British Museum’s “Sexist” Roman Empire Meme Backfires Spectacularly

In the British Museum’s latest blunder, the institution’s social media accounts deleted a meme video posted on Sunday, March 3, after it was lambasted as sexist.

“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,” the text overlay on the video read as a camera panned over displays from the museum’s aforementioned Legion: Life in the Roman Army show. The post caption said: “Come for the Romans, stay for the romance …”

The outraged, confused, and disappointed responses from social media users were immediate upon the video’s upload to Instagram. Responding to one commenter, the British Museum said the video was poking fun at a 2023 TikTok trend about men’s unusual fascination with the Roman Empire, in which “mansplaining is the butt of the joke,” and insisted that the institution was “*not* actually suggesting women look for dates or pretend to be stupid” before apologizing to those who were offended or otherwise unaware of the meme background.

The video also appeared to reference a separate TikTok trend about women ditching dating apps and finding a partner by looking confused at hardware stores like Home Depot.

A spokesperson for the museum clarified to Hyperallergic that the video was actually reposted from and attributed to a female content creator, @hrhgeorgiana, who posted it late last February.

“It was meant to be a playful joke linked to the ‘Roman Empire’ trend and apologies to anyone who was offended which was never our intention,” the spokesperson stated.

But it seems that the British Museum did not consider its audience or how the “joke” would land when coming from a powerful institution run primarily by men. Screenshots of the since-deleted video began circulating on X and other platforms, with several women archaeologists chiming in and airing their frustrations. Claire Millington, a Roman archaeologist currently based in Oxford, posted a screenshot on X with a statement about its “unrelenting fascist imagery and sexism dolloped on top.”

“By the time I saw the BM’s Instagram post, there was a stream of misogynistic comments and the BM had replied to people complaining with a non-apology and telling them that they’d not got the joke,” Millington told Hyperallergic.

“The response on social media to anyone who said anything against the BM has been fairly abusive — pretty much ‘shut up you humorless women.’ All of this is so predictable and avoidable if in the first place the BM had supported what was probably a pretty junior member of communications staff — it’s been careless,” she said.

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Trowel Blazers responded to the British Museum with a more pointed version of the meme. (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

Regarding the fact that the museum had reposted the content, Millington alleged that the acknowledgement of the original creator wasn’t very visible. “Half the problem the BM created was by taking what wasn’t actually theirs,” she concluded.

In a post on her blog, Millington also noted that the exhibition itself featured the Roman army’s fascist imagery and ideologies without contextualizing their reinterpretations in modern fascist regimes like that of Nazi Germany.

Trowel Blazers, an archaeological group dedicated to highlighting women’s experiences and contributions to the field, said the museum’s use of the meme was “lazy” and “reinforced a stereotype glass ceiling,” also advising men not to mansplain Roman Archaeology to women as “they probably dug it up.”

The group’s social media account countered with their own version of the meme to level the playing field, and acknowledged the museum’s apology as a step in the right direction.

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