Should UCL De-Name Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology?

Flinders Petrie with pottery

Because I’ve been vocal in arguing for de-naming UCL facilities once (but no longer) associated with racist, nativist, eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, I was asked if UCL should de-name its Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, too. This was named after Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), whose excavations produced a significant proportion of its collection.

Who was Flinders Petrie?

Flinders Petrie held views of a racial biologist. These were key elements of his interpretations about the ancient world, especially when he tried to explain how groups of people replaced each other in the archaeological record. Petrie also held eugenicist views, though I think these less relevant to the present point. His related views have been studied in detail by Silberman (1999), Sheppard (2010), and Challis (2013).

Petrie’s bibliography provides ample instances of his racist views:

Should UCL De-Name?

Yes. UCL should de-name this museum. This is consistent with de-naming associated with Galton and Pearson. It is consistent with my calls for de-naming associated with Ronald Aylmer Fisher, and it’s consistent with my general view that space needs to be made within the institution for people who are understood to represent a more diverse range of inspiring and commanding leaders. All of us in the UCL community benefit from this wider range of representation.

I’m also persuaded by arguments made by Challis about how naming a collection such as this after one person creates the wrong impression that all materials housed in the facility were collected by one person. In this case, that impression is quite wrong. This point is less important to me than the argument about Petrie’s racist biology, something highlighted by Angela Saini.

In the case of the museum at UCL, Petrie’s name has been used for symbolic reasons. We know enough about heritage to know the symbols we use and the reasons for using them change over time. And times have changed. Where once we valued more than most other things the pioneer iconoclast and innovator, we now choose to void symbols that slow us in our goals towards inclusion and equality. Black lives matter. And they matter more than the commemoration of mavericks whose spirit we admire, more than anti-elitists whose politics we admire, and more than empiricists whose data we admire. Simply put, black lives matter more. Full stop. If we err on this point of balancing symbols for the many virtues we admire, we should choose to err on the side of generosity towards supporting BLM rather than not. Petrie’s professional reputation and his disciplinary reputation can both survive whatever strains may result.

De-naming must be more than a passing fashion

First, at UCL, naming and de-naming now requires a collective conversation, with space given to different points of view and time required for reflection. The policy was disclosed through a Freedom of Information request. I don’t understand why the institution downplays this. Seems to me it’s rare in the sector and something to be proud about. Cases considered for de-naming must be open to consultation across the university committee.

Second, I think the focus on single elements of the estate needs to draw to close. It’s tactically wrong and strategically misguided to argue idiosyncratically across the institution, one case at a time. This raises the appearance that institutions change because an insider finds a cause celeb. By my rough counting, UCL has 39 surnames in use for buildings, 2 in use for libraries, 4 for museums, 21 for lecture theatres, 21 for halls of residence. I don’t know the numbers for other parts of the institution: research centres, rooms, scholarships, awards, staff appointments, and so on.

I call on UCL’s incoming President and Provost, Michael Spence, to review all honorary names in the institution.

Let’s create space for asking fundamental questions about the heritage we want to promote across the whole of our activities. Rather than picking at cases one-by-one, let’s understand how our commemorative ecosystem functions – where we have too much and where we have too little; where we are wrong and where we are right. Then, let’s make changes that give us a community heritage that is at once affirming and instructive, at once challenging and guiding. 

Make no mistake, it’s wrong to ignore core issues like anti-racism. At the same time, the institution has other priorities and values to respect, too. It’s wrong to act without due regard for legitimate disagreements over which virtues we want to emphasise. We do not want to replace one bully with another. An argument about Petrie is not an argument for and against racism. It’s an argument for one virtue (e.g., anti-racism) against another (pro-innovation or pro-maverick or pro-socialism), and which of these virtues carries more weight.

My view is that at the present time, the virtue most important to push into the foreground is anti-racism. But this must take place within an healthy ecosystem of multiple virtues within aspirational heritage.

Is the name the most pressing problem at the Petrie?

I was surprised when I was asked about de-naming this museum. When I think about the Petrie Museum as a facility, the issues of possible emotional exclusion and anti-racist symbolism come lower on my list of priorities than other action points. I feel the museum is in a dire state, and urgent action is required. UCL is custodian to this precious thing, and we seem to be abdicating our responsibilities. Here’s my triage for action:

  1. conservation and environmental conditions for individual objects
  2. physical access to and physical access within the facility’s space
  3. risks to the collection due to its location and due to the fabric of the building
  4. staffing levels
  5. digital presence and digital resources, lack of open access
  6. availability of materials in research and learning for global communities

For me, stability of objects and removal of the physical and operational barriers that exclude all people must come first in this triage. Let’s be as attune to able-ist biases as we are to other anti-inclusion biases.

Then, reduction of risk to the collection from its location. Whatever its name, this collection desperately needs re-location; it deserves a new museum. This comes up again and again as a high-priority. In my time, three plans were muted, then shelved. Promises come and go. Easy activities are chosen by executives who serve as care-takers rather than this one hard action. I know of no active plans for relocation or fundraising towards that goal. (Neither did any of the Friends I spoke with about the matter.) Despite manifesto rhetoric in the unit claiming to have a “radical” vision and claiming to want to push the establishment, this strikes me as a case of rolling over and falling asleep at the wheel. Fiddling while Rome burns. Choose your metaphor.

Meanwhile, other people within the institution have delivered change for the UCL Grant Museum, the UCL Pathology collection, and for UCL’s commitment to object based learning enhancement.

The current situation is the Egyptology collection is outrageous. We should be in the position to pick up the issues of emotional barriers and anti-racism with maturity and commitment. But to my mind, the emotional and reputational capital spent on naming removes what is  desperately in short supply elsewhere. For the moment, I feel it’s an acceptable level of balance to rely on the larger institution for breaking down emotional barriers and promoting anti-racism to make progress on other needs more desperately felt. Campaigns about names must not distract from urgent need to re-locate this collection and re-invigorate its contributions to communities at UCL and elsewhere.

The views expressed here are mine. I’m not writing as a representative of any group. De-naming museums at UCL was not engaged in UCL’s eugenics inquiry or the MORE Group’s recommendations.