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On August 16, 2023, the British Museum revealed that precious items, including artifacts, jewellery, and gems, were either “stolen or damaged.” The initial statement coincided with the firing of a staff member, and by August 26, a reported 2,000 artifacts were deemed taken, lost, or vandalized. Since then, people have found these artifacts on eBay and other online platforms on sale for considerably less than their estimated value. The museum had kept these artifacts — dates of origin ranging from the 15th to 19th century — primarily for research purposes.
The recent incident questions the museum’s loose response to theft. In 2021, a Danish art dealer warned museum officials of possible stolen items, but the officials dismissed the warning. Moreover, the irony that a museum full of stolen artifacts from around the world would become a victim of theft is not lost on many of its critics. Does it beg a bigger question: is returning stolen artifacts to their place of origin required for the British Museum to decolonize?
The British Museum’s Colonial Legacy
Today, the British Museum houses thousands of breathtaking works of art and historical artifacts. They boast some of the most culturally significant works from various cultures, including the Benin Bronzes from what is now Nigeria, the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, and the Elgin Marbles of Greece. Notably, these artifacts were stolen from their rightful homes. Countries across the globe have called on the museum to return these artifacts to their places of origin, but the museum has remained unwilling to return these items.
The origins of the museum are permanently linked to slavery and colonialism. Hans Sloane, an English physician who profited greatly from the transatlantic slave trade, amassed a collection of 71,000 items over his lifetime. Sloane’s connections within the slave trade allowed him to purchase and obtain many of these items. He was among many who utilized his ties to the slave and colonial missions to expand his wealth and status. Upon his death, a clause in his will formed the basis of the world’s first truly public museum. The British Museum will forever stand linked to Sloane’s collection and his ties to the colonial and slave trade.
The British Museum leaves much of its colonial history unspoken. In November of 1906, British soldiers sieged the town of Chibok, in Northern Nigeria. After the brutal and bloody conflict, the soldiers took the spears and arrows used by the Chibok warriors, now among nearly 73,000 items of African artifacts in the British Museum. Yet, the museum does not mention how they got there or their ties to Britain’s colonial legacy. This origin story could be similar to thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection.
A Case for Repatriation
Returning these stolen items is not simply about their value or cultural significance. While artifacts like the Rosetta Stone and the Benin Bronzes may be vital pieces of history and culture, many people in Nigeria and Egypt do not have direct access to appreciate the value of these items as they are kept many miles away from their places of origin. Such is the tragedy of museums such as the British Museum that historically and culturally rich items of countries such as Nigeria and Egypt cannot be viewed by those living outside Britain. The issue fundamentally comes down to the global impact colonialism has had.
Colonialism breaks down social, cultural, and historical frameworks of societies so imperial powers have better control over them. Over years of colonial conquest and conjuring, the global theft of artwork is one of the many ways colonialism has affected the Global South.
Repatriation is a small but important stage in decolonization, a process that seeks to make amends for the destruction caused by colonial projects worldwide. The cultural, economic, and political issues of colonialism still affect communities today, and decolonization would truly afford a sense of equitable empowerment for those affected. Repatriation is, in essence, a step towards acknowledging cultural and historical equity and equality.
While repatriating artifacts may not change the lives of people in their places of origin, it would be a significant step towards Western countries fully committing to reconciling the issues of the past. Western institutions, such as the British Museum, have embraced a hegemonic power over their respective fields for far too long. Moreover, as the museum is a living remnant of colonial rule, reducing its power is significant. While we currently see a greater push toward shedding light on the atrocities of colonialism, more is needed.
A Call to Action
The British Museum has constantly criticized calls for repatriation from many countries. Yet, the irony of a thief being thieved is another reminder for the museum itself of its gruesome past and role in colonialism and the slave trade. The museum needs to take accountability for its crimes against civilizations across the globe.
It is time that the British Museum takes an active step to make amends for its role in the cultural and historical theft of artifacts from around the globe. Their historic refusal to take repatriation requests seriously suggests they are well aware of their misdoings. Furthermore, the museum’s ties with the colonial and slave trade make its situation all the more problematic. As a leading academic and research institution, the museum is responsible for returning the stolen artifacts to the possession of their lands of origin.
Edited by Sun Woo Baik