The British Museum was founded in 1753 after an act from the parliament for the world’s first free, national, public museum which opened its door for the public in 1759. At first, when the museum was opened, visitors had to apply for tickets to see the artifacts for limited visiting hours.
Regulations were changed around the 1830s when the museum was properly opened for all with extended opening hours and freely accessible. The museum was started with the huge collection of Sir Hans Sloane who was a physician and president of the Royal Society. The collection was purchased by the 1753 Act along with Cotton, Harley, and Royal Libraries, which was called the British Museum. His collection comprised more than 80,000 ‘natural and artificial rarities’, a library with over 40,000 books and manuscripts, and 32,000 coins and medals.
It is the house of artifacts with eight million objects covering two million years of human history. The process of curating objects is still going with the curators of the museum.
When we see artifacts in the museum, we often come across the thought about the collection owned by the museum. Is this collection properly and lawfully acquired by the museum? Because of its colonial history. Or as accused by leading human rights lawyer, author of “Who Own History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure” Geoffrey Robertson QC of being “the world’s largest receivers of stolen property”, to be true.
Robertson has criticized the British Museum for its “stolen goods tour” calling it unofficial and which stops at “Elgin Marbles of Greece, Hoa Kakananai’a of Easter Island, the Benin bronzes of Nigeria and other pilfered cultural propriety which are wanted by them are a subject of controversies.
In his book he wrote, “This is a time for humility – something the British, still yearning for the era when they ruled the world, i.e for Brexit, do not do very well.” He also adds, “ Politicians may make more or less sincere apologies for the crimes of their former empires, but the only way now available to redress them is to return the spoils of the rape of Egypt and China and the destruction of African and Asian and South American societies.”
In 1897, the British troops stole 4,000 sculptures invading the Kingdom of Benin now southwestern Nigeria which are being displayed at the museums in UK, Germany, Austria, and the USA without being in their own country as their heritage. Nigeria has been asking the UK to return the Benin bronzes for decades. Nigeria struck a deal with the UK to send some of the artifacts only to the fact that Nigeria plans to open Royal Museum in 2021 as a form of loaning thing. Still the British are reluctant to give it to them, the thing they stole from them. In 2018, the film Black Panther showed a part in a heist fictional set of “Museum of Great Britain” where the characters reclaim the artifacts stolen from the African country of Wakanda(fictional).
Some of the famous artifacts stolen which are in display of the museum are ‘The Rosetta Stone’ of Egypt, ‘The Man-Easters of Tsavo’ now Kenya, ‘Magdala Ethiopian Treasure’ of Ethiopia, ‘The Elgin Marbles’ of Greece, ‘The Bust of Nefertiti’ of Egypt, ‘Zimbabwe Bird’ of Zimbabwe, ‘Benin Bronzes’ of Nigeria, ‘The Koh-i-Noor’ of India. Some stolen artifacts are not still available to the public.
The long struggle of countries for acquiring their artifacts came to halt when French president, Emmanuel Macron declared that “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums.” He said of sending back some of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria bought by French seized in a barbaric “punishment raid” by the British army in 1897. He also wants to change French law so that France can return stolen objects whenever a country asks for them.
A British spokeswoman confirmed that a tour is being run by the museum as a “stolen goods tour” by an external guide and also said that the Elgin marbles were acquired legally, “not as a result of conflict or violence.” She also adds that “The British Museum acknowledges the difficult histories of some of its collections, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired such as through military action and subsequent looting.”
With the arguments of stolen artifacts, the British Museum has strongly said that it has no intention of returning the stolen artifacts. And with the 26 Benin Bronzes, British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer told “the collection needs to be preserved as a whole”, the pressure of returning is always there.
Thus, a country is known for its million old artifacts which talk about great works, battles, people, culture, keeping those to a foreign land and even the native has to go far land to know their heritage is a saddening thing. So, with changes in times and people coming together globally, digitally, collections can be returned to their respective places with a greater view.
Visual by: Raysham Powdel
Article by Sroweta Kar, The North-Eastern Chronicle