The British Museum Is in Trouble on Two Fronts on Stolen Heritage

The recent revelation of artifact sales adds to the underlying issue of what to do with looted objects from abroad

The British Museum Is in Trouble on Two Fronts on Stolen Heritage
Visitors sit before the contentious Benin plaques exhibit at the British Museum in London. (David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Editor’s Note: Below is an updated version of an article that was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

Some reports say 1,500; others say the number is closer to 2,000. The British Museum itself has refused to comment on the scandal threatening to take down its reputation as the custodian of world cultures, but it is clear that it has been systematically looted — from the inside. Among the 8 million objects in the museum’s holdings are various treasures that have been popping up for sale, some on eBay, others directly to antique dealers around the world. A senior curator, identified as the prime suspect, has been fired, and the director general himself has stepped down in the wake of the crisis. But the ramifications of such a humiliation could well go further than the fate of a handful of individuals and the epic efforts now required to trace the stolen and sold artifacts.

The museum has long been a staunch opponent of demands for repatriation of objects obtained through force or deceit, offering various more or less disingenuous reasons. One regularly proffered argument is that the museum has a higher standard of protection than those in other countries. Perhaps this shameful episode of lax security and substandard care for the priceless objects in its catalogs will prompt a more honest discussion about the role of world museums and ownership of human culture and history.

In London several months ago, before the inside sales scandal unfolded, I went one afternoon to the British Museum to wander around its extensive and beautiful collections and meet with friends. But this time was different. I was seeing this familiar building with newly critical eyes after reading about the artifacts on display — thinking about both how they were acquired and how their positions continue to shape perceptions of the cultures they represent, often far away from this imposing building in central London. These thoughts were not exactly new but had been sharpened by an increasing amount of criticism and calls to return sacred and looted objects, calls that are being resolutely ignored by the trustees of the museum, who are backing themselves into increasingly untenable positions. I wanted to explore the issues: Would returning such objects really signal the end of such huge collections? Or can my positive experiences of the British Museum as a place of wonder be rescued and shared with the world — by sharing the plunder?

I walked down the stairs to the African room, a surprisingly small space for representing such a large continent, especially given the size of the museum. I turned into a room where the whole of the far wall is taken up with plaques, set in a grid from floor to ceiling. There is a bench in front of them, a reflection of how much there is to absorb, from the craft of casting bronze and brass to the artistry, to the content of complex scenes of human interaction. My eye is drawn to a cat at the top, cocking its head in a pose instantly recognizable to any cat owner, and down to the variety of human forms, dress and poses portrayed.

These are the Benin Bronzes, the subject of numerous books in recent years: “The Brutish Museums,” by Dan Hicks; “Blood and Bronze,” by Paddy Docherty; and “Loot,” by Barnaby Phillips. The titles alone give the flavor of how these objects were acquired. I’ve read them and others, so it’s a struggle to separate my knowledge of the violence and lies of the colonial campaign (in what is now Nigeria) that led to their presence in front of me from the aesthetic appreciation of these beautiful objects.

This is the constant tug of emotions when visiting the British Museum. There is wonder at the breathtaking objects that showcase many civilizations across the globe and throughout human history, yet it’s open knowledge that the holdings are mostly the result of British colonialism, and therefore violence, whether real or potential, is the backdrop to many of the objects on display or held in the warren of storage rooms. What is the moral case for such a huge collection of the world’s heritage to be housed in one country? Can the intellectual value of housing so many cultures side by side ever outweigh the damage done, and in any case, can such damage ever be undone?

I stand up and walk to a case of sculptures nearby, 3D versions of the plaques on the wall, including a cockerel that reminds me of a recent conversation with the British artist Mark Hearld. He saw a Benin Bronze on television that made him “think about giving a creature essence over realistic representation.” He looked at others online, including “the most staggering Benin cockerel. It was so cockerel-like, but the feathers weren’t at all naturalistic.” I send him a photo of this particular crowing cockerel encased in glass and return to the bench.

Now there are two men in front of the plaques, taking photos. One asks what I’m writing about, and I tell him I’m preparing an article on museums, to include the bronzes. He beckons to his friend, telling me he’s a prince of Benin who has come to visit treasures — for the first time — that really belong to his family. I ask how he feels to be here, in front of a selection of one of the largest collections in the world.

