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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Muse­um Cre­ates 3D Mod­els of the Roset­ta Stone & 200+ Oth­er His­toric Arti­facts: Down­load or View in Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

The British Muse­um Puts 1.9 Mil­lion Works of Art Online

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of 30 World-Class Muse­ums & Safe­ly Vis­it 2 Mil­lion Works of Fine Art

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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