Ghosts at the museum | 1843

Angell is alert to how British Museum staff experience the building differently according to their place in the hierarchy. He notes that it’s often the lower-level workers, not curators or senior management, who have stories. (A former museum worker himself, Angell says that one of his goals for the project is to give a voice to gallery attendants, cleaners and other overlooked staff, who have built up intimate knowledge of the collection through years of observation and proximity.)

It was the orbs that drew in the overnight security team. Around 3am an alarm went off in a disabled toilet and a pair of guards rushed over to check what was going on. Nothing seemed amiss until a guard received a call from a CCTV operator, who said that large balls of white light were hovering above a staircase in the Great Court and chasing each other through the air. “We can’t see anything,” the security guard responded. “They’re all around you,” the CCTV operator replied.

The appearance of the orbs coincided with an exhibition called “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, which ran from October 2014 to January 2015. The guard who stood among the balls of light wondered if they might be connected to one of the exhibits: a white, wrought-iron gate from the concentration camp at Buchenwald that bore the motto “Jedem das Seine” (“To each what he deserves”). “You get objects that hold energy,” the guard explained. “Nothing [else] in that exhibition was anything that will have caused something like that…I’m really not surprised if someone attached to that object was to come with it. You couldn’t blame them, to be quite honest. I’m happy to have them here.” The orbs appeared at the same time each night until the exhibition ended. “When Germany went,” the security guard said, “they went.”

Angell says many museum staff share this attitude. “Most of the people that I’ve gathered these stories from…don’t self-identify as believing in ghosts,” he tells me. “For the most part, these visitor-services and security people are working-class blokes and they don’t make a fuss unless something really serious is going on…But what they all seem to agree on, as the sort of folk belief of the museum worker, is that objects hold energy. This is a formulation that everyone is comfortable with.”

Angell, who is planning to publish a book on the subject, is not immediately forthcoming about what he believes himself. On the tour he lets his audience make up their own minds. “This project is agnostic,” he tells me at one point, adding mischievously: “I may not be agnostic, but that’s neither here nor there.”

As we talk it becomes clearer that he is open to supernatural explanations and considers himself to be, as he puts it, “somewhat psychic”. He’s happy to let a few provocative ideas slip out in conversation. One of these puts a distinctive spin on the debate around restitution, which has been growing in volume in recent years.

In 2017 France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, declared the return of African heritage to Africa a “top priority” (though by the end of 2019 only one object had been returned). A report published the following year, commissioned by him, recommended that all objects obtained during the colonial era be restored to their country of origin unless there was proof they had been acquired legitimately. Stéphane Martin, president of the Musée de Quai Branly, an anthropological museum in Paris, decried the report in an interview with Le Monde as an act of “self-flagellation”. But the French inquiry stirred the waters. The British Museum has since received multiple requests, from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Chile among others, to hand back disputed items.

Here’s looking at caryatid

One of the Elgin Marbles, a caryatid that was said to weep as it was transported to Britain, Athens, c.410BC

The question of restitution is as old as conquest and plunder. According to Pliny the Elder, the Roman emperor Augustus was embarrassed enough to return pieces of looted art to Greece. Discussion has intensified in recent years as the West has been forced to confront the legacy of colonialism. Many former colonies have asserted their claim to treasures, and indigenous communities have amplified their demands through social media. Nigeria is planning a new museum to house the Benin bronzes, the largest number of which are held at the British Museum.

Some institutions in Britain have returned objects. The Manchester Museum said last year it would send back 43 items to four of Australia’s First Nations. The British Museum, by contrast, has avoided making any commitments. It loans items around the world, but the museum cites a variety of reasons – including government legislation blocking the removal of objects – for keeping its collection intact.

Over the course of his research, Angell has arrived at a strikingly different perspective on restitution. “In the conventional discourse around repatriation,” he says, “contested objects are like pawns. They may be fantastic and big and old, but essentially they are being employed as a symbolic wedge, which two countries with grievances against each other can use to get what they want.” The testimonies he has been gathering amount to an argument that the pawns may have their own agency. As Angell puts it: “These stories seem to suggest that the objects themselves are restless.”

The British Museum has about 8m items in its collection, and new acquisitions are being made all the time. The artefacts include sacred objects from all over the world – tomb guardians, reliquaries, statues of deities and demons – and more than 6,000 human remains. By rights the British Museum ought to be one of the most haunted institutions on the planet.

