The Empire Strikes Through: The Drawing and Redrawing of Political Maps in the British Museum

by Sahar Tavakoli

There are several features that make the Silver Plate Showing Shapur II — also known as item 124091 in the British Museum Collection — remarkable as an artefact; the purity of its metal composition (94.3-94.7% silver) and the particular angle of Shapur’s foot, indicative of a stirrup-less rider. More remarkable still is the artefact’s seemingly magical capacity to have existed in multiple places, at multiple times, simultaneously.

Introduced in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast episode 43, the artefact is described by the episode’s host and guests as akin to a looking glass, one through which we might spy an early version of our contemporary selves. The episode – which begins with Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem opening Sonnenaufgang and which ends with an image of Christ in Dorset – uses the plate to discuss the relationship between a state and its established religion. Rather than marvel at the similarities between the West and the Rest, my intention in this article is to explore and interrogate certain archival practices. In particular, how this artefact has come to be catalogued by the British Museum and how archivists’ assignments of ‘location of origin’ to museum artefacts might reveal something of the ways in which the British Museum understands current political maps, and how such institutions make abstruse the role of twentieth-century hegemonic powers – such as Great Britain –  in the production of those maps.

While existing scholarly work on museums, nation-building, and object exchange1 do much to help us understand the project underpinning encyclopaedic museums, they tend to overlook seemingly mundane museum practices such as the categorising and labelling of artefacts and their origins. When it comes to the identification of antiquities, British Museum archivists and curators take an approach that favours contemporary geographical maps over contemporaneous ones. Not only is the past brought forward to live in the present, the present is imposed upon the world of the past. Writing on the politics of interpretation and the enactment of culture, Edward Said cautions, “no single explanation sending one back immediately to a single origin is adequate. And just as there are no simple dynastic answers, there are no simple discrete historical formations or social processes.”2 Nonetheless, archives like the British Museum do precisely that; divorcing objects of antiquity from the context and tradition in which they were commissioned, manufactured, used, or celebrated, and superimposing new, simplified narratives that support new systems of knowledge and power.

The aforementioned Silver Plate Showing Shapur II dates back to the Sassanian Empire of late antiquity, a period that encompasses, roughly, the third through to the eight centuries. At its height, this empire spread across much of central Asia and westwards into the eastern Mediterranean. North to South, the empire spanned the Caucasus and Black Sea through to the base of the Arabian Peninsula. Sassanian artefacts hold historical and cultural significance for communities in present day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Armenia, and Georgia, to name only a few. On its display cabinet label, the origin of the Silver Plate Showing Shapur II is listed as Iran. In the British Museum’s collection database, the artefact’s origin becomes Turkey. Neither is entirely wrong, but nor, as I will explain, are they entirely correct. Time travel, it should be remembered, is a process that distorts optics.

Identifying the past with the markers of the present – that is, favouring the categories of the analyst over those of the actor – blackboxes complex histories involving multiple communities, multiple nations, and multiple identities. In the opening line of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley writes “the past is a foreign country”; the British Museum tells us which one.3 Such simplifications raise a series of questions. Namely, what is gained and what is obfuscated by such curatorial practices? Which aspects of a particular social and cultural identity (and which identities) are brought to the fore? And how might such practices come to be replicated – unwittingly or intentionally – in altogether different efforts of community making that take place outside of museum walls? That is, what do nameplates such as that assigned to the Silver Plate expose about the politics of archives like the British Museum, and how are such politics both complicated and reasserted in missions aimed at increasing inclusivity for marginalised communities, such as in the 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object project?

I have questions galore, but I do not have firm responses. Working first through the demarcation of the Silver Plate Showing Shapur II in the British Museum, and then though the Call for Action that inspired this piece, I hope to draw attention to the ways in which people and places – people like myself and the places from which I come – are not only different from one another, but different within themselves.4

I have no interest here in denying the complex historical and political significance that is woven through national identity. Nor am I at all interested in forwarding the misguided suggestion that we are currently in some crisis of identity politics run rampant. Rather, I would like to draw attention to the way in which both people and objects are enrolled into complex and oftentimes discursive practices of cultural identification and how this can both empower and inhibit. The translation of complex identities and histories into simple categories brings with itself the possibility of externally imposed organisation, monitoring, reinforcement, or control of communities of individuals.5 Asking how the Archon – the patriarch of the archive – names and defines the subjects under his watch is to raise for further consideration how we might best empower subaltern identities and narratives without resting upon, or worse, reifying, categories and boundaries imposed from above.

