ARC Review: Ghosts of the British Museum by Noah Angell

Zephyrus Croft
May 05, 2024

     Title: Ghosts of the British Museum

     Author: Noah Angell

     Genre: Nonfiction, Museology & heritage studies, Social & cultural history, Colonialism & imperialism, Ghosts & poltergeists

     Content warnings: discussion of Imperial Britain’s actions such as genocide, killing, and looting of nations and cities.

     Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: a thoughtful dismantling of the British Museum’s power and myth with ghost stories that can be entertaining and give greater depth to the discussion

‘Ghosts call us back to the overlooked, to the unspoken, to unmet places, reminding us that we cannot simply choose to forget, that if the past isn’t done with us, it will call.’
p. xix

     I will admit, I originally thought that this book was a fictional story about the character Noah getting tangled up in a supernatural encounter within the British Museum with thoughtful discussion of imperialism and colonialism within the boundaries of that fictional world. Surprise! Noah Angell is a real guy!

     Originally from North America, in his ten years of living in Britain, he accidentally stumbled upon a wealth of information about the ghosts of the British Museum through a huge range of interviews with ex and current staff of the Museum. This book is his gathered knowledge condensed down into paper form. 

     Angell introduces himself through his motherland: the horror of colonialism baked into the land itself, manifesting through the supernatural. He makes clear that he does believe in spirits and ghosts. Personally, I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, but I don’t outright refuse their existence. My relationship with the mystical is that someone believes in it, and I want to respect them. I have had a few friends who are witches; I have willingly sat through a tarot reading, earnestly listening to the reader; I go to shrines and I sincerely pray to the inhabitant god; I visit churches, temples, mosques and synagogues and I quieten myself. I do this not principally because I believe in it, but because it is respectful, both to the place and people. 

     In regards to ghost stories, I do view them as good fun, with a little cautionary message. Angell makes a really astute observation of ghost stories and trauma that is felt through generations. Upon thinking about it, I agree with Angell.

‘Hauntings arise from untended trauma, festering in its irresolution, and made worse by on-going injustice in the world of the living. Perhaps simply to put material heritage in a museum is to make a ghost of it. After all, the creation of a collection often involves the violent or underhand extraction of artefacts from their original settings, and their indefinite exile as a mere object in the cell-like setting of the museum display.’

     Moving past the introduction, the first few chapters are fun to read. Angell sets the stage, explaining the room the chapter is focused on, then hones on a selection of objects. Once the history, background and significance is established, he delves into what he has found talking to the staff of the Museum. These stories are presented and often not commented on, leaving the reader to choose. Is it real? Is it just a fun story to tell? Are all the people here barking mad? It all depends on the reader’s own beliefs. 

     Subtly, this begins to change. The book fully changes its tune in the Greek rooms, having laid the hints of it in previous chapters. At the end of a supernatural story of the Nereid Monument, the book describes a room hidden away, tucked behind Arbinas’ tomb, and I fancy that it is here that Angell also ducks behind management’s controlling hand and begins to look into the walls. 

     The Lost Caryatid’s story is where Angell really delves into the imperialism of the British Museum. While his words are still the basis for a ghost story, outside those sentences he speaks of actual bloodshed, theft and superfudge in the name of the Empire. The story of the caryatid stolen from her five sisters, whom together once gathered at the Erechtheion temple at Athens but was stolen by British Lord Elgin, possibly wanting it to grace his mansion as decoration, is punctuated by reports of her coffin crying the whole trip to the Museum and reports of the remaining sisters crying for their kidnapped sister.

     It doesn’t matter if this is a ghost story or not, real or phoney. Angell isn’t saying ‘ooh how spooky! Anyways, onto the next ghost story.’ The depiction of the crying sisters is used as a tool to deal an emotional blow to the reader. As Angell quotes Emilie, interviewed for the crying caryatid sisters, 

‘I think this story is there for a reason.’

