The British Museum hosts plenty of official tours — a 70-minute highlights tour, an LGBTQ histories trail, and even a virtual “Museum of the World” collaboration with Google Cultural Institute. But there’s a key topic these tours will likely paper over: the fact that many objects in the Museum’s collections were stolen and have outstanding requests for return to other countries. A new, unofficial, “guerrilla” multimedia tour produced by Vice World News and created by Indian media company Dentsu Webchutney remedies institutional bashfulness on that topic. Through AR Instagram filters and short podcast episodes, visitors to the museum can now learn about the history behind how ten of the most disputed objects in its collections made their way to London’s West End — and why they should go home.
Ten artifacts make up the Unfiltered History Tour: Australia’s Gweagal Shield, India’s Amaravati Marbles, Iraq’s Ashurbanipal reliefs, Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, Ghana’s Akan Drum, Egypt’s Rosetta Stone, Greece’s Parthenon Marbles, Rapa Nui’s Hoa Hakananai’a, Jamaica’s Birdman and Boinayel figures, and China’s Summer Palace. As visitors stand before each of these objects, they can scan them to “teleport the artifacts back to their homeland.” The object may be physically sitting inside a glass case or on a marble pedestal in the British Museum, but AR technology resituates the object in the moment it was forcibly taken from its place of origin. Meanwhile, visitors can listen to an accompanying audio series in which experts from the objects’ countries of origin discuss their significance and their continuing relationship to people in those countries in the present.
It’s “the first time that visual depictions of these moments in history have been shown from the perspective of the home countries — a unique achievement given that current documentation of most historical events are overwhelmingly dominated by the Western lens,” Gautham Reghunath, CEO of Dentsu Webchutney, explained in MoneyControl. In 2018 and 2019, activist group BP or not BP? collaborated with activists from stolen objects’ communities of origin to host two in-person tours which visited similar exhibits at the British Museum and drew hundreds. The Unfiltered History Tour is a virtual alternative that can be experienced year-round.
Those who can’t make it to the British Museum can still participate in the tour on the Unfiltered History Tour’s website. Beginning with the Hoa Hakananai’a — a moai from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island — virtual participants can view pictures of objects set against backdrops illustrating, for instance, the sacred rites that they once presided over, but also violent occupations and sieges that unrooted them from their communities. To descendants of those who carved the moai, the statues are very much still the living faces of their ancestors. But in 1868, almost a century after James Cook first made landfall in Rapa Nui, British explorers seized Hoa Hakananai’a from a ceremonial house on the island, taking apart that house in the process.
Each short, accompanying podcast episode is a counternarrative to dry, anthropological segments that are customary at most museums, de-neutralizing the museum as an innocuous space and laying it bare as a colonial site direly in need of outside intervention.
Some episodes discuss the symbolism of the Rosetta Stone being housed at the British Museum; the irony of the Amaravati marbles — which depict the moment Siddhartha disavows violence and war to become the Buddha — having been stripped from India on the orders from the East India Company in the 19th century; and the travesty of the Birdman and Boinayel figurines from Jamaica currently being stowed away in storage while the country’s request for their return remains unfulfilled.
Speaking on the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad notes that it is not only the English engraving on the stone that represents the audacity and criminality of British colonialism but the very fact that the Stone remains in England. “They stole the effort of all the previous Egyptian priests and the Arabic mediaeval scientists who are trying to decipher the hieroglyphs and who’ve made extremely important contributions in attempting to decipher the hieroglyphs — this got totally whitewashed. This is not the story that we narrate anymore. All that we narrate is how the British or the French gave Ancient Egypt to the world.”
Of course, none of these conversations are new. But as PG Aditya, creative director of Dentsu Webchutney, writes to Hyperallergic, “we wanted to make the discourse about the British Museum actually enter the Museum.” Inspired by a viewing of the British Museum episode of the Empires of Dirt series, in May 2020, the Unfiltered History Tour was pitched to the VICE India team. Work on the project lasted for 18 months and a crew of over 100 people contributed to it.
Most illustrations in the tour, Aditya explains, are “the first visual depictions of these moments in history, from the standpoint of the home countries,” so they had to be rigorously researched and fact-checked. Field researcher Emi Eleode had to make over 30 trips to the Museum over 8 months to test the filter and provide feedback on the placement and lighting of objects — all without the Museum’s knowledge. Because differing weather conditions would affect how sunlight reflected off glass display cases, the tech team developed different filters for different times of day while incorporating live weather updates. And most of the team, working remotely in India, became proficient in the museum’s layout by trawling “inside” on Google Earth for untold hours during the pandemic.
The payoff is a reimagination of what AR filter technology can be tooled to do. “No longer will a visitor of the Unfiltered History Tour remember Instagram AR filters as the tech that only added dog ears/cat whiskers to their face,” Aditya writes to Hyperallergic. “They’d remember it as the tech that taught them about colonialism.”
The end of the tour website presents a prompt to users: “Which museum would you like us to unfilter next?”