Returning artefacts to their rightful owners shouldn’t be a controversial argument but somehow, when it comes to British cultural institutions, it isby Steve Bloomfield / June 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Sat in a sun-drenched courtyard, a senior official at a British cultural institution was explaining with some excitement how the digitisation of their archives meant that thousands of artefacts could now be viewed all around in the world. “Including in the places we stole them from,” I added. There was a pause. “That’s not the word we use,” the official said.
No, it’s not. But it does accurately describe how so many of the paintings, statues, sculptures, shields, outfits, weapons and documents from elsewhere ended up here.
Returning artefacts to their rightful owners shouldn’t be a controversial argument but somehow, when it comes to British cultural institutions, it is.
Last weekend, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told a Greek newspaper that if he became prime minister his government would return what the UK calls the Elgin Marbles (in Greece, the country they were taken from, they’re known as Parthenon statues).
The Daily Mail—this won’t surprise you—wasn’t happy and wheeled out former culture minister Ed Vaizey to criticise Corbyn.
“The British Museum is independent of government and it is their decision what happens to the Elgin Marbles,” Vaizey said. “If Corbyn is saying a Labour government is going to ride roughshod over the independence of our museums then what will be next? Will he start dictating what plays can be put on at the National Theatre?”
Vaizey is not a stupid man, but this is a stupid quote. Suggesting that artefacts stolen from other countries should be returned is not the same as telling theatres which plays they can or cannot put on.
But it’s worth focusing on the first part of Vaizey’s quote which isn’t stupid, merely wrong. It is not up to the British Museum what happens to the Elgin Marbles—it’s the government.
Under the terms of the British Museum Act 1963, the museum, as well as other institutions like the V&A and the British Library, are prohibited from “permanently disposing” of objects. “Our hands are tied,” the institutions can say, “it’s against the law.”
That’s not the only excuse they wheel out, although that one does at least have the advantage of being true. “They won’t look after them properly,” is often cited, ignoring the fact that a) lots of countries now have museums of the highest quality and b) it’s not up to us how another country looks after its own property.
“They’re part of our heritage” is another reason given, an argument which is more accurately made by those countries which are demanding the return of said artefacts.
“Think about tourism,” is a particular favourite. Yes: but whose?
Finally, there is the digitisation argument. “We’ve digitised everything so they can just go online, what’s the problem?”—to which the only possible answer is, “We’ve digitised them so we can just go online, what’s the problem?
Not every nation might actually want their treasures back permanently. At the V&A, Tristram Hunt has suggested that treasures taken from Ethiopia 150 years ago could be returned on “long-term loan.” This has been welcomed by Ethiopian campaigners who would like to see the return of hundreds of manuscripts and artefacts stolen from Maqdala, the capital of what was then Abyssinia.
Other nations might not feel they have the resources to fund a suitable museum. Which leads us to another potential solution for the artefacts: we could buy them. An independent arbiter could establish a value and Britain could pay up. It would be expensive, but it would be just.
There are many vicious consequences of colonialism, of which the deprivation of a small part of a country’s culture may seem relatively minor, but the manner in which these artefacts were taken and the fact that we proudly stick them on display in glass cabinets, charging people to see them, touting them as part of our own heritage, is deeply offensive.
“The idea that your national treasure would be in the museum of another country is something that as British people we would find absolutely impossible to get our heads around,” the historian David Olusoga said last week at the Hay literary festival, discussing the fate of the Benin bronzes taken from Nigeria in 1897. “But that’s what Nigerians have to think about.”
“The things that we regard as the greatest cultural artefacts, the greatest things we ever produced, our greatest works of art are in the museums of other countries, and we know the date they were taken and the circumstances they were taken.”
There are few crimes committed in the name of the British Empire whose consequences can be adequately addressed. This, though, is a wrong that we can right.