As a tourist in London, of course, I went to see some of its hundreds of museums. They taught me a lot about the arts, nature, and human history, but they also made me really sad. We all try to create happy memories, but have you ever thought about how our history is made up almost entirely of sad ones? When we learn about history, we learn about wars, crusades, holocausts, slavery, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, epidemics, sultans murdering their younger siblings to consolidate power, powerful nations imposing their rules on the less powerful.
Changes are not driven by happy people dancing in the village squares. They are driven by people in chains, in pain, in famine. Revolutions are not driven by people who still have a lot to lose. They are driven by people who have lost everything.
A story my friend told me about these museums also made me sad. I’m staying in London with Mien, a good friend of mine who is here studying on a Chevening scholarship. She told me that at the Chevening reception of her class, a student from one of England’s ex-colonies asked the British Museum’s spokesperson if they have any plan to return the artifacts to their rightful countries. British museums feature artifacts from around the world, many were taken/stolen when England colonized those countries.
The spokesperson diplomatically asked why would they want that. England is a cultural hub where people from all over the world come to visit. Displaying your country’s artifacts here will allow people to learn about your culture. This answer enraged many students present that day. How presumptuous it is for that British spokesperson to assume the role of a cultural educator. If you want to learn about Kenyan culture, you go to Kenya, not to museums in England.
I have just read Ken Burns’s commencement speech at Stanford and he shared the same sentiment.
“The hard times and vicissitudes of life will ultimately visit everyone. You will also come to realize that you are less defined by the good things that happen to you, your moments of happiness and apparent control, than you are by those misfortunes and unexpected challenges that, in fact, shape you more definitively, and help to solidify your true character—the measure of any human value. You, especially, know that the conversation that comes out of tragedy and injustice needs to be encouraged, emphasis on courage. It is through those conversations that we make progress.”
You can read the full speech here.