Harbinger’s Magazine has created this explainer to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the issue.
August 13, 2023
Contested artefacts from the British Museum: 7 things you need to know
The British Museum is one of the world’s largest museums, hosting over 8 million artefacts, many of which have been obtained during the colonial age of the British Empire.
In recent years, many countries where these artefacts originated have become more vocal in calling for their return, arguing that the objects were taken unethically and without consent.
Which countries have been requesting their artefacts back?
A great deal of countries have requested the repatriation and return of their artefacts, including1:
Australia, requesting the return of an Aboriginal shield
Armenia, requesting the return of a statue of Anahit
China, requesting the return of objects looted during the “century of shame”
Egypt, requesting the return of the Rosetta Stone
Ethiopia, requesting the return of Maqdala Collection
Greece, requesting the return of the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles
India, requesting the return of the Amaravati Marbles
Iran, requesting the return of the Cyrus Cylinder
Nigeria, requesting the return of the Benin Bronzes
Rapa Nui (Easter Island), requesting the return of two Moai statues
What is the official procedure for requesting the artefacts back?
The procedure may vary depending on the specific circumstances, but a country will typically gather evidence of prior ownership and cultural significance to present in a formal request that outlines the reasons for seeking the return of the relics.
Sometimes this takes place through the country’s government (the Greek government issued a formal request for the Elgin Marbles’ permanent return in 1983), independent organisations (in 1999, the Association for the Return of the Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures (AFROMET) was founded in order to return looted objects to Ethiopia), or individuals (Rodney Kelly, an Aboriginal man, has requested the return of a shield from Australia).
Following the request, the nations or institutions may engage in negotiations and diplomatic discussions. For example, regarding the Maqdala collection, the British Museum website states: “Several discussions with the Director concerning items taken at Maqdala have been held, including requests for the return of sacred objects.”
Has the British Museum returned any artefacts?
In short, no. In November 2022, Chairman of the British Museum George Osborne stated that “dismantling” the museum must not be the “careless act of a single generation.” He later stated that “The law prevents it”.
What are the arguments the UK uses to defend its actions?
The widest three reasons used are these:
1. Preservation. Some argue that the British Museum is in a particularly privileged position to house these artefacts as they can provide better preservation compared to their countries of origin.
Perhaps the greatest example of this lies in the Parthenon Marbles which remain in Greece, which have been damaged by pollution and acid rain. However, a 2019 study found that the Marbles in the British Museum underwent remarkable damage from 1802-1872.
inews reported how ‘past cleaning methods employed by staff had caused irreparable damage to some of the artefacts.’ Dr Payne, a specialist in classics and archaeological conservation, also found how Victorian “vandals” had deliberately chipped away at sculptures, erasing some features.
A counter argument was made by African officials that the repatriation of artefacts would lead to a boost in tourism along with the importance of depicting the antiques in their historical context.
3. Slippery slope. Earlier this year, Former Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan stated in an interview with the BBC that it would “open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums.”
A few years ago, Culture Editor of The Telegraph Nick Trend made a similar argument that if repatriation were implemented, it would “virtually empty many of the world’s great museums.” However, the British Museum only displays around 80,000 items at one time, even though it has roughly 8 million in collection.
What exactly does the law prevent?
According to the ‘British Museum Act 1963’, it is illegal for any object in the British museum to be returned unless it is a “duplicate” or “unfit to be retained in the collection.”
The law has been used to deny requests for repatriation, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stating that the “collection of the British Museum is protected by law” with “no plans to change it.”
What is the British public opinion?
In a series of polls conducted by YouGov in 2021, 62% of Brits support the idea of returning historical relics to their country of origin permanently with the highest brackets of opposition being Conservative voters (34%) and those aged 65+ (27%).
The most supportive age group of returning the artefacts is young adults (18-24) with a majority of 69%. In total, 17% remained neutral.
Support is weaker for temporary loans, with 48% supporting, 31% opposing the decision, and the rest neutral.
Regarding the argument for repatriation of artefacts to their original historical context, 13% said they didn’t know, and 46% of Britons agreed that looted artefacts are more a part of their original country’s history.
However, a third of Britons (35%) believe that the artefacts are just as much a part of British history, with 6% even believing that they are more a part of British history than the original country’s history.
How can one get more information about the contested artefacts?
The British Museum website has a page titled ‘Contested Artefacts’, detailing the history, place of origin, and status of repatriation discussions for several of the most controversial exhibits.
Another source is The Unfiltered History Tour, an unofficial documentary podcast guide that uses augmented reality software to scan and identify disputed artefacts in the British Museum. Native experts then explain the colonial history of the object from the perspective of the community it was removed from. The tour is also available on other streaming services such as Apple Podcasts.