The bombshell revelation made in August that over two thousand artefacts had ‘disappeared’ from the British Museum is oozing with irony. Many would argue that the British Museum, an institution widely criticised for storing and displaying objects that have allegedly been stolen from across the globe (the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin marbles come to mind…), deserves this bout of bad karma. As the ‘thief’ becomes the ‘victim’, it is important to discuss whether the British Museum is on track to muddy its reputation further or whether the interim director, Mark Jones, will use this incident to challenge its imperialistic narrative.
The largest permanent collection in the world, the British museum unsurprisingly houses objects from a myriad of different countries and cultures. Consequently, it is often found at the centre of the repatriation controversy, whereby critics have attacked the institution’s reputation on the basis its stolen treasures should be returned to their rightful owners. The stealing of artefacts from the museum’s own shelves may rekindle the repatriation flame. More nations are likely to speak up (Greece has already voiced once again its wish to see the return of the Elgin marbles) and use the British Museum’s newfound vulnerability to argue that if the museum cannot safeguard its own collection, how can it morally justify retaining the artefacts of other countries? It is equally ironic that the institution is publicly outraged at the discovery of objects being internally stolen and sold on eBay, but feels antagonised by the concepts of restitution and repatriation. If the German government can recognise the cultural need to return Benin Bronze artefacts to Nigeria, and several other European institutions have returned Māori heads back to New Zealand, why is the British Museum unwilling to engage more in repatriation? It is controversies like these which generate international tension, therefore, detracting from the key purpose of a museum: the celebration of culture.
If [The British Museum] cannot safeguard its own collection, how can it morally justify retaining the artefacts of other countries?
Aside from the embarrassment it caused, the incident may serve as a catalyst for the museum to re-examine the origins of its collection and simultaneously help pave the way for new ethical standards in artefact acquisition. Establishing a stronger ethical code within the British Museum is another route Mark Jones could take. Artefact acquisition could depend upon factors such as the probability of natural disasters and wars, as well as the financial status and ability to oversee conservation within the artefacts’ country of origin. Extending an olive branch to the collections’ original owners could also be a step in the right direction when it comes to preserving the future of cultural heritage around the world. Perhaps the recent scandal will finally compel the UK’s largest museum to reverse some of the damage caused by Britain’s role during colonisation. There are several ways in which the directors could do this: organising travelling exhibitions where collections can be displayed around the world in rotation (a concept that has been shown to work with tours of Tutankhamun’s treasures), and building cultural bridges by reuniting collections that have been split, as is the case of the Elgin marbles. These types of measures may well help increase trust between the nations involved.
All things considered; it is vital that the British Museum takes serious action. The first steps have been taken by dismissing and replacing several members of staff, however this scandal must be treated as more than just a security lapse. It is an event that could trigger a change in the future of global cultural heritage preservation. Will this world-class institution repair its reputation by re-evaluating its ethics, or will it allow the reignition of repatriation efforts to spark a cultural war?