The British Museum Attempts to Co-Opt the Roman Empire Meme, Fails

Nobody found the museum's "jokes" about its ongoing "Legion" exhibition all that funny.

Installation view of "Legion: Life in the Roman Army" at the British Museum. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images.

The British Museum is back in the news after a social media gaffe sparked accusations of sexism.

On Sunday, March 3, the museum reposted a TikTok touting its ongoing exhibition, “Legion: life in the Roman Army,” as an alternative to dating apps. Text atop footage from the show read, “Girlies, if you’re single and looking for a man, this is your sign to go to the British Museum’s new exhibition ‘Life in the Roman Army’ and walk around looking confused.” An unreleased Lana Del Rey song provided the soundtrack. In its repost, the British Museum’s caption added, “Come for the Romans, stay for the romance.” Members of the public, including prominent archaeologists, swiftly rebuked the joke on social media.

The original TikTok clip was crafted by a creator who synthesized two memes—one hailing from 2022, when Swedish influencer Saskia Cort told her followers to ask men how often they ponder the Roman Empire, and a more recent running joke about women attracting suitors just by looking helpless in hardware stores. The British Museum has since deleted their repost, but the original is still live.

Comments on the British Museum’s now-defunct repost and across the internet claimed the joke undercut the expertise and contributions of female archaeologists. Oxford Brookes University professor Alexandra Wilson said it was irresponsible for the museum to expect their vast audiences would understand such layered internet humor. “This ‘irony”’ was bound to go wrong,” she tweeted. “So boring when social media accounts try to be ‘down with the kids.’” Another user deemed the post “crap,” adding: “The last thing we need is more stereotyping of history as belonging to men, whether tongue-in-cheek, or not.”

Before deleting its repost, the museum batted back in its comments section that “mansplaining is the butt of the joke… we can assure you that we are *not* actually suggesting that women need to look for dates or pretend to be stupid!”

In a statement to the The Independent, a museum spokesperson offered an apology, saying that the post was “meant to be a playful joke linked to the ‘Roman Empire’ trend and we apologize to anyone who was offended which was never our intention.”

On X, Roman archaeologist and writer Claire Millington decried the sexism as well as totalitarian imagery on “the BM’s insta today.” In a later blog post, she argued that “Legion” presents Roman imagery, such as big red banners, which dictatorial governments went on to appropriate, without providing critical context around their later use. “Normally when there’s an important modern reception history, an exhibition will discuss this, as the British Museum did in its ‘Celtic’ exhibition,” Millington wrote. “Not so here.”

In an email to Artnet News, a spokesperson for the British Museum said: “The exhibition includes numerous relevant objects, such as cavalry armor and a dragon standard, as well as the banners, in order to depict individual ranks within the Roman army at the time.”

For her part, Millington clarified: “’Legion’ is a worthwhile exhibition even with its disappointing aspects—there are spectacular objects and the Roman army is an important part of history—it’s just a pity that the reception elements weren’t included in the first place!”

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