Why we need a British history museum

Jonathan Lis

On a recent, pre-Omicron visit to Berlin, I spent a day visiting one of my favourite museums. It is not part of the UNESCO-listed Museum Island a few minutes away but is the equal of any of the institutions there. It is the German History Museum. The engrossing temporary exhibition focused on Hitler’s list of “divinely gifted artists” and explored how these unrepentant Nazis were able to continue their careers after the war, almost as though nothing had happened. The exhibition unapologetically exposed not only Nazi Germany, but the German failure to confront that period, in culture, for almost 25 years.

It’s easy perhaps for Germany to boast such a museum. The country is now 75 years on from the 20th century’s single greatest crime. There is no moral question about the Holocaust. There is no public argument. There are no monuments honouring its architects or their symbols. But the German History Museum, like the Jewish Museum a mile down the road, is not simply a history of the Holocaust. There was a Germany, and a Jewish culture, before that, and indeed after it. If you go to Berlin, you can trace the long, often difficult, sometimes magnificent history of one of Europe’s great nations.

You can learn a lot about anywhere from its national museum. Even if it is not dedicated exclusively to history, it normally seeks to present a vision – or version – of that country. Post-colonial states might give strong attention to the struggle for independence and national pride which followed. Countries which hosted famed ancient civilisations will draw glory from that. Former imperial powers may dwell on the country’s “illustrious” past – and may or may not contextualise it. National narratives dwell on some things and omit others altogether.

So what happens when you come to London?

Consider what you would expect to find if you went to a national museum in Delhi, or Buenos Aires, or Riga – then ask what happens when you go to the British Museum. For all its brilliance – and I am proud to be a paying member – the British Museum is not a museum of Britain. How can it possibly be our national history museum when it seeks to be everyone else’s too? The museum covers much of the globe (albeit with far more emphasis on Europe, North Africa and the Middle East than, say, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Pacific). This is, of course, profoundly valuable from an intercultural perspective – how else to compare and contrast the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians all in one afternoon, exploring what aspects they shared or borrowed, and what set them apart? And museums should aim to be expansive and inclusive, provided they have sourced their collections ethically. But this approach allows no way for a visitor, or British person, to analyse our country’s own history. The rooms on the Saxons and medieval Europe are just two of many.

To this extent, of course, the British Museum is a museum of Britain in a clear, unspoken way. It is a global museum because Britain conflates itself with the world. The Georgians and Victorians conceived of Britain – specifically England – as a metropole, standing above other countries with their trivial fixations and insular specificities. We see the version of Britain in our national museum that our forebears designed for us.

Certainly, the British Museum is not our only hope. The UK has a number of museums devoted to its past. We are good at compartmentalising it. Excellent individual institutions such as the National Maritime Museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum and International Slavery Museum offer accounts of British history through a specific theme or location, and – particularly in the last instance – place it in an international context. The history of Britain is, of course, a history of the sea, cities, war and empire. But there is nowhere to collate all these histories and arguments in a manageable, comparable framework.

Let us, then, invent a British History Museum: a summation of this country’s past, in all its joy, beauty and foulness. The story of how a collection of tribes suffered multiple invasions, unified into distinct polities, fought each other, fought others, conquered a third of the world, and, having lost it, didn’t know what to do next. Here you will find monarchs, princes and bishops; centuries of immigration, cultural dialogue and race riots; class revolt, women’s emancipation and gay rights. The only criterion must be truth.

Where, then, do we start? First comes the problem of what we mean precisely by Britain. The country known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only existed since 1922, and its full name has only been in place since 1927. It’s entirely possible that Scotland, or Northern Ireland, or both, may cease to be a part of it in the next twenty years. Should our museum explain the history of the political unit of the UK (arbitrary and perhaps temporary), the island of Britain alone (excluding Northern Ireland and, by extension, some of Britain’s most important history), or the full history of what used to be called the British Isles (offending a sovereign country, Ireland, which still needs to remind a certain section of the British establishment that it is no longer part of the UK)?

Then we have to decide what actually goes inside it. What stories do we want to tell, and why? It is here that we realise why the German History Museum exists and the British one doesn’t.

Put simply, Britain’s history isn’t history – it’s politics. Unlike Germany, even the distant past is a battleground. Almost any subject can be exploited to feed different narratives in an ongoing culture war. 1066 is weaponised by people who claim Norman lineage and therefore superiority over more recent arrivals. You cannot lionise Elizabeth I without assessing her brutal persecution of Catholics. Oliver Cromwell was a republican hero but also laid waste to much of Ireland.

That is the easy part. What of more recent history? For many people Atlantic slavery is something that Britain was first in the world to abolish, rather than a lucrative international business it established. And it wasn’t the first to abolish it either. We focus exhaustively and over-romantically on the Blitz. And as a nation we cannot even agree that the British Empire was a bad thing.

Is there room in the museum to reconcile nostalgia with honesty? Is it possible to invoke exciting childhood memories of the Tudors while shining an uncompromising glare on Britain’s imperial crimes? Can there, in short, be something for everyone – and should that even be the point of it?

There is scope, in this putative museum, not to end the culture war – perhaps not even to deflate it – but to base it on fact. Niall Ferguson and David Olusoga will have different views on what should constitute the museum – so should they curate different galleries? Combine a single exhibit and lay bare their differences? Perhaps the focal point of the museum could be a debating hall in which different figures argue their case.

Maybe it wouldn’t be possible to present such radically diverse interpretations of Britain’s history without leaving visitors more confused than ever. But despite all the contestation, everyone would have to agree on this: the past is not just for entertainment, and not for the fainthearted. What good can it do to play down the Bengal Famine or Mau Mau Uprising? Why did the statue of a notorious slave profiteer, Edward Colston, become the focal point of anti-racism protests in 2020, 300 years after his death – and why was the statue there to begin with? Why, for heaven’s sake, is it “woke” to understand who built National Trust properties, and how their owners got rich? The museum should strive to find points of commonality, but not at the expense of telling the whole story. The fundamental point is not that we should agree on everything, but that some things are worth knowing – and that we should be able to poke fun at ourselves. As any cursory glance of an old newspaper or law gazette will tell you, Britain’s past was not only hideous or glorious, but absurd too.

In the end we can find an answer in the slogan of the American right: facts don’t care about your feelings. A lot of Britain’s history will make us profoundly uncomfortable – for good reason. That’s all the more justification for illuminating it. Our fundamental ignorance (or ignoring) of our past is infecting our society today. We cannot begin to confront the present until we have understood what created it. A national history museum would talk honestly about our past and begin healing old wounds. The only way to have the discussion is to begin it.

Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio

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