The joke is: „Why are the pyramids in Egypt?
Answer: „Because they were too heavy to be transported to the „British Museum“ and because they don’t fit in any museum.“
Note: This post is not an explanation of why the Egyptians built the pyramids in Egypt. The focus of this text is to explain the joke.
Explanation of the joke: Why are the pyramids in Egypt?
This joke is an ironic remark regarding the (condescending) behaviour of Britain towards its colonies. It refers to the fact that England, like many other colonial powers, looted a large number of cultural objects from its colonies towards the end of the 18th century and never returned them. To this day, England struggles to come to terms with its colonial past.
England’s colonial efforts began as early as the 15th century. Colonialism really took off at the end of the 18th century. The indigenous population in the conquered countries was enslaved, valuable cultural treasures were stolen or bought for ridiculous minimal sums. A veritable presentation competition began with other European nations, especially France, Belgium and Germany, to present themselves as a great power. Behind everything was the (supposed) sense of superiority of the white race.
What is actually British in the „British Museum“ ?
Almost none of the exhibits in the „British Museum“ are of British origin. Especially in Egypt, burial treasures were taken out of the country on a large scale and brought to England via the Suez Canal. It is documented that about 180,000 cat mummies were shipped to England on a large scale. But since they were ultimately of no use, they were simply ground up and sold as fertiliser. Not only archaeologists and scientists, but also private individuals appropriated the treasures from Egyptian tombs. It was common practice to enrich oneself with cultural goods from exotic countries. It was fashionable to acquire colonial excavations and stolen goods at markets. People did not ask where the pieces came from and presented them as a sign of luxury. In this way, people also demonstrated their sense of superiority at home.
How do we deal with looted art today?
Scholars from Europe have long been calling for a different approach to colonial history. Most countries, including Germany, still find it difficult to return looted art (see Benin bronzes). Although the return of colonial-era acquisitions has been discussed for many years, little happens. In 2017, Amsterdam began to come to terms with its colonial history, which is also a history of slavery, as part of a large special exhibition. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Dutch slave traders had sold more than 1.1 million people from the Asian colonies and over 600,000 Africans.
Colonial times – a subject people prefer to keep quiet about
While the colonial past is regularly the subject of public debate, it is still not sufficiently addressed in museums and schools. It has been since 2020 that a reassessment of artefacts has been taking place in some European museums. The background is not least a protest action in Bristol, England, in which demonstrators toppled a monument by Edward Colston into the harbour.
For many decades Colston had been revered as a patron and benefactor, but his wealth was based on the slave trade. After the plinth collapse in Bristol, the monument to slave trader Robert Milligan, which stood in front of the Dockland Museum, was also removed in London. The reignited colonialism debate in England in 2022 has led to the British Museum also reviewing its holdings.
Furthermore, some museums announced that they would no longer exhibit their collections of shrunken heads. The British Museum also declared that it would examine the racist thought patterns of its founder Hans Sloane and realign its exhibitions. In the meantime, there are also guidelines of the Deutscher Museumsbund e.V. on how to deal with looted art and unethically acquired artefacts. Digital purchase records (so-called „acquisition books“) are supposed to help in finding looted goods. In this way, curators and museum directors are also gradually being made more aware of the issue of colonialism and slavery.