The British Museum is Full of Looted Artifacts

As critics and fans wrote excitedly upon its release, Marvel’s Black Panther did an excellent job of creating sympathy for its villain. Many found Erik Killmonger’s radicalism more appealing than the hero’s moderation for some specific reasons, beginning with the heist at the “Museum of Great Britain,” a thinly fictionalized British Museum. “In one scene,” writes gallerist Lise Ragbir at Hyperallergic, “the blockbuster superhero movie touches on issues of provenance, repatriation, diversity, representation, and other debates currently shaping institutional practices.”

As a gallery director who is also black, I was awed by Killmonger’s declaration to an overconfident curator that she was mistaken. When the curator condescendingly informed Killmonger that items in the museum aren’t for sale, my hands began to sweat. And I was downright thrilled when the villain bluntly confronted her: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”

He does not exaggerate. The scene “describes a centuries-old truth,” artist Deborah Roberts remarks”—”colonialists robbing black culture to put on display for European consumption.” The issue, in other words, is not only who gets to tell the stories of African and other non-European people, but who gets to see and hear them, since so many non-white people have been excluded from museums and museum culture.

As Casey Haughin wrote in the Hopkins Exhibitionist, the film “presented [the museum] as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays.” So-called “disputed museum treasures,” the Vox video above shows, are essentially stolen artifacts, with claims of ownership that elide, omit, or fabricate the history of their acquisition.

Some looted treasures have been returned, but when it comes to the majority of the Museum’s “disputed” collections, “so far, it isn’t giving them back,” Vox explains, despite calls from formerly colonized nations. It’s easy to see why. If they were to honor historical claims of ownership, the British Museum would lose some of its most celebrated and significant holdings, like the Rosetta Stone or the Benin Bronzes, “some of the most contentious items in the museum.”

These bronzes, from the wealthy Kingdom of Benin, located in modern-day Nigeria, were “looted by British soldiers during an 1897 raid,” Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet. Faced with calls from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments to return them, the British Museum held meetings that lead to more meetings and a “declaration” that “outlined an intention”—all stalling tactics that have not produced results. Learn why these artifacts are important to Nigerians and how the 19th-century “scramble for Africa” created so much of the museum culture we know today, one still heavily mired in its colonialist roots.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (15)
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  • Elgin Did Nothing Wrong says:

    Transported to “oppresive regimes”:
    Elgin Marbles – stored in the British Museum – Survives to this day
    The Rosetta stone – stored in the British Museum – Survives to this day

    Kept in the their original countries:
    Afghanistan – Buddhas of Bamiyan – destroyed
    Egypt – Institut d’Egypte – destroyed
    India – The Babri Masjid – destroyed
    Iraq – Nimrud, Nineveh, Dair Mar Elia – destroyed
    Mali – Timbuktu – badly damaged
    Syria – Palmyra – destroyed

    Yeah, lets just hand everything back, I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren that they get to look at a picture of them because the “original owners” treated them with the proper respect.

  • droy says:

    The Royal Museum for Central Africa, in fact, gave a small portion of its magnificent African art collection to a museum in the Democratic Republic of Congo some 40 years ago. But the country’s long-term dictator at that time, Mobutu Sese Seko, was famously kleptocratic, and within a few years many of those same objects began appearing for sale in Europe, some in the shops of Brussels antique dealers.

  • Christian says:

    Elgin hacked the marbles up to get them back to Britain. Greece has wonderful facilities to store them in. Meanwhile, the British treated them like crap:

    In the ’30s they used chemicals to clean them that damaged them. From the ’60s to the ’90s there are at least nine instances of permanent damage caused to the marble via accidents, vandalism and theft.

    You really have no knowledge of what you’re speaking on, and that’s before we even get to the ethics of the original theft and continued appropriation of so many items from so many peoples that you you so casually and sociopathically ignore.

    I suggest working on your wisdom and your empathy. They are not separate things. You will be happier for it.

  • Elgin did Nothing Wrong says:

    >G-Greece could totally take care of them, le evil Anglos! Me smart you dum dum

    That’s really good, spending money to store something that hasn’t been yours for over 200 years. Real display of wisdom.

  • Tom says:

    >so many non-white people have been excluded from museums and museum culture.

    Can you please substantiate this extraordinary claim? In what way are non-white people excluded from the British Museum?

  • Josh Jones says:

    There’s nothing extraordinary about it from where I sit, but sure, let me google it for you. Do you want me to click the links in the post and read the articles for you too?

  • Tom says:

    Gee, would you, that would be real swell.

  • Mary Robinson says:

    The last time I was in the British Museum before it closed, there were school children of all colours and backgrounds in the Museum,including a group of boys in Islamic dress. The assertion that these people are being kept out of the Museum is absurd.

  • Josh Jones says:

    No one has made that assertion, Mary.

  • Tom says:

    Still waiting for you to post the google results for your “not extraordinary” claims about the British Museum refusing entry to non-whites that you apparently didn’t make if your response to Mary is your new position on the subject…

    • Josh Jones says:

      I never used the phrase “refusing entry,” because that’s not the claim I’m making. It’s a historical claim (hence the tense, “have been”), and history extends further back in time than the last time Mary visited the British Museum. It extends back to a time, for example, not long ago when African people were exhibited in zoos while their countries were looted by various empires. And when I say “excluded from museum culture” I mean–as you might find if you genuinely cared enough to research it yourself (because I’m not actually doing anything for you, Tom, if you hadn’t noticed)–that most curators, museum board members, directors, conservators, gallerists, etc., even those who oversee, interpret, and control non-European cultural collections, are white. There’s more to inclusion than general admission. That’s all I have to say about this, so get good and mad about it if you like. I’m done talking to you.

  • Harambe says:

    Oh wow! His Josh Jones Jimmies are so rustled he’s deleting any comment that contradicts him

  • Tom says:

    What floor does the British Museum keep its zoo on? Genuinely curious.

  • Teresa McGuire says:

    Whoa folks. The topic is repatriation of artifacts removed by theft, colonialism and other illicit means so they can be seen, studied etc in their countries of origin. Rather than consider the facts and merits of Mr Jones’ assertions many commentators have chosen to bypass the truth to attack him. The nations and their citizens which were involved in the theft now get to harbor and study the patrimony of other nations and basically dictate the meaning, value and purpose of these works not to mention how the Art gets to be seen and by whom. Most of these antiquities from Africa for example are not on display in European museums but in storage. So many Nigerian youth are deprived of the opportunities to actual see the Benin bronzes within the African cultural context of communalism, spirituality, ceremony etc rather than the European culture of individualism. I thought this forum was about open culture.

  • blbb says:

    That is true but there are other artefacts that would have likely ended up destroyed by silly conflicts had they not been “removed” and it was all not plunder and pillage, each artefact has a story. Look at how much is destroyed in ideological conflict, blowing up the Buddha statues is a great example, by the Talibananas. The blue stone on the royal crown must be weighing it down, time to give that back.

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