Museum Artefacts? Or Loot Hidden in Plain Sight?

Written by Mauragh Scott.
Edited by Victoria Jones.

Despite their reputation of ‘being dull’, museums are highly important in celebrating and educating on all forms of life on Earth. But all of this is not to say they are without flaws. Museums promote narratives, whether they intend to or not. In particular, many museums in the UK have had a history of promoting colonial narratives, as the ‘collection’ of other cultures’ important artefacts have often been a result of colonialism. This is why many museums have been criticised over the past few years for their narratives of other cultures, as well as their massive number of looted artefacts which they have taken and kept from their original cultures.

Up until this year, the British Museum has had around 6 million visitors each year. Perhaps this popularity is what has moved this discussion into the mainstream over the past few years. Even the 2018 film ‘Black Panther’ mirrored the very real discussion of looted artefacts within this museum using the example of fictional stolen masks. 

An abundance of artefacts within the British Museum have been under discussion across the globe. Hoa Hakananai’a, an Easter Island statue whose name means ‘stolen friend’, is located parallel to the main entrance hall of the British Museum. The Governor of Easter Island, Laura Tarita Alarcón Rapu, as well as others have been asking for this important statue to be returned. This statue is seen as an essential part of their cultural heritage, with Rapu calling it the Island’s ‘soul’. The Island has even offered for a replica to be gifted to the museum, so they would not be empty-handed like the British Museum has left them. This statue belongs on the Island – not in a draughty room, benefiting the same culture which stole it without permission. This request from the Governor of Easter Island is not only completely justified but it is also very reasonable. Despite this, the British Museum has claimed it would only ‘loan’ Hoa Hakananai’a back to them.

Another example of the British Museum’s ‘finders-keepers’ attitude to stolen artefacts is the Nigerian Benin bronzes which were looted over 123 years ago. The Nigerian government has been officially asking for them to be returned for decades. Yet again, the British Museum said that they would only go as far as to ‘loan’ these artefacts back to their rightful owners. Returning artefacts may be slightly difficult to organise, however it is in no way impossible. For instance, in 2018, an Italian court issued that they would return hundreds of Chinese relics. And while many in the British Museum would argue that keeping these stolen artefacts is important for educational practice, the only narrative they are educating on by not returning these artefacts is that of British-supremacy and colonialism.

Photo by wen chen on Unsplash

No form of outside governance should be able to own other cultures’ important artefacts, especially if they are so clearly asked to be repatriated. This should be a universal understanding, particularly since stealing is something generally taught to be wrong in primary schools across the country. Many excuses given in retaliation are based on the worry that if the museums give these relics back, they will be ‘misused’ ‒ but surely it is their right to determine how their own artefacts are used. These artefacts should not be kept from their owners after all, and I am pretty sure that these artefacts were not made with the aim of sitting in a glass box being stared at for hundreds of years. 

Going to a museum should continue to be a fun and educational day out, but that is not to say that they should continue to withhold looted artefacts from their original owners and continue promoting colonial narratives. In order to do what is right, museums need to return their pieces that long to go home and fully educate visitors on the part museums played in colonialism. There is no way we can ignore the problematic history that museums have, but that does not mean progress is impossible. If they do not change and give these artefacts back, they will continue to promote their oppressive past.

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