In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed the British Museum’s founding collection to the nation. A physician and naturalist, Sloane had amassed a vast collection of ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities and artificial curiosities, prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts. Montague House, in Bloomsbury, was bought 1753 to house the collections; it reopened as the British Museum in 1759.
The British Museum is best known for its collections of antiquities: “a specialised interest in classical antiquities began as early as 1772, when the museum acquired a collection of Greek vases belonging to Sir William Hamilton. Other notable objects acquired included the first ancient Egyptian mummy donated to the museum in 1756 as well as a number of ethnographic artifacts given to the museum after Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages (1767-70). The Rosetta Stone was acquired in 1802 and the Townley collection of classical sculpture, including the Discobolosa statue and the bust of a young woman at Clytiea was accessioned in 1805. The importance of ancient artifacts was officially recognised when the Department of Antiquities was founded in 1807.”
But many of these collections are based on theft – on thousands of artefacts looted, ‘bought’ under dubious circumstances, seized in one form or another, during Britain’s age of imperial domination. In recent decades there have been growing demands from countries all around the world that art, objects and manuscripts thus ‘collected’ be returned to the cultures (or the inheritors of them) they were pillaged from. Even more than that, the Museum was invested with a mantle that intrinsically bound it up with Imperial expansion, and an ideology of Britain’s cultural superiority. Britain had the power to harvest these items and bear them off in triumph; the might in itself gave Britain a moral right…
“In the nineteenth century, the museum was a powerful symbol of empire and the representations of the world that it offered were deeply imbued with the culture of British imperialism… it was an ‘imperial archive’ and ‘the most spectacular repository of the material culture of empire.’ The meaning of an object is inflected and even re-invented by the context in which it is displayed. Thus, the removal of objects by the British Museum from a ‘colonial periphery’ to an ‘imperial centre’ changed the ways in which they were interpreted. The movement of objects to the ‘centre’ symbolically enacted the idea that London was the heart of the empire. As a correspondent wrote of the British Museum in 1837: ‘There is not a better sight in London; there are few places better worth seeing in the world.’ More recently, Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn wrote: ‘The British Museum could never be restricted to British things, for to do so would set a limit to the reach of British power, as well as to the gaze of the all-comprehending and autonomous subject.’ ”
The Museum of today is a huge storehouse of mainly looted imperialist treasures from all round the world, acquired by British aristocrats, soldiers, explorers and scientists, often while imposing the Empire by military force on various peoples. Such folk get knighted and elevated; Gordon rioters (see below) get shot. Better a rich thief than a poor one, clearly.
Just some of the disputed items:
• the Elgin Marbles: chiselled off the Acropolis in Athens in the 1830s and shipped to Britain; Greece has been asking for them back for decades.
- the Benin Bronzes: more than 1000 brass plaques from the old royal palace of the African kingdom of Benin. Seized by the British army in the “punitive expedition’ of 1897 and given to the Foreign Office, 200 of them ended up here; Nigeria claims they should be returned.
- Ethiopian tabots, or traditional tablets of law, looted by British soldiers during the 1868 ‘expedition to Abyssinia’; claimed by Ethiopia.
- the Achaemenid/Oxus treasure, from the time of the first Persian Empire; bought under dubious circumstances by a British soldier; claimed by Tajikistan.
- Mold’s Golden Cape, a gold ceremonial dress dug up in Mold, Flintshire, which many Welsh folk belongs back in Wales.
- the Rosetta Stone, a key to the translation of hieroglyphic writing, captured by British troops from Napoleon’s scientific-imperialist French expedition there (who’d nicked it themselves), then brought to London and donated to the Museum; Egypt would like it brought home.
At least Aboriginal human remains stolen in 1838 were returned to Tasmania by the Museum.
“Museum building in Britain in the nineteenth century was a direct consequence of war, colonialism and missionary expeditions, which returned with ‘exotic’ objects. In London, museums were built after successful colonial ventures with displays of empire and the hope that such displays, like the empire itself, would be a lasting achievement. A poem composed for the opening of London’s Imperial Institute vaunted the ‘Empire of a Thousand Years.’
