Museums around the world have historical artefacts in their collections with controversial histories. Many of their exhibits were taken or stolen from places around the world. And now, the original owners want their history back! In this episode of Thinking in English we’ll explore the question “Should these museums return those artefacts?”

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Vocabulary List

Exhibit (n) – an object that is shown to the public in a museum

The museum has an amazing collection of exhibits

Artefact (n) – an object that is made by person and is of historical interest

The museum’s collection includes artefacts dating back to prehistoric times

Colonialism (n) – control by one country over another and its economy

It took years for the country to end colonialism and achieve independence 

To benefit (v) – to be helped by something

I feel that i have benefited from her advice 

To demolish (v) – to completely destroy a building, especially in order to use the land for something else

A number of houses were demolished so that the supermarkets could be built

To reclaim (v) – to take back something that was yours

I reclaimed my suitcase from the lost luggage office

To confiscate (v) – to take a possession away from someone when you have the right to do so, usually as a punishment and often for a limited period, after which it is returned to the owner

The teacher confiscated my phone

To proclaim (v) – to announce something publicly or officially, especially something positive

She was proclaimed Queen at the age of 13

Encyclopaedic (adj) – containing a lot of information

Her knowledge of France is encyclopedic 

I will always remember the first time I visited the British Museum in London. For a young boy from the English countryside who loved learning about history and different places around the world, the museum is like a dream come true. From the Rosetta stone, mummified kings, and Ancient Greek statues to an Easter Island head, Native American totem poles, and incredible African art, the British museum has an incredibly large and impressive collection. It would take years, I think, to see every exhibit. I visited the museum a few times as a child, and if I ever found myself in London for a job interview or something similar I would always try to spend some time there before catching my train home. After a few years living abroad after graduating from university, I decided to go back to school for a masters degree. The graduate school I attended was literally next door to the British Museum; maybe a 30 seconds walk from my classrooms. I could visit anytime I wanted! It was what I dreamed of as a child. 

However, during my year in London I actually only visited the museum a handful of times. Of course I was busy and studying hard, but I found time to visit other museums around the city as well as too many of the city’s pubs. So, why did I not want to visit the British Museum? I guess the truth is that the museum’s history and some of the artefacts they have in their collection made me somewhat uncomfortable. Although I never lost my love for history as I grew up, I have become increasingly critical and questioning of my country’s colonial past. At school, we were taught that the British Empire was a great thing, which achieved incredible results for millions of people around the world and was something to be proud of. As I got older, and started to study history more deeply, make friends from different parts of the world, and read literature from international authors, I realised that Britain was not the great country I once thought. Colonialism and empire was, for many places around the world, a terrible experience, and even now is still connected to long lasting social, political, and economic problems. 

The British Museum, and other institutions around the UK and Europe, benefitted massively from the empire. I always thought that the British Museum’s name was confusing and misleading; you can find exhibits on Africa, the Middle East, China and East Asia, North and South America, and Australia. But you’ll struggle to learn anything about Britain. The museum is full of items “collected”, and sometimes stolen, from places all around the world.

Many non-western nations find themselves in the strange situation where many of their most important historical and cultural treasures are exhibited in western museums. Let me give you some examples.  In 1897 British soldiers stole thousands of important sculptures from after invading the Kingdom of Benin (which is now in Nigeria). The city of Benin was burned to the ground, hundreds of buildings were demolished, and a golf course was built where the country’s palace used to be. If a Nigerian person wants to see these amazing artefacts they now need to travel to the UK, Germany, Austria, or the USA… there are none in Nigeria. The Gwaegal shield is another exhibit stolen from Aboriginal Australians in the 18th century. Egypt wants the Rosetta stone back, Easter Island  has demanded the return of a Moai head statue, and Greece wants the “Elgin marbles” to be returned. However, all of these items are in the British museum.

Some things are beginning to change. Nigeria, after years of campaigning, is in the process of reclaiming some of its Bronze sculptures from Berlin, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and the Horniman Museum in London. The British Museum, the owner of many controversial objects, has not made any efforts to do so. Why are some museums and institutions trying to return objects, and why is it such a difficult and long process to do so? 

Institutions like the British Museum are in a difficult situation: they are trying to apologize for and understand their colonial history, as well as return a few artefacts, but at the same time they do not want to lose their collections which have made them world famous. If the British Museum had to return every exhibit taken from another country, there would probably be no exhibits left for tourists and visitors to see! In some countries, it might actually be against the law to return controversial artefacts. In France, museum collections owned by public organisations cannot be sold or returned, they have to remain in public ownership. The British Museum Act, a law from 1963, prevents the museum in London from doing the same.

On the other hand, there is a famous example of governments coming together to return stolen museum exhibits. In 1998, 44 countries signed the “Washington Principles of Nazi-confiscated art,” which was an agreement to return art stolen by Nazi Germany from Jewish and Eastern European people during and before the Second World War. A similar agreement could allow museums to return colonial artefacts. France, for example, passed a law last ear to return 27 artefacts to former French colonies! Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, has called for international guidelines similar to the Washington Principles to help museums identify and return colonial heritage. 

However, I don’t think this is likely to happen in Britain anytime soon. People here are still uncomfortable about talking about the negative parts of the British Empire. We don’t mind returning art stolen by the Nazi’s, because that was a crime committed by Germans. If Britain was to return artefacts like the Benin Bronzes or Elgin Marbles, it would suggest Britain did something wrong in the past: this is something that many British people don’t want to admit! A troubling fact is that many of the stolen artefacts are not actually displayed in the museums. The British Museum, for example, has 900 Benin bronzes but displays fewer than 100 in its permanent collection. Most of the bronzes are kept in storage, where no one can see them.

Should Museums return important cultural artefacts? Many people say yes. They believe it is a way of apologising for historical wrongs. Western museums are still benefiting from war, oppression, and colonialism by keeping their artefacts! Many historians also believe that artefacts should be understood and appreciated in the place where they come from. In the Victorian buildings of London, Paris, and Berlin, these artefacts are out of place. Ghanaian writer Kwame Opoku argues: “Those Western museums and governments that are busy proclaiming their wishes to celebrate with Nigeria and other African states…independence could follow their words with concrete actions by sending some African artefacts back to their countries of origin.” 

Other people defend museums. Historian Jame Cuno argues that “By presenting the artefacts of one time and culture next to those of other times and cultures, encyclopaedic museums encourage curiosity about the world and its many people.” There are also practical problems. For example, who should artefacts be returned to? Many of the places these artefacts come from have changed incredibly over the last few hundred years. Modern Greece is not the same place as Ancient Greece. The government that controls Australia does not always represent the Aboriginal Australian people who lost their important artefacts. Some groups that lived thousands of years ago no longer exist. Why does a modern nation state that has little connection to an ancient civilisation deserve the objects?

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English I have looked at the complicated and controversial history of museum collections. There are thousands of artefacts held in European museums that were taken, or stolen, without the consent of the original owners. Should museums return these items? The first time I visited the British Museum, I stood in front of an Easter Island head, or Moai, and thought it was one of the coolest and most interesting things I had ever seen. But a few years ago, I watched an interview with the governor of Easter Island, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, who was crying as she pleaded for the museum to return her ancestor. Easter Islanders believe that their ancestors live on inside the statues. “You have our soul,” she said. For me, the statue was cool and interesting. For her, the statue is an incredibly important part of her culture’s history and identity. For this reason I believe we should make every effort to return such objects. The Moai was once my favourite exhibit, but now I can’t look at it without feeling guilty. 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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