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By Angela Saini

For my parents, the only ancestors I need to know.


            In the British Museum is where you can see ’em The bones of African human beings

            —English Breakfast by Fun-Da-Mental

            I’m surrounded by dead people, asking myself what I am.

            Where I am is the British Museum. I’ve lived in London almost all my life, and through the decades I’ve seen every gallery many times over. It was the place my husband took me on our first date, and years later, it was the first museum to which I brought my baby son. What draws me back here is the scale, the sheer quantity of artifacts, each seemingly older and more valuable than the last. I feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of it. But as I’ve learned, if you look carefully, there are secrets.

            When you arrive for the first time, it’s almost impossible to notice them, the finer detail obscured by the visitors in a rush to tick off every major treasure. You get swept away, a fish in a shoal. The museum doesn’t focus on one object, or even a few. The point is all of it. So many valuable things brought together like this have an obvious story to tell, one skillfully constructed to remind us of Britain’s place in the world.

            Medical doctor and collector Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed the founding collection that became the British Museum in 1753. It would come to document the entire span of human culture, in time and in space. The British Empire was growing, and in the museum you can see how the empire builders envisioned their position in history. Britain framed itself as the heir to the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, and Rome. Just look at the enormous colonnade at the entrance, completed in 1852, mimicking ancient Greek architecture. The neoclassical style we associate with this corner of central London owes itself to the belief that the British saw themselves as the cultural and intellectual continuation of the great Greeks and Romans. The same brand of architecture on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, tells us that America’s nation builders saw themselves this way, too.

            Britain, this small island nation, once had the might to take all these treasures, these eight million precious objects from every corner of the globe, and transport them here. The inhabitants of Rapa Nui built the giant bust of Hoa Hakananai’a to capture the spirit of one of their ancestors, and the Aztecs carved the exquisite turquoise double-headed serpent as an emblem of authority, but these masterpieces are in this museum now. No one thing is more important than the museum itself. It is a testament to the audacity of power and wealth.

            The history of the world as seen through British eyes was a simple one: a straight line from nearby cultures in North Africa and the Middle East to southern and western Europe. Walk past the white marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens even as they crumbled. Walk past the statues of Greek and Roman gods, their bodies considered the ideal of human physical perfection, and you’re witness to this narrative. In 1798, when Napoleon conquered Egypt and a French army engineer uncovered the Rosetta Stone, allowing historians to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time, this priceless object was claimed for France. It remains one of the most important historical objects in the world, a jewel of antiquity. A few years after it was found, though, the British army captured it and brought it here, where it has remained ever since. You’ll see that one side of the stone is still inscribed with the words “Captured in Egypt by the British Army.” As historian Holger Hoock writes, “The scale and quantity of the British Museum’s collections owe much to the power and reach of the British military and imperial state.” Know its history, and you begin to see the museum as a testament to the struggle for domination, to possess the deep roots of civilization itself.

            Not long after Sloane bequeathed his collection, white European scientists also began to define what we now think of as race. In 1795, in the third edition of On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, described five human varieties: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays. To be precise, “Caucasian” refers to people who live in the mountainous Caucasus region between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, but under Blumenbach’s sweeping definition it encompassed everyone from Europe to India and North Africa. His arbitrary classification would have lasting consequences. We now use “Caucasian” as the polite way to describe white people.

            But what does this mean today? Take the case of Mostafa Hefny, who considers himself very firmly and very obviously black. Authorities in the United States insist that he is white. He points to his skin, which is darker than that of some self-identified black Americans. He points to his hair, which is black and curlier than that of some black Americans. To any everyday observer, he’s a black man. But according to the rules laid out by the US government in its 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity, people who originate in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are automatically classified as white. Since Hefny arrived from Egypt, he is officially white. In 1997, aged forty-six, Hefny filed a lawsuit against the United States government to change his official racial classification from white to black. His predicament still hasn’t been resolved.