“You know, I’m really happy to see them, to see what my ancestors have made, and I’m proud of them. But I wish they would return them back to us,” he says.

We both turn to look at them, and he explains to me that some are sacred, not meant to be seen by the public, but only for the eyes of the royal family, originally kept in shrines inside the palace. Others are the opposite, designed for public display and decoration. This much is clear from accounts of the city, such as by the Dutch traveler Dierick Ruiters in the early 17th century or from Richard Burton’s trip in 1863, as well as from the looters themselves. Eyewitness accounts describe objects torn down from the outside of buildings and then burned to the ground.

I ask which are which, but Prince Omoruyi Osazee shakes his head. He doesn’t know which are for his and his family’s eyes only, and which are the outward-facing, public decorations. I ask whether anyone knows, but he doesn’t know this, either.

Even when objects can be appreciated aesthetically, as works of art for their own sake, so much is lost when artifacts are removed from their context. In sanitized, carefully lit display cases, we can’t see how they were designed to be seen or used, though it’s obvious that the clinical display of the bronzes on this wall, with a featureless white paint backing and low, artificial lighting, is far from their original purpose and effect. Even when structures are meticulously reconstructed, their setting is lost, sometimes jarringly, as is the case with the magnificent Babylonian Gate of Ishtar, taken from present-day Hillah in Iraq, and now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. (This is even more complete than when it was taken, thanks to cutting-edge research and modern repairs of some of the damage. Yet the setting is still the clinical setting of a museum.)

But context is the least of the violence represented in the great world museums of London and Paris, Berlin and New York. A quick look at a floor plan of the British Museum shows the reality: The galleries dedicated to different areas of the world reflect the country’s colonial history and earlier, mostly racist, theories of constructing and explaining cultural differences. Egypt, Iraq and India are all heavily represented, unlike South America and Africa (excluding Egypt). This much is widely acknowledged, but the question of how to address the harms of the past is being bitterly fought in the present.

Hicks dissects the violence in “The Brutish Museums,” leaving the reader in no doubt of the horror not only of the acquisition of many items but also the ongoing acts of violence through their display. I don’t know if Osazee felt the violence directly, but reading about the punitive expedition against his ancestors that resulted in the loot on the wall in front of him was surely uncomfortable, and it did not assuage the feelings of ownership he and his family have. What does it mean, Hicks asks, that there are numerous such boards explaining the violence in scores of museums across the world?

He traces the development of such world museums, showing their origins in the service of the ideology of cultural evolution that was, along with the nascent “race science,” a tool in the colonial white supremacist project. He shows how militarism, corporatism and colonialism were combined in a single endeavor to commit acts of mass destruction across the world, to such an extent that he named the peak of British imperialism, in the 19th century, as “World War Zero.” Hicks is a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, an archaeology and anthropology museum with exactly this origin: The eponymous founder collected weapons from around the world during his career serving the British Empire, precisely to establish the relative “development” of cultures. Displays of many anthropology and archaeology museums created during this time were often arranged according to such “evolutionary” underlying principles, cataloging and ranking cultures according to how “developed” they were. As Hicks puts it, the museum, therefore, came “through acts of taking, to be used to measure out the distance of ‘non-western’ cultures from the West, one object at a time.” (There is an intentional, and uncomfortable, echo in this phrase of the practice of measuring skulls around the world, to establish distance from the Aryan “ideal type,” paving the way to 20th-century eugenics and the Holocaust.)

The entitlement during the acquisition of such objects becomes easier to understand with this framing. If the populations were primitive, their objects were of lesser value, and certainly their religious commitments and beliefs were easily dismissed. There was no thought for the damage done by removal of the sacred or taboo when the cultures were seen as inferior; mere relics of past stages of human development. Hicks points out that anthropology has a rich literature in the role of giving but has no such equivalent theory for taking. In continuing to display sacred objects, the museums continue to ignore the status of such items — and, implicitly, to defend the theory of superiority in the name of which they were originally taken. As Chimamanda Adichie put it in a recent appeal for the restitution of such objects, museums and researchers must “not dismiss belief systems because they are unfamiliar; not dismiss history because it’s uncomfortable.” Is this lesson being learned?

