Plundered artefacts

Returning artefacts to their rightful owners

Debate about the ills of colonialism has recently turned to the status of artefacts stolen from the colonised country. The focus is today on the Benin Bronzes held in UK and German museums. Germany has started the process of returning to Nigeria the 440 held in Berlin's Ethnological Museum. Aberdeen University is to return to Edo state in Nigeria the sculpture of a king. 

The British Museum holds about 900 Benin artefacts stolen during a British military expedition in 1897 but has not offered to return them. It claims the collection allows millions of visitors to understand the cultures of the world. It is protected by the 1963 British Museum Act which bans restitution.

In October 2021 Jesus College, Cambridge became the first UK institution to restore a looted Benin bronze. It's the sculpture of a cockerel, the Okukor, that once adorned the city-state's palace. The Master of the college said the restitution was 'the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact.'

In March 2022 the Edo Museum of West African Arts in Benin recommended to Cambridge University the return of 116 artefacts held in the University's Museum of Archaelogy and Anthropolgy. The Cambridge Museum has in turn recommended to the Charities Commission that such a return take place.

Perhaps the most famous/ infamous case of the British Museum's retaining another country's historial treasures is the Elgin Marbles that were originally part of the Greek Parthenon temple. Most recently talks have been taking place (Independent January 5, 2023, Financial Times December 2, 2023) between the Museum trustees and the Greek government over a long term arrangement under which the Parthenon marbles would be returned to Greece and Greece would loan ancient Greek treasures to the Museum for display in the UK. There is still some political resistance to the idea though just 15% of the UK population want the sculptures kept in Britain. Perhaps 3D printing technology will provide the answer, allowing a view of the sculptures in London while the originals are returned to their places of origin.

Surely it is right to return what have become symbols of western plunder during colonialism? Or does the British Musem have a point that its breadth and depth of collections provide visitors with a panoramic perspective on international cultlural heritage?

December 4, 2023