This Aug. 8, 2012 photo shows Dr. Mostafa Hefny in Detroit. Hefny, an Egyptian immigrant who lives in Detroit wants the U.S. government to classify him as black, not white. The Egypt-born Hefny, 61, says he’s easily identifiable as a black man, but when he was admitted to the U.S. decades ago, he was classified on government papers as a white person. Hefny says he’s a Nubian, an ancient group of Egyptians considered more African than Arab. According to government directive, a white person is defined as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East.” (AP Photo/Detroit News, Max Ortiz) DETROIT FREE PRESS OUT; HUFFINGTON POST OUT

            Now you might think of Hefny as being in a unique pickle, but in one way or another, most of us fall through a crack when it comes to defining race. What we are, this hard measure of identity, something so deep that it’s woven into our skin and hair, a quality that nobody can really change, is actually harder to pin down than we think. My parents are from India, which means I am often described as Indian, Asian, or simply “brown.” When I grew up in southeast London in the 1990s, those of us who weren’t white would often be categorized politically as black. The National Union of Journalists still considers me a “Black member.” But by Blumenbach’s definition, being ancestrally north Indian makes me Caucasian.

            Like Mustafa Hefny, then, I too am black, white, and other colors, depending on your definition. My race, which might seem so obvious to one person, may be quite another thing to the next. And this is because, centuries ago, people placed boundaries around populations and territory as casually as moving pieces on a chess board. The boundaries could have been placed anywhere, but now we squirm to fit into them or jostle our way out of them.

            Ultimately what matters isn’t necessarily where the lines are drawn, but what they mean. What does it mean to be black or white or something else, and why does it matter to us?

            At the time these labels were devised, the meaning was clear. The power hierarchy had white people of European descent sitting at the top. They believed themselves to be the natural winners, the inevitable heirs of great ancient civilizations. There are still many today who look at the world and imagine that the imbalances and inequalities we see are natural, that white Europeans have some innate superiority that allowed them to conquer and take the lead, and that they will have it forever. They imagine that only Europe could have been the birthplace of modern science, or that only the Europeans could have conquered the Americas. They imagine, as French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2007, that “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history. . . . There is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.” Or, as President Trump reportedly said in a White House meeting with lawmakers in 2018, that Haiti, El Salvador, and parts of Africa are “shithole countries.”

            The subtext is that history is over, the fittest have survived, and the victors have been decided. But of course, history is never over, and it is always more complicated than we think. In Sir Hans Sloane’s time, accounts of the past were scribbled hastily, without the benefit of knowing about the remarkable Indus Valley civilization more than five thousand years old. We still know relatively little about this civilization, except that it had sophisticated cities and conducted trade using precise weights and measures. Sloane could have known little of the more recent Aztec and Inca empires in South America, which upon their discovery by Europeans destabilized the very meaning of civilization by proving that highly sophisticated societies emerged independently elsewhere. They came as such a shock that some to this day still believe their cities were the work of aliens.

            In the British Museum ancient objects scream the truth silently. Take a walk up to the plaster cast of a relief from the temple of Beit el-Wali in Lower Nubia, built by the pharaoh Ramesses II, who died in 1213 BCE. It’s high, near the ceiling, and spans almost the entire gallery. See the pharaoh depicted as an impressive figure on a chariot, wearing a tall blue headdress and brandishing a bow and arrow, his skin painted burnt ochre. He is plowing into a legion of Nubians, dressed in leopard skins, some warriors painted black and some painted the same ochre as him. He sends their limbs into a tangle before they’re finally conquered. As the relief shows, the Egyptians at that time believed themselves to be a superior people with the most advanced culture, imposing order on chaos. The racial hierarchy, if that’s what you want to call it, looked this way in this time and place.

