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Why the British Museum will not return their stolen artefacts

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The British Museum, for many, is a place of education and cultural celebration, although others are unable to ignore the imperial past of the institution and outdated methods used to acquire the works, which are still held in the museum. The argument has garnered more attention recently due to the BLM movement encouraging a celebration of African heritage and culture, which was predominantly destroyed or stolen by the European imperial powers, leading many wanting the artefacts to be returned to their place of origin. The British Museum describes its goal as: ‘to hold a collection representative of world cultures and to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited.’ In this, the institution is defending its ownership of disputed items, as well as reiterating the importance in preserving the artefacts with the intention of educating. Yet, despite the museum’s commitment to preservation of culture, this policy for some represents a deeper problem with second wave imperialism through economic and social dominance. 

The most controversial item in the museum consists of a collection of bronze plaques from the west African kingdom of Benin, now in modern-day Nigeria, stolen by the British in the infamous Scramble for Africa by the seven European powers in the late 19th century. The kingdom’s culture was left decimated in the aftermath of the imperial presence, and therefore a return of the works could partially recover the cultural cleansing which took place only two centuries ago. Ever since the African country has attempted to return the works, with little success until a deal was finally struck between the museum and Nigeria in 2018. The deal meant that the bronzes would be loaned to the Royal Museum in Nigeria, which is planned to open this year, although, for many a loan is simply a temporary solution to the larger problem at hand.

In response to the museum’s inaction with the situation, in 2018 a protest theatre group names ‘BP Or Not BP’ organised an unofficial ‘Stolen Goods Tour’ which both highlighted the unjust ownership of specific items whilst also placing pressure on the institution to take action. France, on the other hand, has handled the situation with more action than their European counterparts, with a bill passing in October 2020 which ensures that 26 stolen works from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris are to be returned to Benin. 

Other works have since been requested back to their country of origin, including fragments taken from the Parthenon in Greece, taken by a British lord and gifted to the museum, as well as the Rosetta Stone which was taken by the British from the French in Egypt, as a result of a peace treaty. Even fellow European country Greece has requested that fragments of the Parthenon be returned after they were legally excavated between 1801 to 1805 at the hands of Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. On their website, the museum has provided an explanation into the legality of the excavation and ownership of the fragments at the time, whilst also defending itself against news that a request from the Greek government to have the fragments returned has never been received. 

It seems, however, that the British Museum is not looking to its imperial past, but instead how they are able to preserve other cultures which are being threatened in the modern-day. The Iraq Scheme is a response to the destruction of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State and teaches vital rescue techniques for preserving artefacts. The programme received £2.9m in funding from the Department for Culture, exemplifying the Government’s commitment to the preservation of foreign cultures. However, this government intervention could also be viewed as a form of economic imperialism due to the UK using monetary resources in order to further their own economic development through tourism which is generated from these artefacts. 

The museum has acknowledged the ‘difficult histories’ of some of the pieces, although as of yet are still unwilling to give the works up, and instead have voiced their promise to preservation over repatriation, with the museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer telling the New York Times in 2018 that “the collections have to be preserved as a whole.”  Despite the museum’s reluctance to act, the pressure to return these items is likely to continue due to the growing prevalence of socio-political movements. 

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