In some cases, yes. Museums across the world have been giving back certain objects — when they were obtained by violence, if they are human remains or sacred to a culture. In this way, many of the thousands of artifacts from the sacking of Benin City have been returned, from individual items in personal or university collections, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Yet, in other cases, the lesson is most definitely not being learned, and the belief systems did not even have to be unfamiliar for their claims to be dismissed. The British Museum has refused to return wooden plaques known as tabots, which are believed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to contain God’s presence. Monks can visit and pray but may not be left alone with them, let alone rehouse them where they belong, in churches.

There is increasing pressure on the British Museum from the actions of other museums returning stolen and sacred objects, as well as from books like “The Brutish Museums.” Its response has been to reimagine the founding myth of the institution, thereby doubling down on its reasons for not returning any items at all.

In 2003, the Enlightenment Gallery opened, as part of the institution’s 250th birthday celebrations. It’s an imaginative way to display the 18th century and the intellectual, social and political movement known as the Enlightenment. Instead of being area-themed, as is the rest of the museum, the display cases are themed around the preoccupations of the time: the natural world, the birth of archaeology, art and civilization, classifying the world, ancient scripts, religion and ritual, and trade and discovery.

It is a celebration of the curiosity of humans (or at least rich, white, mostly male humans, a point that is not made explicitly). The accompanying book, “Enlightenment,” is in the same spirit. Then-Director Neil MacGregor wrote in the preface: “The Museum remains a unique repository of the achievements of human endeavor, and there is no culture, past or present, that is not represented in its walls. It is truly the memory of mankind.” Such grandiosity might be hard to assess, given the lack of clarity over the museum’s vast holdings, were it not for the fact that it is clearly absurd. The claim of “unique” is either true in a banal sense (all museums hold different things and are therefore unique) or difficult to justify given the number of other such museums founded over the 18th and 19th centuries, across Europe and America. But laying this trivial boast aside is the harder-to-swallow claim of universality. There is no possibility that any building exists that can represent every culture in the world, past and present, outside the pages of a Jorge Luis Borges story.

This self-importance is necessary for the line that the British Museum continues to hold under its successive directors — that the value of the collection lies precisely in its scope. The return of any object is to whittle down the spirit of universality and therefore the point of the museum itself. And it is not the only museum to claim such universality as its guiding principle, as seen in the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” issued in 2002 by a group of 18 museums spread across eight countries (all in Europe and North America).

But as Hicks and others have shown, this version of the origins of world museums is a fabrication. Any use of “universal” during the 18th century was rather about the types of objects — the British Museum, for example, housed books, papers, art and objects at the start (ultimately London’s National Gallery, Natural History Museum and British Library are all spin-offs of this original collection). It did not claim to represent every culture in the world. “The idea of the ‘universal museum’ seems to me to be a disingenuous invention of the British Museum,” Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, told me, adding that it’s “a backwards projection of what they’d like to be true.”

Hicks goes further, calling it “unforgivably willful ignorance about curiosity and human creativity.”

Yet is there anything fundamentally wrong with the ideal of this sense of universality, if — and, at this point, that’s a big if — violence and violation of sacred beliefs can be avoided? Curtis believes so, telling me that “I nevertheless like the ambition of understanding differences under one roof and so avoiding xenophobia. But who has the right to tell which stories? Can we have a universal museum without the power imbalances?”

“National,” like “universal,” means different things for different museums. The National Museum of Beirut has collections from the immense history of the whole of Lebanon — but not beyond. It has an international flavor, not due to archaeologists traveling to other countries and bringing items back, but because of its long history in a densely historical region. And so there are Egyptian artifacts, because traders, travelers and warriors moved such objects around the Mediterranean.

In the same city is the American University of Beirut (AUB). Its archaeology museum was founded in 1868 and showcases the wider region, with objects from Iran to Cyprus to Egypt. I can’t help but suspect that this extended scope is thanks to the Western foundation of and influences on the institution; that the initial ambition was in the mold of American institutions also created during the 19th century, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded just two years after AUB’s museum.