            Then things changed. Downstairs on the ground floor is a granite sphinx from a century or two later, a reminder of the time when the Kushites, an ancient Nubian kingdom located in present-day Sudan, invaded Egypt. There was a new winner now, and the ram sphinx protecting King Taharqa illustrates how this conquering force took Egyptian culture and appropriated it. The Kushites built their own pyramids, in the same way that the British replicated ancient Greek architecture. Taharqa was a black king of Egypt. Through objects like this, one can see how power balances shifted throughout history. They reveal a less simple version of the past, of who we are. And it’s a version that demands humility, warning us that knowledge is not just an account of what we know, but has to be understood as something shaped by those who happen to hold power when the account was written. A hundred years is nothing; everything can change completely within a millennium.

            The Ancient Egypt galleries of the British Museum are always the most crowded, especially the small selfie-worthy space directly in front of the Rosetta Stone. What we don’t think as we walk past the mummies in their glittering cases is that this is also a mausoleum. We’re surrounded by the skeletons of real people who lived in a civilization no less remarkable than the ones that followed or that went before. Every society that happens to be dominant comes to think of itself as being the best, deep down. The more powerful we humans become, the more our power begins to be framed as natural as well as cultural. We paint our enemies as ugly foreigners and our subordinates as inferior. We invent hierarchies, give meaning to our own racial categories. One day, five thousand years forward, in another museum in another nation, these could be European or American bones encased in glass, what were once considered advanced societies replaced by new ones. History is never over. No place or people has a claim on superiority.

            Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance. It’s the notion that groups of people have certain innate qualities that not only are visible at the surface of their skins but also run down into their innate capacities, that perhaps even help define the passage of progress, the success and failure of the nations our ancestors came from.

            And it’s so tempting to feel this. Many of those who come to the museum for the first time—I can tell you this from having spent hours watching them—are looking for their own place in these galleries. The Chinese tourists go straight to the Tang dynasty artifacts; the Greeks, to the Parthenon marbles. The first time I came here, I made a beeline for the Indian galleries. My parents were born in India, as were their parents, and theirs before them, so in the museum’s Indian galleries was where I imagined I would find the objects most relevant to my personal history. All visitors have the same curious desire to know who their ancestors were, to know what their people achieved. We want to see ourselves in the past, forgetting that everything in the museum belongs to us all as human beings. We are each products of it all.

            But, of course, that’s not the lesson we take away, because that’s not what the museum was designed to tell us. Objects here are trapped inside glass cabinets, under tight security as though any of them might dare to leap back thousands of miles to where they were created. Why are they in these rooms, and not where they were first shaped, built, painted, carved, or erected? Why do they live inside this museum in London, its neoclassical columns today stretching into the wet and gray sky? Why are the bones of Africans here, and not where they were buried, in the magnificent tombs that were created for them, where they were supposed to live out eternity?

            Because this is how power works. It takes, it claims, and it keeps. It makes you believe that this is where the objects belong. It’s designed to put you in your place.

            I was once told of an elderly man in Bangalore, in south India, who ate his chapatis with a knife and fork because this was how the British ate. These notions of superiority and inferiority impact us all. When my great-grandfather fought in the First World War for the British Empire and when my grandfather fought in the Second World War for the British Empire, their contributions were forgotten, like those of countless other Indian soldiers. They were never considered strictly equal to their white counterparts. This is how it was. When boys from my school threw rocks at me and my sister when I was ten years old, telling us to go home, this is how it was.

            The global power balance, as it played out in the eighteenth century, meant that treasures from all over the world could and would only end up in a museum like this one, because Britain was one of the strongest nations at the time. It, along with other European powers, were the latest colonizers, the most recent winners. So they gave themselves the right to take things. They gave themselves the right to document history their way, to define the scientific facts about humankind. Just as the United States would later, when it became the global superpower. Throughout, white thinkers told us that their cultures were better, that they were the proprietors of thought and reason, and they married this with the notion that they belonged to superior races. These became our realities.

            The truth is something else.


            Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster based in London. She presents science programs for the BBC, and her writing has appeared in leading publications worldwide, including the Guardian, the Times, Science, and Wired. Her last book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, was published in 2017 to widespread critical acclaim and was named the Physics World Book of the Year. Saini has a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Oxford and is a former fellow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her journalism has received prizes from both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Science Writers.