‘It’s Mine. My Own. My Precious’: The Interweaving of Imperialism, Colonialism, and Identity in the British Museum
Keywords:British Museum, Parthenon Marbles, Cultural Heritage, Museums, Britain, Colonialism, Imperialism, Waverley Criteria, Identity, Nationalism
The history of the British Museum and its collections are intrinsically linked to imperialism, colonialism, and national British identity. This paper examines the museum’s organizing principles and museological discourse in the twentieth century, referencing especially Henry Shelley’s 1911 guide to the museum, to illustrate the identity of superiority that the British Museum enforced while simultaneously promoting the inferiority of other, non-British peoples. Hints of colonialism and imperialism also remain a part of the British Museum in a contemporary context. The Parthenon Marbles act as a focal point for this discussion: these works of art demonstrate one way in which Britain, and by extension, the British Museum, have appropriated cultural heritage for their own purposes. This paper asserts that references to the British Museum as an ‘encyclopedic’ or ‘universal’ museum both obscure the problematic past of the museum and allow colonial and imperial notions to enter into modern British society.