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HALF-NELSON



British Museums have been facing a 'tough time' lately, as their mandate seems to have shifted, suddenly, from representing an official idea of the British past, to a new perspective, far more aware of the minuses, as well as the plusses, of BRITISH HISTORY.

British history is especially controversial, because at one time, Britain was an Empire. This means that, unlike most nations in human history, at one point it extended its power and control - its reach and dominance, around the world. Neither France or Germany ever established such an enriching, powerful or long-lasting empire, though they tried; and it ranks with the Roman Empire as the most influential, in terms of it economic, social, political, military, linguistic and cultural reach. Clearly, when a nation's past includes a moment of world dominance, pride can accrue, especially as that moment passes.

As David Olusoga OBE and other historians have begun to show, however, you don't manage to control large swathes of the planet without some violence or coercion; not when a part of the time the empire included the practice of human slavery - a brutal, inhuman and evil practice that, curiously, most historical empires have engaged in (even the Nazi would-be empire had slaves).

The challenge in telling the British 'story' is that its rise to pre-eminence is full of remarkable feats, conquests, inventions and military victories, that, flipped on their side, are seen as acts of barbarism. British Museums, for so long relatively noncontroversial places, suddenly are at the heart of the BLM and culture wars in the UK - because how history is talked about says a lot about who we are and want to be now.

Recently, my neighbour, Sir Ian Blatchford, who runs all the UK's science museums, wrote a Daily Telegraph think piece basically rejecting 'activist' calls for radical change in how things are done, opting instead to 'add more' information, not 'take anything away'. This was also the British Museum position, more or less - a 'contextualisation' of its slave-trader founder, rather than a Colstonisation, whereby the graven image is pulled down and tossed into the sea.

You can see why this poses a problem. James Watt, one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, it now turns out, benefited from slavery. Admiral Nelson, one of the best-loved and most-famous winning naval commanders in all of history, was also a racist and supported colonisation and slavery (until he didn't); and Charles Dickens has been revealed to have wanted to exterminate the people of India. David Hume, one of the key creators of the Enlightenment, supported slavery and held racist views. It makes a museum visit a whole lot less fun and uplifting as a family day out, when the lessons and experiences on display reveal ugliness and horror at the core of once-simplistically-adored Heroes. Finding out Superman has a shabby online addiction, or that Batman kicks kittens, is not nice; feet of clay are not an ideal marketing tool. Every brand wants burnished buttons, not tarnished generals.

There is a way to have engagement, without a total loss of intellectual or emotional pleasure, however... Olusoga has supported a new book, 100 Great Black Britons, which is to be recommended for its intelligent and inclusive attempts to show British history is not all white; despite, for example, Mary Seacole's attempted removal from the school syllabus by then-education tsar Michael Gove.


The historian has also admitted to enjoying reading the racist Dickens, while still remaining 'disappointed' with his views. And his 'complex conservationist' approach seems the best. It leaves room to gain sustenance from even a poison body of work.

Just as the brilliant TV series Lovecraft Country balances a reverence for the tales of Mr Lovecraft, a creepy racist, with a smartly-judged reinterpretation of the stories to expose the racism, and turn them to new helpful uses, it seems the better option is to not 'Colston' the Nelson statues, or ban Watt dioramas and displays - but creatively re-engage with deeply troubled and troubling legacies.

You don't have to throw Britain out with the bathwater.

But you do need to be willing to put your hands in the grease and grime and muck, and pull out what needs must be salvaged. The British people now need to find pride in what is best about their history, and best about their flawed ancestors, of all colours and beliefs. And be brave enough to admit and decry the bits in the past that are now clearly shameful, criminal, wicked, or worse; and this is not all 'Marxist revisionism' - while some sins lessen or deepen with hindsight and time, some systems of action, like slave-trading, were always immoral, and some better souls knew that even then, not least the enslaved. Nor will this greatly reduce the respect with which Britain is usually held in the world, given that most other nations have, in the past, acted equally abominably. Indeed, those nations who best confront, redress and rethink their history and identity, like modern Germany, come across as renewed, and even better than before. Less fixed reverence can be more tensile strength.

Maybe, sometimes, half a Nelson is better than none.

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