Irving Finkel, a curator in the museum’s Middle East department, reckons it is a fruitful place to look for ghosts “for lots of reasons”. Finkel is interested in magic and demonology: with his long, white beard and circular glasses, he’s the epitome of a scholar who spends his time deciphering cuneiform inscriptions in Sumerian and Babylonian. His views on the supernatural are more surprising. Throughout history, he says, many cultures have considered ghosts a fact of life. He argues that the belief in some form of spiritual lingering after death is deep-seated in the human psyche. Our current relative scepticism – only about half of the British population professes to believe in ghosts – is “an anomaly”, he says.

To his great annoyance, Finkel has never actually seen a ghost himself. He puts that down to a lack of sensitivity on his part. But he reckons the museum offers plenty of opportunities. “One, there are lots of dead bodies here,” he says. “Then there’s lots of curators who’ve spent their entire lives here and some of them died on the premises.”

A statue of Buddha overlooks the haunted staircase

The British Museum, which opened its doors on Great Russell Street in 1759, has been accumulating voraciously from the beginning. The original collection was bequeathed by Hans Sloane, an Ulsterman whose lucrative career as a physician and income from his wife’s slave plantations in Jamaica allowed him to amass some 71,000 items – manuscripts, medals, preserved animals, shells – through a vast network of contacts across the British Empire. After he died in 1753, Sloane’s vision for a free public museum dedicated to the ideal of universal knowledge began to take shape.

It was not an entirely new concept. The museum is a legacy of the ancient world, though the Musæum at Alexandria, home of the famous library, brought together great scholars rather than artefacts. During the Renaissance, collectors assembled Wunderkammern, cabinets of curiosities. But Sloane, according to his biographer James Delbourgo, was “original in calling for a universal museum in both senses: a gathering of all the things of the world open to all the citizens of the world.” His project was driven by the Enlightenment compulsion to classify the world by pinning it down, bagging it and putting it behind glass.

By the turn of the 19th century antiquities were flooding into the museum from overseas at an extraordinary rate. Few people seemed to mind or notice the oddity of calling a museum “British” when it contained objects that were anything but. By 1801, when the British army seized the Rosetta Stone from the French in Egypt, Lord Elgin had already begun stripping marble statues and panels from the Parthenon. Much of the current debate around restitution has its roots in that period. European powers roamed the globe, divided it between them and sent the treasures home. Not everything was acquired illegally. Some items were bought, exchanged or received as gifts – though there’s a question as to how freely a gift is given, if it’s handed over to a man at the head of a platoon of bayonets.

Many museums in the West argue that communities sometimes don’t want artefacts back because they lack the resources to care for them. As borders have shifted and kingdoms been succeeded by modern states, it’s not always clear to whom, exactly, a centuries-old item should be returned. Better to keep the objects where they are, goes the argument: accessible to visitors, and preserved for future generations to study and admire. Publicly, the British Museum has barely reckoned with its colonial past. When Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author, resigned from the museum’s board of trustees in July 2019, she expressed disappointment at its inaction on restitution, as well as its association with BP. The British Museum, which discourages employees from commenting on the subject, has a standard response to enquiries about restitution: “The integrity of the collection should be maintained.” (Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, declined to comment for this article.) Yet it’s not clear exactly what kind of integrity an assemblage of items so broad and diffuse really has.

When confronted with the plethora of ghost stories from the museum, an obvious interpretation is that they are manifestations of disquiet about the institution’s heritage. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, an American scholar who writes about the supernatural in the arts, reckons that hauntings are often observed when official narratives repress “an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events”. Yet Angell hasn’t noticed any guilt or anger among the employees he’s interviewed: most of them seem comfortable with the objects under their watch. He’s heard a few stories that deal directly with illicitly acquired objects, such as the caryatid in Room 19 that Lord Elgin tore from the Parthenon (according to legend, the graceful marble statue could be heard weeping inside her crate as she was shipped to England). But these tales came to Angell from outside the institution.

Ghost stories at the British Museum are nothing new. In the 1910s and 1920s the Egyptian department received stacks of letters calling for the return of artefacts that were believed to be cursed, according to Roger Luckhurst, a professor of literature at Birkbeck College in London, who has written a book on Western culture’s dark fascination with mummies.

Certain members of the museum hierarchy are conscious of heightened friction around particular items. When I asked Jim Peters, a collections manager in the Britain, Europe and Prehistory department, what he makes of Angell’s idea about restless objects, he tiptoed around the question. “I would agree with him to a certain extent,” he said. “It’s very important the pieces are here. But having said that, there are pieces that I think are out of sync being here.” He went on: “There are certain objects that, if they were in the correct context, would still have a purpose.” These, he says, declining to give specific examples, “are the restless objects”.

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