Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Confusion in British Museum Exhibit on Living, Dying and Illness

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s difficult to focus at a museum when I have my child with me, because I’m drawn to what interests her the most, and I’m also learning myself. So yesterday, after following one of the family trails in the British Museum with her, I decided to enter one of the ground floor exhibits, which was roughly about living and dying and treating illness.

I found quite a few things in the exhibit confusing. It’s possible if I was able to dig deeper or get a headset I’d understand all this better, but I also do think museums should have a level of support for average passers-by to understand a theme without having to work too hard…

First of all, I had a moment of wondering why this was called the British museum at all, since most of what’s in it is not about Britain at all 🙂 I understand the colonial history, so I guess the monuments upstairs from ancient Egypt, etc, are conquests from the British empire. But I didn’t really understand the exhibit about living and dying because it had some specific pieces from different countries in the world displaying some current-day practices in various parts of the world.

Ok so it kinda gets more confusing. I’m curious how they select which areas of the world to represent, how they choose which artifacts to represent and what stories to tell? For example, they have artifacts from a part of Egypt called Siwa (known as a place people sometimes go for healing) but they’re displaying things like the kinds of sandals they wear… Which, I don’t understand? The text around this area didn’t really clarify to me (though maybe it was somewhere else I couldn’t see).

There different display cases around how different cultures dealt with illness and death, down to particular countries like Somalia and particular places like Siwa in Egypt …. And then there was a small display case for Western Europe which was the weirdest thing.

To begin with, having just one display case for ALL of Western Europe is extremely weird. I mean, if you’re gonna go country by country elsewhere and down to particular small locations like Siwa, isn’t lumping all of (Western) Europe an odd thing to do? This case talked about how people in Europe prayed to saints and it had a lot of Christian figurines that.. Uhh… Felt like it did not represent either diversity within Christianity (Protestant vs Catholic vs Orthodox at the very least) or any geographic diversity – and like, no mention of atheism or Judaism either historically or in modern day. It made no sense to me at all.

And it also made me realize that there was an assumption across all the display cases that hid all the similarities in use of modern day (Western) medicine in most countries of the world. I mean, even in Western Europe, the people who are religious and pray to the saints… Surely most of them still go to hospitals and doctors and stuff. Unless they’re into alternative treatments, which I didn’t see any mention of. Similarly, in many parts of the world that I know of (of course I don’t know everything), people who live in or near cities use modern day medicine (for better or worse). Can you imagine representing America and how medicine is dealt with by only showcasing how native American traditional healing is done? It is worth a display case, to learn about ancient healing practices, especially if they’re practiced today still, but would you expect people to generalize this about modern-day America? No, right? But you realize that in parts of the world considered more exotic to Europeans… like Africa and Asia, an observer may make the assumption? And if tourists themselves are from countries in Africa and Asia, might they not want to dig a bit deeper into European practices?

I get that the focus of the exhibit, or at least the room I saw, wasn’t modern-day medicine, perhaps it was the unscientific and spiritual practices instead. I get that giving Europe a smaller space (dunno where Eastern Europe was, btw) is a good thing in terms of making room for more diverse cultures to be shown. But I’m baffled by this display still and by the kinds of stereotypes of modernity and barbarism it perpetuated.

Beside some large African colorful beautiful masks used in rituals to fend from ghosts (or some such), you see these dainty civilized figurines (like literally the size of my fingers) of saints and nuns and people praying. It was… Weird.

If I had more time I’d go again and I’m thinking that museums need “second looks” after we’ve had time to process what we see… And perhaps a guide next time when my kid is old enough to stay put and not get distracted.

One Comment

  1. Hi Maha. I enjoyed reading your reactions to visiting the British Museum. I used to live and study in the neighborhood and I’ve been to the museum hundreds of times either visiting or just passing through on shortcut across the neighborhood. I was thinking about what you said in terms of how emergent readers come to terms with texts, particularly texts from outside their cultural experience; I expect this is the same for native and non-native users.

    Of course, one of the important constraints in assembling a special exhibition like the one you visited is the range of artifacts that are available. The collection at the British Museum is huge but it is largely drawn from parts of the world where the British Empire had a significant presence. Then, the collection reflects the interests, beliefs, and attitudes of the museum curators and acquisition officers throughout the museum’s history.

    If we treat the exhibition as a text, then we can situate it rhetorically in terms of speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject and tone – following one random paradigm. All of this will be culturally situated, so an audience that comes from outside that envisioned by the author / organizer, might be disoriented, as you say.

    When teaching reading, it is important to recognize that culture plays a major rule in a person’s ability to make sense of texts. Novice readers will often complain that they cannot understand and assume the reason is that they do not have enough “vocabulary”. Novice (and even not-so-novice) teachers may also assume that the problem is that students do not have enough “vocabulary”. In this way much precious time is lost as students become more and more frustrated.

    What is this sandal from Siwa doing here?

    What has an icon from Bulgaria got to do with the sandal?

    These African masks are beautiful. Are they more like sandals or icons?

    I see your questions and comments as an attempt to find a sensible rhetorical situation for the exhibition. This is a great metaphor for the dilemma facing readers trying to come to grips with challenging texts.

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