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Colonialism in art: the British Museum’s stolen artworks

Written by Arts, Exhibitions

Established in 1753, the British Museum’s foundations inevitably lie at the very heart of colonialism, and it seems the museum of today has not progressed far beyond the imperialistic outlook of the British Empire. The museum’s refusal to return artifacts requested back by the countries they originate from is a shocking echo of the jingoism of imperialism, arrogantly proposing that that the countries these artifacts originate from are incapable of caring for them.

Being of Greek origin myself and having visited the Acropolis in Athens, it was a great shame to have seen the empty spaces in the Acropolis Museum lying in wait for the return of the Parthenon marbles. Stolen by Earl Elgin and sold to the British in 1816, Greece has repeatedly requested their marbles back, and so has the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to no avail. The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, stated in an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, that the possibly of Greece even getting close to the marbles would only occur if they recognised the British Museum as the ‘legitimate’ owner of the marbles. The Museum are in fact prevented by UK law from entirely returning the marbles, as it illegal for the British Museum to fully return artefacts requested back, although Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn has said he would return them if his party were elected.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, alongside Amal Clooney and Professor Norman Palmer, aided the Greek government with preparing a report on the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. Robertson’s proposed that the British Museum, while prevented by the law from doing what ought to be done, should have worked in collaboration with Greece and the new Acropolis Museum by loaning some of its sculptors, at least attempting some sort of repatriation. He remarks that French president Emmanuel Macron has “galvanised the debate” with his statement that “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums” and indeed, France has been the most responsive of all the European countries to return stolen artifacts. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris will return 26 stolen items back to Benin, and Macron wishes to amend French law so that stolen objects must be returned when they are requested back from their country of origin.

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d by British hands.” – Lord Byron

Similarly, the Rosetta stone belongs in Egypt, and the Moai head statue in Easter Island; the arrogance of the British Museum is astounding. After years of Nigeria asking for its Benin bronzes to be returned, the British Museum finally agreed to loan some bronzes for the new Royal Museum, yet considers this as no more than a loan: Nigeria are expected to give Britain back their own statues when they demand. It is hard to get your head around their statement that the “restitution’s premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world”. This jingoistic outlook shows how utterly oblivious they are to the fact they have emptied the countries they have stolen from. While they have may not have stolen the objects with their own hands, their refusal to return them perpetuates the imperialistic outlook that these countries do not deserve these items.

First and foremost, Britain needs to take a leaf out of France’s book and work on changing the law so stolen artifacts can be returned to their home countries. In the meantime, the British Museum should most certainly loan all and any objects requested to be returned, instead of self-righteously and proudly displaying objects that they procured through theft and violence, and their exhibitions should transparently explain how objects in the museum came to be there.

Last modified: 26th November 2019

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