British museums fail to acknowledge the true history of artefacts looted from abroad, says Haim Bresheeth
In the Indian galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum resides that finest of oddities - Tippu's Tiger. The garishly painted life-sized feline crouches over its prey, a white gentleman lying prostrate on his back with his hat still on his head.
On a small plaque, the wooden tiger is described as a "musical toy", owned by the Sultan Tippu of Mysore, "an inveterate enemy of the British", which "came into possession of the East India Company, following his death in 1799 at the battle of Seringapatam".
It is remarkable how little that note tells of the context that brought the "toy" from India to London. There is no indication that the might of the British Empire had been ranged against the sultan's capital, or that 60,000 of his citizens are said to have died in one of the empire's most murderous and barbaric victories. Nor is there mention of the way the loot, including Tippu's Tiger, had been divided up by the conquering army after it had sacked the Indian city.
In some senses, archaeological colonialism is certainly over. Museums everywhere now accept that artefacts have to be purchased according to the strict guidelines issued by Unesco. Nevertheless, it seems old habits die hard. The archaeological loot in Britain's great museums continues to draw millions of tourists, including many from the countries from which those artefacts were taken. But decades after the decline and fall of the British Empire, Britain refuses to return those artefacts to their original locations and displays them in a historically and culturally opaque fashion. The history of their acquisition is virtually denied.
Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has recently done much to placate sensitivities in different countries, especially those whose artefacts his museum does not possess. But it would not do to acknowledge fully the acquisition narratives of those objects. While most Egyptians do not expect the wealth of the British Museum to be sent back to Cairo, they have demanded the return of the Rosetta Stone, the tablet that enabled the mysterious language of ancient Egypt to be deciphered.
The tale of encryption is explained in some detail on the display, but the complex history of the stone's acquisition is less clear - how it was a trophy of the British victory over Napoleon in 1801 in the battle of Alexandria, after it was found by French soldiers.
And there is less - next to nothing, in fact - said about other treasures in the museum, such as the beautifully carved reliefs that hang in the spacious Assyrian halls. How will a visitor come to learn the painful story of their "acquisition" - how those stone panels came to be ripped from the remains of an ancient palace in Iraq and transported to London, many such treasures being lost in the waters of the Tigris, Euphrates or the high seas en route to Britain.
It is telling that in the V&A, Tippu is described as an "enemy" of the British, rather than the other way around, as if the sultan had sent his troops to conquer Cornwall. The museum's story is one of the British Empire. Unlike the East India Company, Tippu's interests were not commercial, but lay in defending his country from a rapacious invader that had already overrun the rest of the sub-continent. The V&A does not mention the sultan's efforts to seek the protection of post-revolutionary France, or that it was for this "crime" that he and his people had to pay dearly to serve as a warning for any other Indian ruler considering resisting the British. It does not label the tiger as booty from an imperialistic battle for control of India. That Tippu's Tiger cannot be described accurately today, more than two centuries after the events, is evidence of the change that is still to come.
The V&A and the British Museum are not alone. It is today unthinkable to imagine any great European museum without its archaeological loot. This opulence plays a crucial role in the development of the arts, science and the humanities in those Western centres of learning, attracting students and academics from their countries of origin, completing the cycle of continuing domination.
But one wonders whether it might be the right time to tell visitors to every British museum about the provenance of the many thousands of artefacts, so many tainted with the barbarities of past conquests. Or is the start of the third millennium too soon to give a fuller account of the historical facts of the artefacts acquired by the British Empire?
Haim Bresheeth is chair of media and cultural studies at the University of East London.