Museums are time capsules that allows us to interact with the past, engage in the present and acknowledge the technological advances of the future.
However, majority of these creative spaces hold looted artefacts captive and showcase them to visitors who are oblivious about post-colonial countries’ pleas for a return of their ‘colonial-era treasures.’ U.K. museums are among the many thievish exhibitions, as elite board member from the Department for Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport have no intention of returning the precious gems requested by their native countries.
According to AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association, London houses six of the 20 most visited museums in the world. For example, AECOM and TEA revealed that annually The British Museum attracts 6,701,000, The National Gallery attracts 6,031,000 and The Natural History Museum attracts 5,250,000.
I understand not all artefacts were obtained through looting, but those that were play a significant role in the reason countless of visitors are drawn to all six London museums. It’s disappointing these exhibitions are profiting off stolen treasures that the British Empire has no sincere connection to. They deserve to be displayed in museums from their place of origin.
The British Museum owns the most looted artefacts among the six museums. According to the British Museum, the exhibition has approximately 8 million objects with roughly 80,000 on public display. Among the displayed objects are prime looted artifacts like Egypt’s Rosetta Stone, indigenous Australia’s Gweagal shield, Greece’s Parthenon Marbles which are often referred to as “Elgin marbles” after a Scottish nobleman who stole them and Nigeria’s bronze Benin sculptures.
The 1963 British Museum Act hinders the exhibit from removing and selling items, unless they are damaged, human remains or Nazi-looted objects from Jewish families during WWII. If precious artefacts can be returned to deserving Jewish families, then why can’t this corrupted law be applied to treasures the British took from post-colonial countries? Perhaps, repatriating all looted artefacts to their native country will leave the museums mostly empty and devoid of art showing the beauty of “multiculturalism” throughout the museum.
The museum frequently lends some objects to other museums around the world. DMCS has offered to loan looted gems to their native countries’ museums under one condition: those exhibits must repatriate them because the looted artefacts are permanently a part of “their collection.” The museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, claims looted artifacts must be given back because it’s essential the items are collectively preserved.
Lending stolen objects to museums they’re supposed to permanently be displayed in can be beneficial for people who wish to see a looted artefact, originally from their country, in their local museum. However, the exhibition loans majority of its priceless collection to museums within the U.K. This prohibits people who don’t live in the U.K., and aren’t financially able to travel and visit British museums, from seeing artefacts originally found in their country.
I’m aware British museums aren’t the only exhibition with an excess of looted artefacts, but at least some other countries that also benefit financially from their highly visited museums are starting to thoroughly address this once silent issue and take public responsibility. France is one country of several creating a pathway to return stolen items back to their native countries. Macron vowed to return African artworks to their native countries within five years and admitted that it’s shameful Africa’s cultural heritage is in private collections and on public display in countless European museums.
Germany has taken similar actions, with the Linden museum returning a bible and a cattle whip belonging to Nama tribe leader Hendrik Witbooi to Namibia. Both items are in the process of being returned to Witbooi’s descendants. This past March, ministers from all 16 German states agreed to create a document in which their museums are obligated to return colonial collections. Further, the ministers are demanding museums to digitize their artefacts so native countries can keep track of what looted items still remain abroad.
The U.K should be able to do the same as France and Germany. The first step to resolving U.K. museums’ refusal to return looted objects is for the government to publicly admit it’s unethical to keep the looted objects in the museums. Once this is addressed, legislation can be enforced to give items back and strengthen political relations with postcolonial countries that feel ignored and familiarly belittled. In order for government officials to admit their debacle, there needs to be more diversity amongst the board members in race, gender and political ideology. Specifically, board members should consist of minorities who mainly have a deep connection to this injustice.
The main entry to all British museums are free of charge, and anything that’s free comes with a hidden price. For example, an individual’s experiences at British museums are undeniably not enhanced if they aren’t viewing artefacts in the actual place it comes from. Further, visitors who see looted items from their country at these exhibitions often feel misrepresented by the vague or falsify information the museums use to describe “the object’s history.”
I’m not discouraging you from visiting U.K. museums, as many exhibits are guilty of collecting items that originally aren’t theirs. However, it’s important to be conscious about this disappointing truth from museums in your local area and spread awareness. The more people who continuously confront museums on this once silent issue will help to greater amplify the urgency for the government to meet post-colonial countries’ requests.