual economics of trade.

The accompanying book, by the museum’s top ethnographer, John Mack, is also pretty good.