One of the great attractions of living in London is its world-class museums, which offer generally free access to immense quantities of cultural relics from across the globe. Those arriving in the British capital might want to visit sooner rather than later. Before too long, some of those collections might start to shrink.
The theft, loss or damage of around 2,000 items from the British Museum, some of which wound up on eBay, has already led to the firing of one staff member suspected of involvement and the departure of the museum's director, Hartwig Fischer. The more far-reaching impact of the scandal, though, is likely to be the impetus it gives to international pressure for the repatriation of artefacts.
Britain's museums are genteel palaces populated by modestly remunerated functionaries in often historic buildings that evoke a spirit of detached scientific inquiry. But they are stuffed with the loot of the country's colonial adventures. As the legacy of empire is increasingly reappraised, more attention has focused on how these institutions came to hold their treasures. Greece, Nigeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Chile's Easter Island, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa are among countries and territories that have sought the return of relics.
The response to mounting calls for restitution has been to emphasize the role of such museums as cultural resources that transcend nationalism. "Universal" museums that hold encyclopedic collections from across the world enable the study and comparison of cultures in one place, making them available to the widest number of visitors. Some priceless antiquities wouldn't be safe if returned to their countries of origin, the script sometimes runs. In essence, the argument is: We're the professionals; leave it to us.
The contribution of the British Museum theft, then, is to explode the idea that this fading cradle of empire is uniquely well positioned to serve as custodian of the world's cultural treasures, whether the Parthenon Marbles of Greece, the Benin Bronzes from what is now Nigeria, the Rosetta Stone of Egypt or any other number of anthropological wonders. To lose one artefact may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose 2,000 looks like carelessness, as Oscar Wilde, celebrated satirist of Victorian Britain, might have said.
It was always a convenient argument anyway. The case for preserving a museum that serves as a guardian of our shared human heritage is easier to make when you happen to be the one holding that collection. Why are these institutions in the UK to begin with, though? London's status as arguably the museum capital of the world can't be separated from the legacy of Britain's 19th-century colonial expansion.
The provenance of museum artefacts can be an immensely complex question, and just because some works come from countries that clashed with the British Empire doesn't mean that they were obtained dishonestly or unethically. But the idea that these institutions, having benefited from the country's imperial wealth, can now stand separately as neutral containers of the world's cultural treasures is becoming harder to sustain.
Shifting perceptions of the nexus between the UK's museum industry and the country's colonial past are exemplified by The Brutish Museums, an influential 2020 book by Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford. Hicks, an advocate of restitution, lays out in graphic detail the violence and looting of bronze plaques and other objects from the kingdom of Benin by British forces in 1897. Nigeria renewed its call for the return of items after the British Museum theft, as did Greece. The Pitts Rivers, along with other British museums, has been in talks with Nigerian authorities on returning them. The "last remaining argument against restitution has been lost", Hicks wrote after the incident.
For conservative critics, the restitution movement is self-flagellation and wokery: an expression of colonial guilt that fails to appreciate the more complex and nuanced legacy of empire (the world was different then; and besides, the British did some good things like building railways, creating relatively clean administrations and abolishing slavery, including in Benin).
Some of these arguments seem flimsy. The reappraisal of imperialism is partly just a matter of learning the full reality of what happened. The scale of the violence may shock some. My history classes at school included plenty on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the Corn Laws; I don't remember any mention of the 1860 sacking of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, or any other colonial outrages.
There are some striking parallels between the tale told in The Brutish Museums and the behaviour of British and French soldiers in that episode, a reminder that colonialism was a multinational project with a consistent modus operandi. The destruction of the Beijing complex was such a wanton act of vandalism that it sickened even some of those who took part. "You can scarcely imagine the beauty and the magnificence of the places we burnt," Charles Gordon (later famously killed at Khartoum), wrote. "It made one's heart sore… It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army."
The British Museum incident prompted China's Global Times to request the return of all Chinese cultural relics "acquired through improper channels". The museum has 23,000 such pieces, including some from the palace. The newspaper is state-owned, though isn't necessarily a reliable guide to policy, having a reputation for wolf warrior-style nationalism.
If Britain is starting to warm to the moral case for restitution from countries such as Australia, Nigeria and Greece, then what price China, a much bigger and more important economy? And how many more victims of the colonial heyday are likely to come forward? The cloistered world of museum curation has rarely looked so interesting. ©2023 Bloomberg
Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London.