The British Museum is full of controversial artefacts. Should the UK return these historical objects? Let’s discuss this question today!
Artefact (n) – an object that has been made by a person, such as a tool or a decoration, especially one that is of historical interest
The museum’s collection includes artefacts dating back to prehistoric times.
Exhibit (n) – an object that is shown to the public in a museum
Let’s go see the new dinosaur exhibit
To repatriate (v) – to send or bring something back to the country that it came from
The government repatriated him because he had no visa
Plaque (n) – a flat piece of metal, stone, wood, or plastic with writing on it that is attached to a wall
There was a brass plaque outside the door listing the owners’ names
To loot (v) – to steal from shops and houses
During the riot shops were looted
Collection (n) – a group of objects that someone has collected
That museum has a great collection of stamps
Hieroglyph (n) – a picture or symbol that represents a word, used in some writing systems, such as the one used in ancient Egypt
Hieroglyphs cover the walls of pyramids in Ancient Egypt
Sculpture (n) – a work of art made by creating objects out of material such as wood, clay, metal, or stone
In the ruins they found ancient stone sculptures.
The British Museum…
The British Museum has one of the greatest collections of historical artefacts in the world. From ancient Greek statues, Egyptian Mummies, and African sculptures to an Easter Island head, Native American totem poles, and Chinese pottery.
Visiting the British Museum is one of the major reasons I became interested in history and cultures from around the globe, and even as I’m writing this episode now there is a book from the British Museum on the bookcase behind me.
You may have noticed something when I was listing the objects in the museum. They came from Greece, Egypt, Africa, China, the Pacific islands, and the Americas…. But not the UK. While there are some exhibits from Britain, the vast majority of artefacts displayed in the British Museum come from other countries.
The British Museum is a leftover from the British empire and Britain’s history of colonialism. The origins of some of the collection is highly controversial. Some items were fairly purchased or donated to the museum. Others were purchased and gathered in mysterious or unknown circumstances. Some objects had been traded for centuries and eventually found their way into the museum. And some artefacts were found by British sponsored archaeologists and historians.
However, some of the objects in the British Museum were illegally stolen or taken against the will of the original owners. The Gweagal Shield from Australia, the Akan Drum from Ghana, items from China’s Summer Palace, the Ashurbanipal reliefs from Iraq, and the Moai from Rapa Nui are just some of the disputed artefacts that countries have requested to be repatriated.
These items are some of the most historically and culturally important items in the world – irreplaceable and unique treasures that tell stories about life in the past. Of course, the countries they were taken from want them back.
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Should These Items be Repatriated?
So, should Britain return these stolen items? Yes? No? The answer is not as clear as you first think. In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to give a general answer to this question. Every artefact in the British Museum as a unique history, story, and context that needs to be discussed.
I want to look at three of the most controversial artefacts in the British Museum’s collection: the Benin Bronzes, the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles, and the Rosetta Stone. The reason I’ve chosen these three artefacts is that they have all been in the news in the last few weeks and are maybe the three most famous disputed items in the British Museum!
The Benin Bronzes
What are the Benin Bronzes?
Let’s start with some of the most controversial objects that can be found in museums across Europe and the USA – the Benin Bronzes.
The Benin Bronzes is the collective name given to a large group of sculptures made of brass and bronze metal. The sculptures include animal and human figures, symbols of the royal family of Benin, and highly decorated plaques and displays.
The Bronzes were created by master craftsmen from the West African Kingdom of Benin (the Kingdom of Benin was in modern day southern Nigeria and shouldn’t be confused with the modern country called Benin). From the 16th century onwards, these objects were created for a variety of purposes.
Some of the bronzes were made to remember past Obas (or Kings) of the Kingdom and their families. Others were used in rituals and religious ceremonies, while the famous plaques decorated the palaces in the capital city and recorded historical events.
The British Museum has nearly 1000 items from the Kingdom of Benin in its collection and displays around 100 in the Museum at a time. Other museums in the UK, Europe, and the US also have collections of Benin Bronzes.
How did they end up in Museum’s collection?
The Kingdom of Benin was one of the most developed and wealthy Kingdoms in west Africa in the 19th century. European countries began to dominate the continent, using more advanced technology to colonise large parts of Africa and control trade.
Great Britain had been involved in Africa for years and was especially active around the southern coast of Nigeria (the location of the Kingdom of Benin). Known as the scramble for Africa, European countries rushed to take over and control as much of the African continent as possible – and the result was often brutal and violent.
