An app gives you the truth about 10 items looted from the British Museum
The British Museum hosts many official tours – a 70-minute Highlights Tour, an LGBTQ Storytelling Tour, and even a virtual “Museum of the World” collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute. But there is one key topic these tours will likely cover: the fact that many items in the Museum’s collections have been stolen and have pending return requests to other countries. A new unofficial “guerrilla” multimedia tour produced by Vice World News and created by Indian media company Dentsu Webchutney addresses institutional shyness on the subject. Thanks to Instagram AR filters and short podcast episodes, visitors to the museum can now uncover the story of how ten of the most contested items in its collections made it to London’s West End – and why they should. go back home.
Ten artefacts make up the unfiltered historical tour: the shield of Gweagal in Australia, the Amaravati marbles in India, the reliefs of Ashurbanipal in Iraq, the bronzes of Benin in Nigeria, the Akan drum in Ghana, the Rosetta Stone in Egypt, the Parthenon marbles in Greece, the Hoa Hakananai’a of Rapa Nui, the figures Birdman and Boinayel in Jamaica. and the Summer Palace of China. When visitors stand in front of each of these objects, they can scan them to “teleport the artifacts to their home country.” The object may be physically seated inside a display case or on a marble plinth at the British Museum, but AR technology resituates the object as it was forcibly removed from its place of origin. During this time, visitors can listen to an accompanying audio series in which experts from the countries of origin of the objects discuss their importance and their continuing relationship with the people of those countries in the present.
This is “the first time that visual representations of these moments in history have been shown from the perspective of the countries of origin – a unique achievement given that the current documentation of most historical events is largely dominated by the ‘western goal,’ Gautham Reghunath, CEO of Dentsu Webchutney, explained in MoneyControl. In 2018 and 2019, BP militant group or not BP? worked with activists from the communities of origin of the stolen objects to organize two in-person tours that visited similar exhibits at the British Museum and drew hundreds of people. The unfiltered historical tour is a virtual alternative that can be experienced all year round.
Those who cannot make it to the British Museum can still join the tour on the Unfiltered History Tour website. Beginning with the Hoa Hakananai’a – a Rapa Nui, or Easter Island moai – virtual participants can see images of objects placed on backdrops illustrating, for example, the sacred rites they once presided over, but also the violent occupations and sieges that uprooted them from their communities. For the descendants of those who carved the moai, the statues are still the living faces of their ancestors. But in 1868, nearly a century after James Cook first made landfall at Rapa Nui, British explorers seized Hoa Hakananai’a from a ceremonial house on the island, destroying that house in the process.
Each accompanying short podcast episode is a counter-narrative of the dry anthropological segments that are customary in most museums, deneutralizing the museum as innocuous space and laying bare it as a colonial site in desperate need of repair. an external intervention.
Some episodes discuss the symbolism of the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum; the irony of the Amaravati marbles – which represent the moment when Siddhartha disavows violence and war to become the Buddha – having been stripped of India on the orders of the East India Company in the 19th century; and the parody of the Birdman and Boinayel figurines of Jamaica currently in storage as the country’s demand for their return remains unfulfilled.
Speaking on the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad notes that it is not only the English engraving on the stone that represents the boldness and criminality of British colonialism, but the very fact that the stone remains in England. “They stole the efforts of all previous Egyptian priests and medieval Arab scientists who were trying to decipher hieroglyphics and who made extremely important contributions in trying to decipher hieroglyphics – it was totally whitewashed. This is no longer the story we tell. All we’re talking about is how the British or the French gave ancient Egypt to the world.
Of course, none of these conversations are new. But as PG Aditya, Creative Director of Dentsu Webchutney at Hyperallergic writes, “we wanted the talk about the British Museum to really go into the museum.” Inspired by a vision of the British Museum episode of the Dirt empires series, in May 2020, the Unfiltered History Tour was presented to the VICE India team. Work on the project took 18 months and a team of over 100 people contributed.
Most of the illustrations on the tour, explains Aditya, are “the first visual representations of these moments in history, from the perspective of the countries of origin”, so they had to be rigorously researched and verified. Field researcher Emi Eleode had to make more than 30 trips to the Museum in 8 months to test the filter and give her opinion on the placement and lighting of the objects, all without the knowledge of the Museum. Because different weather conditions would affect the way sunlight reflects off the glass display cases, the tech team developed different filters for different times of the day while incorporating live weather updates. And most of the team, working remotely in India, became proficient in the layout of the museum by trawling “inside” on Google Earth for countless hours during the pandemic.
Gain is a reimagining of what AR filter technology can be used to do. “A visitor to the Unfiltered History Tour will no longer remember Instagram AR filters as technology that only added dog ears / cat whiskers to their face,” Aditya writes to Hyperallergic. “They would remember it as the technology that taught them colonialism.”
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