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Wed. February 08, 2023
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Africa is in the Basement
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By William Sapp The British Museum loses its charm when one wanders into the basement. Erected during the Enlightenment in 1753, the Museum’s aim was to represent history and cultures from around the globe. The political philosophy of the Enlightenment is still evident as the Museum is, “grounded in the…idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement”. The British Museum’s layout is like a map of world history and geography. The first floor features Britain, the Americas, Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Asia and the Middle East. The second floor covers the same regions but in different historical periods. Within thirty minutes one can’t help but notice that Africa, representing one third of the world’s landmass, is in the cellar. The African exhibit occupies only two rooms and is the only floor with digital media. Videos of contemporary African dances might seem particularly unusual in a history museum where many artifacts date back thousands of years. An exhibit that only presents African history of the past century implies that Africa is in the basement of world history and lacks progressive change. Not only is the Africa given the smallest exhibit, represented literally and figuratively below ground, it is also presented ahistorically. This is very bizarre considering that the British Government itself had imperial corporations and colonies stretching from Ghana to the Kenyan savannah, from Zanzibar to Sierra Leone, and from the Sahara Desert in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, giving them unprecedented access to historical treasures. At the least, it would make sense that the history of the colonies would be represented in the Museum. Unfortunately, like those ‘long lost’ Enlightenment political philosophers such as Edmund Burke, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we too have failed to reconcile notions of differences in our very attempt to represent everyone in egalitarian fashion. Burke concluded in 1790 that tradition and culture should be the determining factors to help pave the path of the future. If his ideas were applied to the African context, a continent with apparently no history according to other Liberal thinkers such as Rousseau and Locke, then the only way to understand Africa’s future is to preserve and petrify traditions like the contemporary dances displayed on the televisions. Unlike other regions of the world including Western Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East whose progress is measured by literature, philosophy and technological innovation, Africa, by implication, has not advanced. The British Museum’s exhibit, rather than reconciling difference as its webpage suggests, only serves to enhance this absurd notion. Ultimately the Museum’s presentation is not about Africa at all. Africa’s place in the basement of world history almost seems to be designed to give an apparent sense of progress to the exhibits on the “higher” floors of the Museum. Two hundred years later the ghost of Edmund Burke still walks the corridors of the Museum keeping the lights of the Enlightenment off of the “dark” continent.

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