Many of the ancient treasures in the British Museum were ‘acquired’ through aggressive and opportunistic looting and plundering and by the fraudulent ‘purchasing’ of objects. Sir Aurel Stein’s removal of a whole library of ancient Chinese documents from the Dunhuang Caves in
China in 1907 is, in Simon Winchester’s words, ‘a grisly example of western perfidy.’ For a paltry sum of £220, Stein persuaded the monk, Wang Yuanlu, to sell the entire contents of the caves. He took at least twenty-four wagonloads of papers and thousands of ancient objects, comprising one of the richest finds in archaeological history – including the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest known printed book. The British Punitive Expedition against Benin in 1897 is another typical case of imperial aggression that resulted in the plundering of art. The Benin bronzes, a collection of more than a thousand brass plaques were seized by a British force from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (now part of Modern Nigeria) and given to the British Foreign Office. Around two hundred of these were given to the British Museum. Similarly, the acquisition of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens was the result of opportunism. Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, had originally intended only to take back to Britain drawings and moulds of Classical Greek antiquities. However, between 1801 and 1812, he removed a number of sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens and sent them to London…
The practice of plundering artifacts from their original setting is sometimes referred to as ‘elginism’ because of the damage that Elgin caused. The Parthenon and the Erechtheum and many of its decorations were sawn in half to reduce their weight and to facilitate their transport. Thus, the column capital of the Parthenon, the Erechtheum cornice and many metopes and slabs were destroyed. Elgin’s rapacity was shared by his associates. Thomas Lacy suggested the removal of the entire Pandrossium and expressed his regret that the transport of the pieces he found in Olympia would be too expensive while Philip Hunt was disappointed that the two lions over the gate at Mycenae were too heavy to remove.”
Due to its international standing and the historical significance of its collections, the British Museum has been the target for most repatriation requests in the United Kingdom. Between 1970 and 1999, it received twenty-seven foreign requests for repatriation. But, although the Museum, like British culture as a whole, has had to adjust to a post-imperial world, it holds to a stubborn refusal to think about giving back any of the loot of conquest.
“The museum insists that the objects acquired under the British Empire are now part of the museum and, more broadly, the cultural heritage of the nation. As the museum’s acquisitions policy states, its antiquities were legitimately accrued ‘in the light of the period during which the material was acquired.’ The British Museum remains unapologetic about the history of its early collections and fails to reconcile its current policies with its past acquisitions. In The Guardian [British Museum director] Neil McGregor even referred to repatriation as ‘yesterday’s question… Questions of ownership depend on the thought that an object can only be in one place. That’s no longer true.’ “
It’s not an uncommon assertion, especailly when relating to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism – “whatever ours ancestors did to yours in the past, that’s bygones. Stop going on about it. Things are different now. Meanwhile, we’ll hang on to all the wealth, social relations and power that we have inherited from what our ancestors did to yours…”
“If museums are to demonstrate that they have shaken off the colonial mantle, they must address fully the issue of repatriation. To have a blanket ‘no returns’ policy reflects a failure to recognise or acknowledge the relevance of the concepts of spiritual ownership, cultural patrimony and the cultural importance of certain objects to cultures that did not die out in the nineteenth century, as was expected.”
The British Museum Act of 1963 bans the museum from selling any of its valuable artifacts, even the ones not on display. While this may be presented as preserving the ‘nation’s heritage’, it has the added effect of preventing repatriation of disputed artefacts. “In Britain, the matter of repatriation has not received formal consideration from the Museums and Galleries Commissioners. This was demonstrated in the British High Court in May 2005 in relation to Nazi-looted artworks held at the museum. It was ruled that these could not be returned. The judge, Sir Andrew Morritt, ruled that the British Museum Act cannot be overridden by a ‘moral obligation’ to return works known to have been plundered.”
More on this can be found in a fascinating article here
In June 1780, the military used the Museum gardens as a camp in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, in response to the invasion of this area (eg on June 6th, when a crowd burned down the mansion of Lord Chief justice Mansfield in Bloomsbury Square – two minute’s walk from the Museum) and to scare off any more potential rebels. Troops also camped there later in 1815 during the crisis at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in response to riots of hungry unemployed ex-soldiers and the poor. In April 1848 crowds of marchers assembled for a Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common; on the continent meanwhile many countries were in the grip of revolution. The British government feared the Chartists would launch an uprising, and fortified central London against riots, bringing in troops and police and swearing in middle class volunteers as special constables. The British Museum was thought to be under threat of attack, and in a letter to the Home Office, the director of the Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, asked for the protection of 200 special constables. He added: “Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online