Your Place or Mine?  Location and Agency

Found in Room 52 of the British Museum, accessible through the East Stairs, the nameplate associated with the Silver Plate Showing Shapur II presents to museum goers something of an anachronism, a nation out of time. The museum label describes the artefact as originating from Iran. On the museum’s acquisition of the silver plate in 1908, there was no nation of Iran in as far as it would be known to the Western World,6 instead there was Persia. Contemporaries of this artefact might have referred to their region as Aryānšahr or Ērānšahr, but this is only one province in the broader Sassanian Empire over which Shapur II ruled. As already noted, in the museum’s collection database, we are offered another point of origin, that of Turkey. However, in 1908 there was no such independent state. It would take another 15 years for Turkey to emerge from the Ottoman Empire as a sovereign nation. What is depicted by this plate, then, by its label and its associated documentation, is not only an image of a king in mid hunt, but a map of places yet to be tread upon, affiliations yet to be forged, and identities yet to be named. The inclusion of a nation of origin on nameplates, whether contemporary or contemporaneous, brings with itself the suggestion that national borders exist independently of our societies. But nations are not absolute concepts, they are negotiated, fought over, and defended. At times they are imposed from without.

Today, straight lines characterise much of the mapping of the Middle East North Africa region (hereafter MENA). The Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in secret between the United Kingdom and France in 1916, marked a deliberate effort to slice existing community borders in the MENA region in order to destabilise structures of governance to the benefit of the agreement’s signatories.7 Post-World War I pacts such as the Treaty of Sèvres and the League of Nations’ Mandate System established ‘zones of influence’ for the allied forces; spaces in which administration of newly drawn nations would be directed from global powers “until such time as they are able to stand alone” and in which the “tutelage” of “centres of civilisation” would guarantee access to national resources and ports.8 While the present day borders of Iran have the curlicues and squiggles suggestive of a self-defined state, it should be remembered that even these borders are relatively recent. New borders between Iran and Azerbaijan, and Iran and Turkmenistan, drawn following the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay respectively, were borders fought for against the Russian Empire at the encouragement and assistance of British forces seeking to preserve their interests within then-Persia and to limit access to other gemstones in their Imperial crown such as the British Raj.9

The hands that draw maps can also wipe them clean of any fingerprints. Bellows used to stoke the flames of conflict also produce in themselves a vacuum in which responsibility seems to disappear. While increasing attention is being focused on the violent and often illegal manner in which the British Museum has acquired its collection, in the broader social consciousness the museum is still upheld as a kind of safe haven for a de-localised human heritage, protected against the instability of the remaining world.10 In 2015, Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, described the museum’s acquisition of newly acquired Syrian artefacts, exported illegally from their place of origin, as an important step in ‘safeguarding’ a now globalised history from the violence of a conflict zone. The same, continues MacGregor, has been done for artefacts illegally exported from Afghanistan and held by the Museum.11 Absent, in MacGregor’s statement, is any reflection on how such regions might have come to be in conflict and how the British Museum, in distinguishing between past civilisation and present civil unrest, might reinforce an orientalising narrative of an inherently unstable MENA.

Partial and Problematic: Locating the Multi-hyphenated

In the British Museum, the determinations of the analyst appear to triumph over those of the historical actor or its possible descendants. While I have thus far explored the ways in which this obfuscates particular geopolitical history, to take the opposite approach is not without its associated problems. Mapped onto an ancient world that no longer exists, artefacts become homeless. With no living countrymen12 to lay claim to them, artefacts are rendered up for grabs by museum hands. This is not a condition that I would like to set. My argument here is, in effect, that all unhappy options are unhappy in their own ways. Unhappiness and troubled narratives are, however, opening points for exploration, generative of a study of structure over institution, and practice over product.13 In this last part of this piece, I would like to follow one of these unhappy paths.  I have asked, “what is there in a name, for the British Museum?”; I now ask, “what is there in such names in the Call for Action of 100 Histories of 100 World in 1 Object that inspired this piece of writing, and what might they do for me in understanding my own complex identity?” My interest in this artefact and its naming are nothing short of self-centred: Silver Plate Showing Sahar Tavakoli, or Silver Plate Showing Generation II. I have never visited the British Museum. Indeed, I’ve never been any closer to its grounds than a layover at Gatwick Airport some 60-or-so kilometres away. It is not the silver face of this artefact that reflects my image, it is its troubled identification.

