Over 2,000 artefacts and objects have been stolen from the British Museum over an extensive period and sold online by senior curator Peter Higgs according to an investigation made by the Museum itself. The collective net value of the vast number of objects stolen totalled tens of millions of pounds.
The museum claims to have recovered the majority of the artefacts stolen, however, will this restore the damaged trust and reputation of the institution? The leadership of the museum have repeatedly defended its collection against restitution, claiming that the museum can conserve and display its objects and artefacts ‘uniquely well’. Most notably, the claims for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes have gained international attention and support.
The quality of care and the security of the artefacts within the institution has long since been a point of pride for its leadership and a significant reason for refusing restitution, claiming that other countries do not have the same standard of safe display and conservation.
The quality of care and the security of the artefacts within the institution has long since been a point of pride for its leadership and a significant reason for refusing restitution, claiming that other countries do not have the same standard of safe display and conservation. The museum’s ‘Governance’ page states: “The Museum aims to hold a collection representative of world cultures and to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”. However, following the ‘worst case so far’ of internal looting according to a UNESCO antiquity trafficking expert, the Museum seems to have lost its leverage of unrivalled quality collections management.
Despite numerous calls for restitution, the British Museum’s collection remains confined within the institution’s walls. Under the British Museum Act of 1963, the Museum is barred from repatriating items unless they are duplicates, damaged or “unfit to be retained in the collection”. This has been the institution’s policy for 60 years.
In contrast, under the Charities Act of 2022, a loophole was created that would allow UK charities such as the British Museum to repatriate artefacts if they felt morally obligated to do so. The implementation of this Act has been delayed for over a year to consider the ramifications it would have on these institutions. Operating on a case-by-case basis for restitution would avoid ‘opening the floodgates’, possibly resulting in the repatriation of its entire collection. That being said, following the latest scandal of looting within the Museum itself, is it possible that artefacts in the Museum and its archives are now at risk and therefore “unfit to be retained in the collection”? The British Museum has been an aching reminder for centuries of Britain’s historic imperial hegemony, demonstrating the multiple reasons for legitimising restitution claims.
Within the past few years, other UK museums have been looking to return their collections to countries calling for restitution. The Pitt Rivers Museum and Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as well as the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge are looking to return over 200 artefacts looted by British colonial forces in 1897 to Nigeria, where the government is building the Edo Museum of Western African Art designed to display all repatriated objects. Cambridge and Oxford University are supporting the claims for their return, and it will be reviewed by the Charity Commission before authorisation. Museums across the West are repatriating items which they acknowledge to have been looted under duress by colonial forces, mounting pressure on the British Museum to follow suit.
Objects that would otherwise be scattered around the world in remote locations are housed under one roof for all to see. Yet, in this modern age of interconnectivity and cutting-edge technology, is it possible that this form of learning has become antiquated?
It is also important to note that many educators, art historians and museum professionals have expressed the enormous benefits of museums such as the British Museum for our collective global education. This institution has stood for centuries, bringing faraway cultures closer to the Western world. Objects that would otherwise be scattered around the world in remote locations are housed under one roof for all to see. Yet, in this modern age of interconnectivity and cutting-edge technology, is it possible that this form of learning has become antiquated? The British Museum was founded centuries ago under the idea that our knowledge about remote and foreign countries was lacking and limited. The rise of the internet and increased globalisation means that we have access to unlimited information about any culture and country at our fingertips.
Do we need to see the physical objects on display to learn about world cultures? Could replicas of artefacts be the new way forward to ensure that our learning remains uncompromised? By placing these artefacts in a Western institution, they are de facto hostages, severed from the cultural and religious contexts which give them significance. Therefore, we question ourselves: is all of this worth denying countries ownership of their culture?