It is harder to understand the organizing principle of the Syrian National Museum in Damascus — at least on my visits before the war — given its lack of labeling and signposting. One of its central treasures is a re-created room from a third-century synagogue in Dura Europos, an ancient settlement on the Euphrates, complete with astonishing (and astonishingly well-preserved) floor-to-ceiling murals on all four sides depicting scenes from the Old Testament. To find and enter this room required knowing about it in advance and finding the roving attendant, Abu Moustafa, to take you there and unlock it. Where the jumbled objects in cases in the rest of the museum were from — national, regional, universal — was hard to know, given the lack of labels. But it’s a beauty of a museum nonetheless, and do I have to apply the expectations of the labeling and explanations of the British Museum? Is that a form of superiority, too?

The rulers of the United Arab Emirates have consciously sought to follow the standards of the Western world museum in the establishment of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This is, of course, signaled by the partnership brand, and is seen in greater depth on the museum’s website, where it describes itself as “a universal museum in the Arab world.” It explains: “Louvre Abu Dhabi is a new cultural beacon, bringing different cultures together to shine fresh light on the shared stories of humanity.” This is the language of the British Museum and, indeed, far from returning objects looted through colonial violence, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has acquired a Benin Bronze for its founding collection.

The Algerian artist, writer and filmmaker Ariella Aisha Azoulay has a cogent objection to this aim. “For those who had different cosmologies, this notion of humanity was always dubious,” she points out in her film “Un-Documented: Unlearning Imperial Plunder.” She speaks directly to the colonizer: “This notion of the family of man was only made possible because you plundered … specimens from every corner of the earth and made them into your narratives.”

This particular construction of “humanity” through world museums is undeniable, but where does that leave the aim of housing different cultures under one roof? Should all museums retreat into national borders, even where those borders are themselves colonial constructs? Or is this to give in to the jingoism and ever-narrowing identities seen around the world? Further, is it a form of racism itself to deny a common humanity, threading through the different metaphysical systems? In other words, how universal is the concept of a universal history?

The philosopher Olufemi Taiwo does not deal directly with museums in his book “Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously,” but we might extrapolate from his arguments that aiming for different standards in different countries and cultures is itself a form of racism. His polemic is a result of a troubling observation among intellectuals calling for decolonization of the mind: “that modernity is a ‘European,’ ‘Western’ or ‘white’ artifact.” Given that his own discipline of philosophy aims at universal truths via universal, human logic, the labels “French,” “African,” “Muslim,” “white” and so on are an egregious form of essentializing; they amount to a claim that French, African, Muslim or white minds are in some way different to each other.

This theme can also be seen in Gilbert Achcar’s “Reverse Orientalism”; that to reject political systems on account of their Western origin is to retreat into essentialism of an “Arab” or an “Islamic” culture, claiming that there is something specific to the people that requires them to live in a society different from others. Could world museums be a tool to overcome such essentialism, helping break down rigid borders, both identity-based and geographical? What if this comparative approach were available in different countries, following the UAE’s example? “But the Louvre isn’t for us,” said one Emirati to me on my last visit. “It’s for the world stage, and foreigners like you.” This is not the sense of universal that the British Museum projects, with its emphasis on learning, cultural understanding and research; instead of expanding beyond borders, the aim is to promote a national identity and brand.

The British Museum’s own website tells us that only 1% of its holdings are on display, which feels like greed; no one can see them, but the museum still wants them. One common argument is that the museum is for research as well as display for visitors. This feels not just disingenuous but offensive when it concerns sacred objects, such as the Ethiopian tabots, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest role in the Church of England), George Carey, observed in his appeal for their return: “It is a ridiculous thing. … No one is even allowed to see them. They aren’t even on display.”

Yet, in the framing of the “universal” museum, as articulated in the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” any loss is seen as a threat. “Dismantling [the British Museum’s collection] must not become the careless act of a single generation,” said George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer and current chair of the British Museum. In this construction, Western museums are seen as the guardians of culture for the whole of humanity, repositories of a shared heritage. To return anything is to undercut the very point of such institutions. They make this argument in spite of recent changes, such as the new policy to return objects and art acquired through Nazi plunder and the return of human remains.

The language of threat has trickled through to the media and political statements. “Ancient Egyptian sculpture at risk of leaving UK” is the headline for a press release from the British government’s Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport about a limestone statue, over 4,000 years old. The implication is that it would be dangerous to the object to be looked after by anyone else — including Egypt, the country where it was created.