Concerned with the margins of modern, post-colonial states, Homi Bhabha identifies the nation and associated nationalist discourse as something unfolding in liminal space rather than solidified in historical categories. Here the locality of identity and culture is

“[a] form of living that is more complex than ‘community’; more symbolic than ‘society’; more connotative than ‘country’; less patriotic than patrie; more rhetorical than the reason of State; more mythological than ideology; less homogeneous than hegemony; less centred than the citizen; more collective than ‘the subject’; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism.”14

The borders of the nation and the placement of individuals within it are each a kind of ‘fuzzy concept’. Neither intuitive nor rigid, existing in enactment and reception, nation and identity are able to define that which they encompass according to audience and context. Again, my interest is not to downplay or even to question the historical and political importance of national identity. The formation of a national culture is itself a “vital response to infrastructural realities”.15 I am certainly not trying to suggest that stateless nations need only to act as though their statehood is internationally recognised if they seek to manifest such conditions in the experienced world. Rather, to be recognised as possessing of national identity, one is forced to make a convincing case that their identity should be accepted as legitimate and representative of some ideal. As is made clear through the hardship endured by stateless communities, what counts as convincing is not only determined within communities, but more often, an assessment made by some external audience.

I am a dual citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Australia. If the outline of the nation of Iran resembles the silhouette of a rather hunchbacked cat, my family and I hail from its face. Not the same as the Republic of Azerbaijan, both my mother and father were born in a region that, until the aforementioned Russo-Persian War and the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay, would have constituted a culturally and ethnically defined Azerbaijani state. They speak to us, their children, in Persian. Amongst one another they communicate in a dialect known as Lir-Turkic.

We refer to ourselves as ‘Azeri,’ ‘Iranian,’ ‘Azerbaijani-Iranian,’ and, although largely as an act of disidentification with a term intended to be derisive, ‘Tʊrk’.16 Our football team is Tractor S. C. We (Azeris, Iranians, and Azerbaijani Iranians, that is, not Tractor fans) constitute one of the largest minority groups within the Islamic Republic. According to the International Journal of Modern Anthropology, our closest ethnic kin are the Kurdish people17 who, in spite of the Independent Kurdistan promised by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, are stateless. My siblings and I were born everywhere: my brother in Frankfurt, Germany; my sister in Genoa, Italy; myself in Sydney, Australia. While my immediate family live in Australia, I do not. My parents identify, still, as Iranian, Azeri, Azerbaijani Iranian, and Tʊrk, as do we, their children.18 The nameplate for the Silver Plate Showing Shapur II could have been my own: sometimes Iranian, sometimes referred to as Turkish, now dislocated and deposited into a commonwealthaccount. Diasporic communities and second-generation migrants are often sliced into multi-hyphenated identities and caught between a pressure to acculturate and to preserve.19

The call for action for the 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object project includes a note to potential contributors. This reads:

“We welcome marginalized voices, minoritized writers, and in particular contributors from communities of origin or association of these objects. We would encourage contributors who do not have community connections to the object to seek co-authors who do. Contributors who do not have community connections to the object can be considered in collaborative projects, i.e. with leading co-authors who do.”20

So how do I demonstrate community connection to this object? Not as a Sassanian, on this point I feel confident enough. Perhaps as one who is of Iran on the relevant official documents. The hyphens that connect the various components of my rich identity become strikethroughs. To be Iranian in the manner that the Silver Plate is Iranian is to lose my Azeri identity. To be Turkish as the plate is defined in the British Museum database is to lose a history of Turkic peoples that extends far further than the boundaries of the present-day Republic of Turkey. Can artefacts have multi-hyphenated identities as so many people do and, if not, who do they belong to and who gets to draw these boundaries?

I see the intention behind this Call for Action and I agree with it. I applaud its prioritising of marginalised positions and the effort to empower communities to write their own histories. I steel myself against those who would suggest that the approach is a kind of reverse discrimination. This does not mean that I am without concern. I want to neither reify nor erase, to avoid the differentiating processes that underpin gestures of othering21 and, perhaps even more strongly, to avoid the kind of universalising approach that would see multiculturalism as anything more than acculturation with better lunches. In drawing together (geopolitical) identities with artefacts that sometimes precede them, we run the risk of imbuing our efforts to destabilise hegemonic power with the language and techniques of that same hegemon. That, pace Audre Lorde, we find ourselves attempting to rewrite the master’s history books while adhering to the rules of the master’s own grammar.22


