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The British Museum and a ‘forgotten continent’

September 14th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The British Museum richly deserves the recent donation of 25 million from Lord Sainsbury.  Over the last few years it has been playing at the top of its game, with some breath-taking exhibitions and intelligent curatorship.  In Neil MacGregor it has a capable and charismatic Director, whose series A History of the World in 100 Objects, now just drawing to a close, has been one of the broadcasting successes of the decade.

But – and it is a very big but – there is one stain on an otherwise exemplary stewardship.  Look around the Museum and the visitor will quickly notice that an entire continent has been side-lined, excluded from what claims to be a ‘world museum’.  All the ancient civilisations have a gallery devoted to their achievements except one:  South America.

It is as if the achievements of the Incas and their extraordinary pre-Columbian forbears had never happened:  the wonders of Machu Picchu;  the gold tombs and masks of the Moche, often compared to Tutankhamen;  the Nasca culture who produced the famous lines;  or the many other intriguing pre-Columbian cultures of the Amazon and of Peru.

There are a few objects scattered around amidst other wider collections – but no permanent and focussed gallery;  nor has there been any exhibition about the Incas or South America for many decades; nor is the Museum planning to hold one, though it is perfectly possible– as Paris and New York do frequently – or to get long-term loans for a gallery. It is just that there is no particular will to do so. The Museum actually has plenty of holdings on South America shut up in the basement, left over from the old and now closed Museum of Mankind.

The centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu falls next year, for instance, an event that the rest of the world is already celebrating – Paris has an exhibition right now – and which we are doing absolutely nothing about. 

The last time that the Museum was given money and Andeanists expected a long-standing wrong finally to be put right, the new gallery unveiled was… a Watch Gallery. Perhaps this time around the money should be used to represent a forgotten continent.

  1. Chuck Barton
    September 18th, 2010 at 02:29 | #1

    My son moved to Bolivia a year ago and I have visited South America twice since then, including a hike of the Inca Trail. I agree wholeheartedly with the thought that South America is underappreciated. The podcast “HIstory of the World in 100 Objects” by the British Museum pays some attention to South America but not nearly as much as to Asia and Europe.

  2. Dan Bruce
    October 25th, 2010 at 06:52 | #2

    I have to agree that the normal first class performance by the British Museum is very sadly lacking. I was in London in March, and after several years absence, I found a gratifying number of aspects of London much improved. The British Museum’s exhibits of the New World cultures was NOT one of them. I hope that enough people will comment on this omission so that the error will be corrected soon.

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