One week and 15 time zones ago, I encountered a more consequential legacy of Sir Han Sloane who, upon his death, bequeathed his cupboard of over 70,000 curiosities to the world (along with his estate’s demand of £20,000 from George II) serving as the basis for the founding of the British Museum. In his Last Will and Testament, Sir Sloane stated:
Whereas from my youth I have been a great observer and admirer of the wonderful power, wisdom and contrivance of the Almighty God, appearing in the works of his creation, and have gathered together many things in my own travels or voyages, or had them from others, especially my ever honoured late friend William Courten Esq who spent the greatest part of his life and estate in collecting such things, in and from most parts of the earth, which he left me at his death;… And whereas I have made great additions of late years as well to my books, both printed as manuscript, and to my collections of natural and artificial curiosities, precious stones, books of dryed samples of plants, miniatures, drawings, prints, medals, and the like, with some paintings concerning them ... Now desiring very much that these things tending many ways to the manifestation of the glory of God, the confutation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and sciences, and benefit mankind, may remain together and not be separated where they may by the greatest confluence of people be of most use; And I do hereby declare that it is my desire and intention, that my said museum or collection be preserved and kept and that the same may be from time to time, visited and seen by all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons.
During a conversation with the incoming director of the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, I was struck by the fact that, in Inverted Alchemy terms, the legacy of the archetypal museum actually serves as an interesting social metaphor for the economic system of scarcity management that has served humanity so inadequately. Setting aside the conceit expressed by this successor to Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society, I was struck by the essential elements of “The Museum” which reinforce the value memes intertwined in our economic system.
In a collection assembled, expropriated, and stolen from cultures and locations which celebrated animism, polytheism, astrological customs and cults, and all forms of social values, Sir Sloane saw his collection as a refutation to the very communities from which his collection came. Almighty God, it seems, saw fit to be reflected in the works of people who were unfit by virtue of their beliefs. However, the appropriation of the artifacts and totems of veneration – while a product of heathen practice – was suitable to glorify God provided that it was in the sterility of a curiosity collection safely ensconced in the stewardship and view of an Anglican audience. It is no surprise that our Keynesian economic view places no value on the “unimproved” “natural resource” in situ when the esteemed moral philosophy that stimulated industrial economics embraced the schizophrenia of the British Museum and its logical derivatives.
The Museum served another very important role in colonial societies which was evidenced in researching the deposition of cultural artifacts from Papua New Guinea and other heritage traditions around the world. The collection of biological and anthropological artifacts served as a metric of “improvement”. By enshrining a record of the conditions of social systems in the “pre-improved” state, one could graphically represent “progress”. Why is it, for example, that museums show clubs, swords, spears and arrows and conclude with guns? Never mind that the greatest (by cultural diversity and land mass) empires were assembled by archers on horse-back. No, the supremacy of guns is because they’re closest to “us” in time and, as such, represent the hubris of temporal relativism which sees progress as a linear, always improving state. As in our debt-based, perpetual growth, unsustainable monetary systems, we need our social archetypes to support the illusion that we’re ever growing and ever improving. We cannot conceive of the intellectual complexity which was required to, while riding a horse in full gallop, determine range, wind-speed and sighting sufficient to shoot an arrow and have it hit its mark at 150 meters. We cannot see that a Mongol warrior was intellectually and physically superior to a 21 year-old with a video screen and joystick controlling a lethal drone over Pakistan killing anyone in the neighborhood of a suspected terrorist. When you want to reinforce a consensus illusion, your children need to go on field trips to see that temporally “modern” is “better” and that’s a primary motivation explaining why museums have to display artifacts in order.
Value in the museum was defined by curiosity, rarity, and observer-based perception. Whether it was the cocoa from Jamaica, butterflies, plants, carvings, paintings or statues, value was imputed by the observer / collector giving no thought to community-defined relevance. The Spaniards were looking for gold in the Americas and ignored the astronomical knowledge which would have radically altered the efficiency of navigation, the understanding of time, and the wisdom of cosmology. Americans are hungry for oil and natural gas and cannot see the integrated value in ANWAR, Iraq, or Afghanistan. By assuming that value is only manifest in its explicit recognition by the foreign observer, massive values and wisdom are overlooked and lost. The British Museum and its spiritual off-spring are filled with the hubris which see novelty, curiosity, and scarcity as the defining value arbiters and, as a consequence, fail to apprehend the true values of the lands and people from which value is taken.
Rather than building monuments to scarcity – in the form of zoos and museums – so that we can wax nostalgic about the world that we’re erasing in the name of modernity, why don’t we stop the madness and figure out a way to celebrate abundance in situ? In efforts like the Heritable Innovation Trust, we’ve created a pathway to share in abundance that which communities and cultures wish to celebrate with the world. Efforts like this are essential not only to reshape our unconsidered cultural insensitivities and ignorance but they are the root of framing a new value system. One that is built on the recognition that unappreciated value in diverse communities may expand understanding of wealth and engagement may wind up being more productive in the long run. Goodness knows the model built under the patronage of George II hasn’t worked out so well. It’s high time that we understand that perpetual linear economic growth based on autocratic control of scarcity for the exclusive benefit of the few is as much an anachronism as Sir Sloane’s legacy. It’s time to evolve and confute ignorance.