The English are perhaps the least patriotic people on the planet. They don’t celebrate their national day, St George’s day. The most it ever gets is a half hearted news report from the deserted platform of Coventry railway station. Nobody knows the words to the national anthem apart from ‘God save our gracious Queen’ and ‘Rebellious Scots to crush,’and anybody who thinks that the reason we’re sailing towards the unknowns of Brexit land is deluded if they think it’s because of some sense of patriotism. It isn’t. A few yobs will get their patriotisms out when it comes to football and the world cup but that is about as patriotic as the English ever get. When it comes to history it is a different story. The English love history, on the whole. They love their own history. There is a strong interest in history, a strong interest in the past and where we come from. Despite this there is one thing that does not exist- Neither an English nor a British National History Museum. The reason why is nothing to do with patriotism or the lack of it, though you might expect it to be the case. It’s a little more complicated than that.
Take a wander around London and you’ll find most of our national museums- The British Museum (packed full of archaeological curiosities and wonders) the Natural History Museum (with all ecological and geological specimens and dinosaurs) the Imperial War Museum (covering the history of warfare since 1914) the National Army Museum (basically the same as the Imperial War Museum but with a wider remit) the V & A (art and design and fashion and things like that) and the Maritime Museum down in Greenwich. What is missing is a single place where you can go and specifically learn about the history of the nation as a whole. Military history is well represented and there are specialist non-national museums like Dr Johnson’s House or the Bank of England Museum. No national history museum.
Most other Western nations have a national history museum or even a general all encompassing National Museum. There is the National Museum of American history in DC, the Musee d’Histoire Contemporaine and the Musee de le l’histoire de France in Paris and the Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin. There’s a national museum of both Scotland and Wales but there is no national museum of England or of Britain. The closest thing is the British Museum but much of that is comprised of international objects, half of which are claimed to have been looted during the nineteenth century. There are sections devoted to British archaeology but they do not comprise the majority of the museum. So to get to the point, why is there no national history museum?
It isn’t for a lack of trying, let us say that much. In 2007 then Prime Minister Gordon Brown backed plans for a museum of British history. He was joined in his support by both opposition leaders (David Cameron and Nick Clegg,) and the likes of Dame Vera Lynn, Richard Branson and Sir Trevor McDonald… But the plans were shelved in 2009 and a number of excuses were given. It was claimed that it wouldn’t get any visitors and leading Museum industry figures, like the head of the British Museum, weren’t very keen on the idea, reluctant to donate objects from their own collections and saying that it wasn’t worth the expense. It had been touted by several individuals (including Brown) as a centre for the promotion of ‘national pride’ which led to derision and accusations of jingoism and claims that such a museum would be an ‘exercise in soviet style back slapping.’ The whole thing was promoted in entirely the wrong way and the reaction was entirely predictable. Mention patriotism and the English needing more of it and people tend to fall off their trolley- English patriotism, as I implied at the start, is a myth. Gordon Brown’s unpopularity didn’t help matters.
It is clear, just from reading about this (and there are plenty of articles if you do a quick search) that the other national museums didn’t really want such a museum to exist. They didn’t want to give up their star attractions- Lindow Man, The Sutton Hoo treasures etc. I can see where they’re coming from, sort of. Why give up your star attractions? The good stuff like that is what keeps your museum afloat so why shoot yourself in the foot? I have a sense that, overall, they thought a history museum would take too many visitors and funding away from them regardless of what artefacts they lost, that people would go to a history museum instead of to the British Museum or the National Portrait Gallery or wherever. In a time when museums are desperately seeking more funding and when they need as many visitors as possible this is understandable to but it does smack strongly of self interest nevertheless. Existing museums weren’t prepared to look at the challenges of creating such a museum and they weren’t prepared to work through them and make it all possible. They were more concerned about themselves and what would happen to them.
I can’t see that attitude changing any time soon. I don’t think there will be a National History Museum any time in the next thirty years, perhaps never. It’s not that people wouldn’t be interested in one or that the artefacts aren’t there, in fact there are probably thousands sitting in storage rooms that could be handed over without much fuss, it’s that the people who could make this museum happen don’t want it to happen.
There are other reasons though, historical ones. Most of the British national museums were created during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. The British Museum was created in 1753, the V & A exactly a century later. There was never any plan to create a series of national museums, they just came about one by one and got put under that banner later on. Nobody said ‘We need to build a science museum and an art gallery and a museum of the navy…’ Nobody set out to create a national museum for every subject under the sun. It is only now that they are all lumped together that we can see the gap. It just so happens that as these museums were being founded nobody had the idea to build a history museum.
I think this is because of the way museums were at the time and how history was viewed. History wasn’t something physical. It was all in the past- It was what happened, it was who did what to who and it was all academic in its nature. It wasn’t something you could display in a case, which is (putting it very, very simply) what museums were at the time- A bunch of objects in display cases. They were supposed to be educational and very serious and very stiff sort of places. The Victorians didn’t see objects as being useful for teaching about History- What good was Oliver Cromwell’s death mask when you wanted to know about the man himself?
Today things are different. Today objects and artefacts are integral to the study of history. We understand now that history is more than just what is written in some book or who did what to who. During the twentieth century history became tangible, we learned that objects can teach us so much about the past, how seeing the thing before us can sometimes help us to better understand what went on. Museums changed too. They become more than objects in cases. They became vibrant and interactive. They weren’t just objects in cases anymore, they were recreations and tableaux and all bells and whistles. They became an all encompassing, all around immersive interpretative experience. A history museum today is entirely possible and museums as they currently stands is the almost perfect way of displaying an interpretation (or more than one) of the past.
You could discuss this until the cows come home and turn into chickens- arguing over what to put in, how to interpret it all, how to do it in a way that isn’t jingoistic or nationalistic but still celebrates our national history… You can ask yourself, what good would it do anyway? How would it benefit the country? You can argue about all the pros and the cons, and there are many. At the end of the day there isn’t one. From what I can tell there are no further plans for one. It’s not that people don’t want one, a lot of people would no doubt love the idea. It’s not because the English are unpatriotic. It’s just that historical and museum industry related reasons have prevented one from being created.