As museums in the United States released statements last week about their stance on the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, few escaped criticism for their words on the tragedy. Detractors called out institutions for not responding fast enough to protests or, when they did, for not having mentioned Floyd’s name or the Black Lives Matter movement in their statements. Now, similar controversy has crossed the Atlantic to impact institutions in England.
London’s British Museum is among those savaged for its statement issued in response to Black Lives Matter protests in England, which this weekend saw the dismantling of a monument to a 17th-century slave trader in Bristol.
On Friday, the institution’s director, Hartwig Fischer, posted a lengthy blog post on the British Museum website that was accompanied by an artwork by Glenn Ligon in which text from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man fades into a field of black. (The image was used with the artist’s permission, unlike another one of a Ligon work used for similar purposes in a letter issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Max Hollein, the director of the Met, later issued an apology for his missive, which Ligon protested on Instagram.)
In his statement, which mentioned Black Lives Matter and Floyd, Fischer wrote, “The British Museum stands in solidarity with the British Black community, with the African American community, with the Black community throughout the world. We are aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere.”
He continued, “I hope that we will find the right ways to allow the museum to better reflect our societies and our complex, contentious and blended histories, and become more than ever a theater of human connection.”
The response did not satisfy many critics who allege that the British Museum still has not contended with its lengthy history of controversy over its holdings, which are believed to include a number of plundered objects. Benin has since 2012 been attempting to get the British Museum to return metal plaques and sculptures stolen from a temple in modern-day Nigeria, and the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, are a perennial source of scandal. Historian Geoffrey Robertson, one of the British Museum’s most outspoken critics, once told the Guardian, “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.”
Commentators said that the museum’s recent statement was at odds with this history. Dan Hicks, an archaeologist who teaches at the University of Oxford, called the statement “hollow” on Twitter and wrote, “Some parts of the BM displays and collections are monuments to white supremacy, which need to be dismantled like Confederate statues.” Writer Zoé Samudzi said the museum “does not exist without colonial plunder: it is a trophy case for it.” And artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan wrote on Instagram, “Reparations are due. And until [the works] are returned they must change the labels and descriptive texts to truthfully describe the violent force of whiteness by which these objects were stolen.”
On Thursday, the V&A museum in London issued a statement with its director, Tristram Hunt, writing, “The V&A exists to champion stories of creativity across cultures, communities and histories and we have a responsibility to our black employees, members, visitors, artistic community and followers to better showcase their perspectives. We stand in solidarity with all those rejecting racism, social injustice and violence—and need to work harder to use our platform to amplify black and minority voices.”
The National Gallery in London issued a much less lengthy statement on June 5, after it had been the site of a Black Lives Matter protest. “Given our location in London and our role as a global institution, we must take this moment to listen, pose important questions and reflect on how our museum can play a role in making our society more just, tolerant and inclusive,” the museum wrote. It did not address Black Lives Matter or Floyd’s death outright.
The Tate museum network was among the first art institutions to address the Black Lives Matter explicitly, in an Instagram post that included a Chris Ofili work from its collection that addresses the killing of Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager who was stabbed by white youths. “We have a platform, a voice, and a duty to our members, employees, artists, visitors and followers to speak up and stand for human rights and anti-racism,” Tate wrote. “Nobody should have to live in fear because of the colour of their skin.”
Critics noted that Tate’s statement belied a lack of diversity that exists behind the scenes at the museum network. Unlike many institutions, Tate has released data on the demographics of its workers. According to a 2018 report, just 13 percent of Tate’s employees are Black, Asian, or minority ethnic.