1 See: Aronsson, Peter, and Gabriella Elgenius. National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe 1750-2010 : Mobilization and Legitimacy, Continuity and Change. Milton Park: Taylor & Francis, 2014.
Crinson, Mark. “Nation-Building, Collecting and the Politics of Display: The National Museum, Ghana.” Journal of the History of Collections 13, 2 (2001), 231–50.
Elgenius, Gabriella. “National Museums as National Symbols.” In National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe 1750-2010, 145–66. Milton Park: Routledge, 2014.
Knell, Simon, Peter Aronsson, and Arne Bugge Amundsen. National Museums: New Studies from Around the World. Milton Park: Routledge, 2014.
Prösler, Martin. “Museums and Globalization.” The Sociological Review 43, no. S1 (1995): 21–44.
Silverman, Lois H. The Social Work of Museums. Milton Park: Routledge, 2009.
Thomas, Dominic. Museums in Postcolonial Europe. Milton Park: Routledge, 2013.

2 Said, Edward W. “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community.” Critical Inquiry 9, 1 (1982), 1–26.

3 Hartley, L. P. The Go-Between. Penguin, London: UK, 1953.

4 Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008. 22, 47

5 Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 136-7.

6 My meaning here is not that there was no such nation as Iran in 1908, only that such a nation did not exist with this name in the Western imaginary at this point in time. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been known as ایران [Ērān] to its citizens for far longer than the title has been used in the Western World. In 1935, Reza Shah, then national leader, requested that all countries with which Persia held diplomatic relations begin referring to the country by its Persian-language name of Iran.

7 Berdine, Michael D. Redrawing the Middle East: Sir Mark Sykes, Imperialism and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Camden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

8 Nations, L. of, 1920. “The Covenant of the League of Nations”. World Peace Foundation.
It should also be noted here that the mandate system was not limited to the MENA region, and extended as far as the Pacific.

9 There is a Persian idiom which states “دست انگلیس توش است” dāsteh ēngelestān tʊš [the hand of England lurks within]. The suggestion, here, is that an event has been fabricated or orchestrated by British forces against some foreign party in the pursuit of a self-serving goal. Iranians, arguably unparalleled in gallows humour, will use this phrase to describe events that range from Operation Boot (orchestrated by MI6 forces in 1953) to something as mundane as stepping into an unexpected puddle. This is not to suggest a paranoid national character. Rather, the expression is a commentary on the level of influence Western powers have long held over the region. When it comes to the modern map of the MENA, to say that the hand of the English lurks within is simply to state an historical fact.

10 For a more detailed discussion of global north powers both fomenting and declaring instability in the MENA in relation to the protection of cultural treasures, Sumaya Kassim’s essay There is no Mutual Fascination: why the British Museum’s ‘Inspired by the East’ is not Inspired (at least not to me, a heartbroken Middle Easterner) for Lucy Writers provides a sharp, if not downright biting, evaluation of the British Museum’s 2019 exhibition Inspired by the East.
03/07/21. http://lucywritersplatform.com/2020/02/07/there-is-no-mutual-fascination-why-the-british-museums-inspired-by-the-east-is-not-inspired-at-least-not-to-me-a-heartbroken-muslim-middle-easterner/

11 Burgess, Kaya. “British Museum ‘guarding’ Object Looted from Syria.” BBC News, June 5, 2015, sec. Entertainment & Arts. Accessed March 15, 2021.  https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-33020199.

12 This is not to discount any individuals or communities who might consider themselves to be living descendants of the Sassanids, only to recognise that many of the artefacts held by the Museum were forged in states that have been disrupted by time or decimated by colonial rule, such as the territories of the  Palawa or Indigenous Tasmanians by British colonialists, the Kalinago people of St Kitts by British and French colonialists, and the genocide and ethnocide of countless Indigenous communities across the Americas by Spanish colonialists.

13 Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

14 Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture. Psychology Press, 2004, 140

15 Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text, no. 15 (1986): 65–88, 78

16 Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1999.
To be more specific here, we describe ourselves as Azeri amongst other Iranian nationals, Iranian to Australian nationals, and Azerbaijani-Irani to nationals of nations that border the north-western region of Iran or to anyone who asks for more specific detail.

17 Arnaiz-Villena, Antonio, Jose Palacio-Gruber, Ester Muñiz, Diego Rey, Behrouz Nikbin, Hosein Nickman, Cristina Campos, José Manuel Martín-Villa, and Ali Amirzargar. “Origin of Azeris (Iran) According to HLA Genes.” International Journal of Modern Anthropology 1, no. 10 (October 31, 2017): 115–38.