Britain, in an attempt to gain more power and control in West Africa, began to expand their influence into Benin’s neighbouring kingdoms. At the same time, Britain refused to accept Benin’s trade requests and conditions.
In January 1897, a group of British officials and African servants were attacked on a trade mission to Benin city. 7 British diplomats and 230 Africans working for the British were killed.
Britain responded with violence. A large-scale military force invaded the Kingdom of Benin, and the capital city was taken over in February 1897. The occupation of Benin was brutal and devastating. Figures are unknown, but thousands of citizens of Benin are likely to have died during the invasion.
British forces destroyed the city. The buildings, palaces, and monuments were burned to the ground. The British soldiers looted the city. They ripped ancient bronze plaques off the walls of the palace as the men, women, and children of the city died. The soldiers entered religious and royal shrines, taking bronze statues of former kings and other ritual objects.
The Oba of Benin was exiled and other chiefs in the country executed by the British. The Kingdom of Benin had been completely destroyed: their royal family removed, palaces and buildings demolished, independence taken by the British, and history looted by soldiers.
The British Museum were given a large number of Benin Bronzes by the government in 1897. Other bronzes were sold to museums around the world, and the Museum increased their collection by buying from private collectors in the 1940s and 50s.
Should the Benin Bronzes be returned?
For decades, requests have been made to return the stolen artefacts to their place of origin. Now part of Nigeria, the city of Benin and the descendants of the royal family have publicly asked the British Museum to repatriate the objects.
And in October 2021, the governemnt of Nigeria formally requested the return of “Nigerian antiquities.”
Some museums have already begun to return their collections of Benin Bronzes. Just a few weeks ago, London’s Horniman Museum announced they would be returning 72 items to Nigeria – the first UK museum to do so. According to the director of the Horniman Museum, after researching claims in detail “there was no doubt they’d been looted – so there was a moral argument for their return”.
Such a decision by a London museum has obviously put pressure on the British Museum to follow similar steps. Nigeria is currently building a new museum in Benin city with the intention of housing the largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world.
Germany has signed an agreement with Nigeria to return 1000 items stolen from Benin. France is returning items. And museums in Scotland, Oxford, and Cambridge are all negotiating the return of Benin Bronzes.
The artefacts were clearly and obviously stolen by British solders during an attack on the city of Benin. The original owner is known, how they were stolen in known, and there is no moral reason for them not to be returned. I think the Benin Bronzes should be returned, perhaps with an agreement to loan the British Museum a collection to display in their exhibits. What do you think?
Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles
What are the Elgin Marbles?
Known as the Elgin Marbles in the UK, the Parthenon sculptures are another highly controversial item in the British Museum’s collection.
The Parthenon is the temple of Athena located on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The Parthenon sculptures refer to a collection of marble decorations from the temple made almost 2500 years by the Ancient Greeks. The sculptures depict the myths and stories of the gods, goddesses, and legends of Ancient Greece.
The Parthenon has had a diverse history. In the past, it has been used as a church and a mosque, and today is a popular tourist attraction for visitors to Athens. The building is now in ruins after it was partly destroyed after an explosion in the 17th century and around 50% of all the marble decorations have been damaged or lost over the past centuries.
How did the Elgin Marbles up in the British Museum?
Greece was controlled by the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until the 1820s. The Ottomans, based in modern day Turkey, controlled a diverse and large empire stretching from North Africa to Western Asia.
Lord Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century and was given permission by the Ottoman government to examine and remove some of the marble sculptures found on the Parthenon.
Elgin received a permit from the Ottoman leaders. Using this permit, he removed half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon between the years 1801 and 1805, and took other items from buildings on the Acropolis.
The Elgin Marbles, as they became known, were transported to the UK and (after a government investigation into their origins) were sold to the British Museum in 1816.
Should the Elgin Marbles be Returned to Greece?
The case of the Parthenon sculptures is a little more complicated than the Benin Bronzes. While the Bronzes were obviously stolen by the British, the Marbles are different – Elgin had official government permission to take the objects from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had controlled Athens for over 300 years.
Therefore, the Elgin Marbles were legally purchased by the Museum from Elgin, who had taken them with legal permission. They were not stolen in the same way the Benin Bronzes were stolen. You can argue that there is no legal or even moral reason to return the objects to a museum in Athens.