It’s an example of another common argument for retaining objects in world museums: that they are “safer” where they are. Despite the clear air of superiority built into such an argument, many echo it. Nigerians such as Adewale Maja-Pearce point to the loss of heritage in Benin City, despite its protected status, and the corruption in the country that has led to returned artifacts disappearing from museums and popping up in sales across the world. Adichie, however, has pointed out how condescending this stance is, asking, “When has that been to do with ownership?” It’s an example of the inequality of standards in these arguments. Now that a curator in the U.K. has been found to be corrupt, will another country swoop in to take its heritage, arguing that the country can’t be trusted to look after its valuable objects? The very idea sounds absurd.

The British Museum contains a lot of expertise within its walls, as well as valuable objects, and this is seemingly more easily shared. In 2021, to take a single example, they worked with the Archaeology Museum at AUB to reconstruct glass objects smashed by the Beirut port blast of 2020, resulting in a moving exhibition in the London site, with artifacts displayed beneath footage of the silo exploding and the destruction wrought. French and American museums also contributed expertise and materials, and 26 of these restored objects are now back in Lebanon, waiting to be placed back in their original position in the museum.

It feels jarring to compare the British Museum’s regular experience of working with museums around the world to help rescue, conserve and display their objects with its attitude to returning artifacts: It is willing to share expertise but not objects. The British Museum is a major partner in the battle against illegal smuggling of cultural heritage — it could easily apply that expertise to illegal acquisition in the past, with precisely the same outcomes. Yet it argues that these are different times, with different standards, and so there is no need for the same work of uncovering provenance and ownership.

Another common response is that the museum regularly loans objects to other institutions, which is undeniably a valuable form of sharing; the world’s museums also borrow to flesh out their own collections for temporary exhibitions. This should always be an aspect of museums, as should ongoing efforts at digitization, another form of sharing. But neither is a replacement for the return of certain objects, such as those sacred or acquired through violence and theft.

The Benin Bronzes are in both these categories, and there are no arguments left to deny the moral and ethical charges. Yet there are different points of view, even from those with a claim to them. Ekhaguosa Aisien, a member of the Benin royal family, has been quoted as saying that when he saw them for the first time, he felt “an enormous pride, which still remains with me. The Indians, the Japanese, going to the British Museum and saying: ‘Oh, these are from Africa.’” There are thousands of Benin Bronzes, so perhaps there doesn’t need to be a hard-and-fast rule but rather a process of negotiation, whereby the most sacred or precious to the culture are returned, and the rest donated, swapped or loaned to museums around the world.

What is missing from the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” is the ongoing nature of the harm. Recognizing the initial violence, as many labels now do, is only one part of the damage inflicted on the populations — and if we take this as the starting point of how to understand demands for restitution of objects, we get a different view of what to do. Ethiopian Christians feel that God has been taken from their churches and put in a storage room, unvisited, unseen, unused, many thousands of miles away. But for other objects, there is no harm to populations — when the objects are more common, less sacred. Perhaps with a consultative approach, inclusive of all those with claims of ownership, there would be no harm done with the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquiring and displaying a Benin Bronze — and perhaps an actual benefit to both populations, in feeling represented, on the one hand, and having an opportunity to learn, on the other.

It is difficult to know how the British Museum will extricate itself from its internally incoherent position on this issue. It is less difficult to see how it could be a powerful agent on the other side of history, contributing its expertise and collections to simultaneously address past and present harms, and to help build world museums in other countries from the 99% of the collection not on display. Of course, there would be arguments, as ownership of many objects has become contested after generations and many new borders, but that is no reason not to act. There would undoubtedly be imperfect decisions, to be addressed by future generations of curators and historians. As the University of Cambridge professor, Priyamvada Gopal, has argued in relation to universities, decolonization is “necessarily dialogical … a process with a horizon of aspiration.” In other words, there is no endpoint, but rather an ongoing process, hopefully in the right direction.

I would be fascinated to see British history represented in a museum in Baghdad or Lagos or Tashkent, to understand how the country I’m from fits into other historical and geographical framings. More recent history might not be a source of pride, exactly, but the process might help to heal the harms of colonialism, to give agency to other countries to tell their own narrative about the period. With this approach, there would be no reason to give up on my pleasure in the British Museum: The displays may change from time to time, as a result of returns, gifts and loans, but surely this dynamism could be used with positive effects, and the benefits to other countries would constitute one thread of reparation and serve to break down the ever-increasing barriers growing around the world.

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