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Gbavo indeed

I have been reading the British Museum’s blog, mostly because I am a pathetic anglophile, but partially because it is really, really interesting. I know they cheat by having looted the entire world for a hundred years to build a collection, but seriously, if anybody wants to know how to use a blog to make people who visit occasionally want to come in and visit more often, this is it.

On the other hand, there are certain… problems with pathetic anglophilia, or at least with combining pathetic anglophilia with a modern liberal view of the universe and cultural whatnot. And it’s not just that some works are inherently and artfully troubling. But this Sowei mask, while a little goofy to my eyes, isn’t inherently troubling. Well, but then I love the interaction between cultures, the friction between them sparking off new alloy-art. So the awesomeness of the top hat totally outweighs the troublingness for me as far as the artwork itself goes.

It’s the context, of course. Remember about the looting? This was looted—scientifically looted, but looted—in the late nineteenth century by a fellow named Thomas J. Alldridge, who was first a trading agent and then an administrator for the British colonial government. That career path in itself is so unremarkable and so telling that all the items brought back should be assumed to be problematic. And the British Museum knows this, they know it better than anybody. They have the fucking Elgin Marbles, for the love of proverbial, so they do have an understanding of what’s so problematic about this ritual object sitting in their museum.

So what do they do? Here’s the thing that is so beautifully and tragically British about it. They know that they have the thing in the first place because of colonial looting, not just of this work but of the natural resources of the whole region that brought the looters in the first place. They also know that they aren’t going to do anything foolish like give it away—they are the British Museum, they are obviously the best place for a valuable item like that. It’s the burden desire of the British after all to protect lesser peoples and their pretense to culture provide world class facilities for visitors and researchers taking conservation, scientific research and collection management to a new level of excellence. Er, that last bit is from the press materials, obviously.

So they work with the local Sierra Leonean community to validate their hold on the item. The ritual and ceremony appear to have been beautiful: read, as they say, the whole thing, as well as watching what I hope to successfully embed below.

So why is Your Humble Blogger so troubled? It’s this: they worked closely with Sierra Leoneans who had resettled in England. This is not a representative sample of the Old Country. In dealing with the specific question of their relationship to the postcolonial white guys, I’m thinking that they have, let’s say, come to terms with the British legacy. So when the British Museum is coming to terms with its legacy of Sierra Leonean loot, it strikes me as absolutely cheating to work with those people who have already come to terms with the British. And—in the year twenty thirteen, is it not so utterly British to consult with those Sierra Leoneans who happen to be in London?

Now, there’s something endearing about that magnificent Anglo-arrogance. Well, endearing to me. That’s how we can watch Downton Abbey without throwing up, right? And I do want to emphasize that the British Museum is a world-class facility for objects of that kind, and that it’s true that way more people will see the thing and learn about the culture than if it were back in Sierra Leone, and they really put a lot of effort into contacting and working with people, when they totally could have just put the thing in a box and focused a light on it. They, you know, Did the Right Thing. And that’s what is so beautifully and tragically British about it, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,