Bonnie Greer

Bonnie Greer: the Era of Reclamation

By Bonnie Greer

Publication date: 8 January 2020

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, critic and former British Museum Trustee, explores her relationship with the Museum and what she calls the ‘Era of Reclamation’ – a time for conversations around ownership, not only of ourselves and our identities but of what we believe belongs to us.

Bonnie Greer: the Era of Reclamation

Truth is a big table and everybody’s got to sit at it.

This is the quote that a critic selected in a review of my new podcast, an Audible Original series, In Search of Black History.

That’s me. I want to, need to, and I will find my seat at the ‘Truth Table’.

In a British Museum blog from September 2014, I wrote this:

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

I wrote this but did not quite understand what I had written then. It was a feeling more than anything else.

The frontage of the British Museum with a Union Jack flag above it and columns below it.
The frontage of the British Museum.

I also wrote that it was hard to come into the Museum at first. The theatre I worked for at the time gave me a Reader’s Card to the British Library, then still inside the British Museum. I remember walking up the stairs of the building I had read about in the Encyclopedia Britannica that our father subscribed to and that I read with him when I was a little girl.

I remember that, when I became a Trustee of the Museum, a good friend of mine said she couldn’t go inside. Not into a storehouse of imperial loot. And how could I?

This year I am curating ‘The Era of Reclamation’, a series of conversations, which the Director of the Museum, Hartwig Fischer, has taken an active and supporting part in helping to frame. These conversations are all about reclaiming.

Reclaiming is at the heart of many of the great questions and movements of our part of the 21st century. From the return of African objects to their places of origin, all the way to the renaming of our very selves.

Two black-skinned hands lift a slave ship out of the ocean and bring it back to Africa. A woman is under water.
Kara Walker (b. 1969), no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters. Aquatint, 2010. © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

My own reclamation in this 'Era of Reclamation' is of what I call ‘The Boat'. ‘The Boat’ is the slave ship, the vehicle of deportation and exile, into what could have only been seen by the victims of the slave trade as the void. But for me, ‘The Boat’ is also the vehicle on which a kind of big bang occurred. A change. And a new people were born.

This birth was not simply a matter of the defeat and subjugation of the African nations that made up what was called the 'slave coast'. This new people, my people, were also fashioned out of a true 'clash of civilisations' between Europe and Africa.

'The Boat' is an expanding story, still unfolding.

Objects including an Anglo Saxon helmet and shield displayed in glasses cases in a gallery
Inside Room 41, showcasing the Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collections.

Recently a friend suggested that I pour a libation inside the British Museum. I asked him, ‘a libation of cleansing, or one of thanksgiving?’ Thanksgiving, for example, for the fact that I discovered I love the Anglo-Saxons at the Museum. No, not the white supremacists and other evil people who have appropriated their name. The real ones. The ones way-back-when with their beautiful and intricate objects. Their love of learning. Their lives and their colourful world, almost erased by the destruction of the monasteries and churches in the 16th century, by Henry VIII.

I’m interested in their story and everything about them: the objects associated with them. The fact that a queen known as the Lady of Mercia handed her queenship on to her daughter, the only time this has happened in English history. I’m fascinated too by their journey from their native lands, around what is now Germany and the Netherlands.

Bronze head from over-life-sized statue: the head is broken through the neck but otherwise in excellent condition. The eyes are inlaid, with glass pupils set in metal rings, the irises of calcite
The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC.

I love that they have, on the surface anyway, nothing to do with me at all.

At the British Museum, the Anglo Saxons exist in the same building as the objects and other artefacts of the queens of Kush, now modern-day Sudan. Not for them the super-slim Egyptians. The people of Kush loved big ladies and revelled in their bigness. Their queens were so fierce that the rocks that the Romans made as weapons sometimes had a curse on them directed at the queen. Between the Kushite and Roman empires it was personal. One of the queens took the head off a statue of the Roman emperor Augustus and buried it in the ground so that people would actually walk on the head of the emperor. That object is called the Meroë Head. You can see it at the Museum in Room 70. And it’s free.

The conversations that make up ‘The Era of Reclamation’ ask questions like: is there a diminution of the African Caribbean voice in the British public sphere? Does the LGBTQ community point a way out of the ‘Wakanda-isation’* of African history and towards a ‘meta Africa’ – a new space that exists not only in Africa, but in Europe, the Americas, the world. Has diversity devolved into a business? And what does diversity really mean? What are we being diverse from?

Hartwig Fischer and Bonnie Greer crouch in front of the Meroë Head. Nearby is a microphone recording their conversation.
Bonnie Greer OBE and Director Hartwig Fischer in Room 70.

I still do dream about the British Museum as an arena of possibilities. A field of dreams that encourages us to go beyond ourselves. And it is a temple too. In which we erect what we choose. And take it down. And rebuild. Constantly.


*Wakanda is a fictional Sub-Saharan African country, created by Marvel Comics and home to the superhero Black Panther.