However, Greece fought a war of independence only a few decades after the removal of the sculptures and once again became an independent country. The Greek government has repeatedly claimed that the marbles were taken without the permission of the Greek people – it should have been the Greeks, not the Ottomans, who decided the fate of their historic objects.
The Greek government first formally requested the objects return in 1983 and have constantly campaigned for them to be moved back to Athens.
While the British museum and UK government have repeatedly denied they will ever return them to Greece, the Elgin Marbles have been back in the news recently. Reports emerged that the chair of the British Museum has been secretly meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, to negotiation the return of the Parthenon sculptures.
What do you think? Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?
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What is the Rosetta Stone?
The final artefact I want to briefly mention is the Rosetta stone. The Rosetta stone is maybe the most famous item in the British Museum.
Around 2200 years ago, the Egyptian king issued an official message. This message was written on large stone slabs which were put in temples across Egypt. Importantly, this message was written in three different languages – Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, and Ancient Greek.
For centuries, the world had no idea how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs – the meaning of the symbols had been forgotten long ago. However, the discovery of the Rosetta stone offered the first real possibility at understanding the language. Why? Well, the same message had been written in three different languages – while Ancient Egyptian had been forgotten, people still knew how to read and write in Ancient Greek.
Scholars in the 19th century quickly began to study the stone. An English scientist called Thomas Young was the first to find the name of an Egyptian King written in hieroglyphs, while Jean-Francois Champollin from France managed to fully read the message!
The Rosetta Stone is so important as it allowed us to read and understand the thousands of symbols left behind by the Ancient Egyptians!
How did the Stone End up in the British Museum?
While the story of how the stone was found is not known for certain, it was likely discovered by accident by French soldiers in the 19th century. The French had been active in Egypt, but once Napoleon was defeated all of France’s possessions in Egypt were given to the British – including the Rosetta Stone.
The Stone was shipped from Egypt to Britain in 1802 and was given to the British Museum by King George III that same year. Since 1802, the British Museum has displayed the Rosetta Stone every single day (apart from 2 years during World War I when it was moved to a train station).
Should the Rosetta Stone be Returned to Egypt?
It is now 200 years since the British Museum was gifted the Rosetta Stone – and some Egyptians want it back. Over 100,000 people have signed a petition for it to be sent back to Egypt.
So, should it? Well, compared to the other 2 objects I’ve mentioned today, I think the Rosetta stone is a little more complicated. Why? Its history is not entirely Egyptian – at least Egyptian in the modern sense.
The Rosetta Stone was created over 2000 years ago and in a very different Egypt. The country was ruled not by Egyptians but by Greeks – the King who issued the message was part of a Greek dynasty which had mixed Ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures.
The Stone ended up being used to build a wall during the late Medieval period – when Egypt was ruled by a group of former Circassian slaves: a people originally from the Black Sea. It was discovered by the French, and the meaning found by the work of British and French scholars.
The Rosetta Stone was lost for centuries. It was not a famous object from a royal palace. It was a piece of rubbish used to build a wall – which somehow ended up in European hands. Egyptians want the Rosetta Stone to be returned to a new museum which will focus on Ancient Egypt – but the Ancient Egypt of the Rosetta Stone is different (it is more Greek than African). And modern-day Egyptians are very different from the Greek speaking kings of 2200 years ago.
What do you think? Should the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt?
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Today I have tried to introduce the stories of three of the most controversial items in the British Museum – the Benin Bronzes, the Parthenon Sculptures, and the Rosetta Stone.
The case for the Benin Bronzes is clear, in my opinion. We know when they were stolen, how they were stolen, the violence used, and how the British Museum received them. I believe they should be returned.
The Parthenon Sculptures are a little more complicated. They were taken with permission from the ruler s of Greece – rulers who had been governing Greece for centuries. The question here is more of a moral problem than a legal one. As half of the sculptures are still in Greece, I think it would be fair to return (or sell) the other half to a Greek Museum.
The Rosetta Stone is the most complicated artefact in my opinion. Did it come from Egypt? Yes… but it was a very different Egypt than today. It was not a highly prized object that had been stolen – it was found by accident by some French soldiers. The histo ry of the Rosetta Stone is international: it was created by Egyptians on the command of Greek kings, used by Circassians to build a wall, found by Europeans, and studied by the French and British.
What do you think? Should these objects be returned to their original countries? Why? Or why not?