     To really narrow down what Angell does in this book, I would explain it as applying magical realism to the real world. Magical realism is about highlighting the absurdity of real life with the introduction of a small magic that represents societal limitations and expectations. The magic, which is often painted as appearing because stifling constraints squeeze reality until it has to manifest in some way, is not explained but neither is it refuted to be anything but magic. It reflects how Angell talks about the supernatural in the introduction – in the British Museum, the horror and trauma of colonialism and imperialism materialises into the real world through ghosts. Angell uses magical realism techniques to highlight the imperialism of the British Museum. It’s a fascinating idea and a compelling read, and I like it a lot. 

     I quite like the different ways Angell discusses objects based on their story. The first few chapters focus on items that were earnestly donated to the institute, like the Mechanical Galleon. The ghost stories offered talk about curious appearances and strange, unexplained forces. When talking about objects that were stolen or seized through colonial military power, Angell discusses the horrific events that lead to the items being in the Museum, and how the countries of origin are still begging for them to be returned. Their historical, cultural and sentimental significance are explained through quotes from the Greek government about returning the Lost Sister to her Sisters, to Prince Edun Akenzwa about the Benin Bronzes, explaining the historical importance of the hundreds of bronze casts. Any ghost stories are there to further the theme of imperialism. 

     Angell unequivocally dismantles the grandiose aura of the British Museum and its mythological size and history. Its whole existence is founded on the collections of a plantation owner, and the vast collection it boasts has been acquired through bloodshed and theft.

‘I understood the museum and the plantation as twin pillars of colonial infrastructure. When colonial plantations, mines and labour camps were established, the people who were forced to work in them were in turn forcibly separated from their communal ways of being; their material culture was crated up and shipped off to museums abroad, where it was stored and presented as having been saved from extinction.’
p. xx

     Slowly, over the course of the book, the excuses are dismantled and the hungry mouth of British imperialism is uncovered. The British Museum continues to hold its imperial power through refusing to return stolen artefacts. It keeps legal security through obfuscation and indefinite political fighting, and in my favourite chapter of the book, delves into the bottomless pit that is Storage. 

     I absolutely loved how Angell wrote the final chapter of his book. Closing it with the terrifyingly unknown depths of Storage is both spooky – especially with the tale of a whole temple stored deep below the earth – and a testament to the Museum’s foundation of imperialism and white supremacy. Angell has never been in Storage and many staff never see its dark corridors. Those that do only see a slim fraction of it, relegated to their department. 

     This book earns a star rating of 4.5/5. The discussion of imperialism and colonialism was accomplished really well, and the transition from strictly ghost stories to the Museum’s bloody history was quite cleverly done. Using magical realism on reality, that is, using the ghost stories to really solidify the message, was quite ingenious. For those who believe in the supernatural, it would deepen their understanding of the anguish behind the Museum’s colonial heritage. For the sceptic or agnostic, it provides flavourful text that gives greater depth to the larger discussion. 

     If there was one nitpick I had about the book, I wished Angell discussed the fetishisation of the oriental through idolisation of non-Western magicks and religion. He does occasionally touch on groups founded way back in the Victorian age and modern witch and psychic visitors that are mostly those with money, but doesn’t delve deeper into their imperial, colonial and almost perverted gaze to a degree that I was satisfied by. Although while I say this, he does have a lot to say about the religious items locked in vitrines or forgotten in Storage, and lays out the implications of such in vivid and clear terms.

     I will close this article with one last quote from Angell.

‘The British Museum is not only a black hole, cradling a centrifugal whirlwind swirling with spirits mournful and aggrieved, homesick and playful, holy and ungrounded. It is a black hole with a morgue and a shooting range, it’s an orphanage and a makeshift place of worship, a travelling circus with engine troubles, and a chor bazaar - a thieves’ market of restless presences estranged and entangled, with a weekly prisoners’ singing group that strains to shake the walls. It’s a colonial-era experiment that has outstayed its time, yet gone nowhere. The colonial museum has lingered too long and become an unfortunate ghost, a relic of an earlier time.’ 
p. 208

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