18 I have added ‘Australian’ to this list. My siblings do not identify as German or Italian, a reminder of the role of self-determination in identity ascription, and something artefacts are not quite as capable of doing for themselves.

19 I am simplifying very diverse and complex experiences and stakes in this statement. Increasingly, scholars are taking an interest in the lived experience of multi-hyphenated identity. Examples of such studies can be found here:
Bhatia, Sunil. “Acculturation, Dialogical Voices and the Construction of the Diasporic Self.” Theory & Psychology 12, 1, (2002), 55–77.
Bhatia, Sunil, and Anjali Ram. “Theorizing Identity in Transnational and Diaspora Cultures: A Critical Approach to Acculturation.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Critical Acculturation Psychology, 33, 2 (2009), 140–49.
Christou, Anastasia. Narratives of Place, Culture and Identity : Second-Generation Greek-Americans Return “Home.” Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Kadianaki, Irini. “Commentary: Making Sense of Immigrant Identity Dialogues.” Culture & Psychology 16, 3 (2010), 437–48.
Waters, Mary C. “Ethnic and Racial Identities of Second-Generation Black Immigrants in New York City.” International Migration Review 28, 4 (1994), 795–820.

20 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object. “Call for Action.” 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object, 2020. Accessed March 13, 2021 https://100histories100worlds.org/call-for-action/.

21 Jameson, 1986. p.77

22 Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–13. Berkley: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, 2012.


Bibliography

100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object. “Call for Action.” 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object, 2020. Accessed March 13, 2021 https://100histories100worlds.org/call-for-action/.

Arnaiz-Villena, Antonio, Jose Palacio-Gruber, Ester Muñiz, Diego Rey, Behrouz Nikbin, Hosein Nickman, Cristina Campos, José Manuel Martín-Villa, and Ali Amirzargar. “Origin of Azeris (Iran) According to HLA Genes.” International Journal of Modern Anthropology 1, no. 10 (October 31, 2017): 115–38.

Aronsson, Peter, and Gabriella Elgenius. National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe 1750-2010 : Mobilization and Legitimacy, Continuity and Change. Taylor & Francis, 2014.

Berdine, Michael D. Redrawing the Middle East: Sir Mark Sykes, Imperialism and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Camden: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. East Sussex: Psychology Press, 2004.

Bhatia, Sunil. “Acculturation, Dialogical Voices and the Construction of the Diasporic Self.” Theory & Psychology 12, 1 (2002), 55–77.

Bhatia, Sunil, and Anjali Ram. “Theorizing Identity in Transnational and Diaspora Cultures: A Critical Approach to Acculturation.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Critical Acculturation Psychology, 33, 2 (2009), 140–49.

Burgess, Kaya. “British Museum ‘guarding’ Object Looted from Syria.” BBC News, June 5, 2015, sec. Entertainment & Arts. Accessed March 15, 2021 https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-33020199.

Christou, Anastasia. Narratives of Place, Culture and Identity : Second-Generation Greek-Americans Return “Home.” Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.

Crinson, Mark. “Nation-Building, Collecting and the Politics of Display: The National Museum, Ghana.” Journal of the History of Collections 13,  2 (2001), 231–50.

Elgenius, Gabriella. “National Museums as National Symbols.” In National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe 1750-2010, 145–66. Milton Park: Routledge, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Hartley, L. P. The Go-Between. London: Penguin UK, 1953.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text, 15 (1986): 65–88.

Kadianaki, Irini. “Commentary: Making Sense of Immigrant Identity Dialogues.” Culture & Psychology 16, 3 (2010), 437–48.

Knell, Simon, Peter Aronsson, and Arne Bugge Amundsen. National Museums: New Studies from Around the World. Milton Park: Routledge, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–13. Berkley: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, 2012.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. U of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Nations, League of. The Covenant of the League of Nations. World Peace Foundation, 1920.

Prösler, Martin. “Museums and Globalization.” The Sociological Review 43, no. S1 (1995): 21–44.

Said, Edward W. “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community.” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 1 (1982): 1–26.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, 2008.

Silverman, Lois H. The Social Work of Museums. Milton Park: Routledge, 2009.

Thomas, Dominic. Museums in Postcolonial Europe. Milton Park: Routledge, 2013.

Waters, Mary C. “Ethnic and Racial Identities of Second-Generation Black Immigrants in New York City.” International Migration Review 28, 4 (1994), 795–820.