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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

London’s British Museum & Its 8 Million Artefacts: A History

What is in the British Museum?

The British Museum is dedicated to human history, art, and culture with a permanent collection of over eight million artefacts.

British Museum

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History of the British Museum

The British Museum is one of the largest history museums in the world, founded in 1753 and designed to be the first free ‘encyclopedia of world history’. Inside, treasures stretch to the tops of the high-ceilinged halls: Egyptian gods and Athenian heroes; Persian palace walls and glittering Mayan jewels; precious and prestigious examples of global art. Whilst in the museum’s reading rooms the exiled political philosopher and economist Karl Marx wrote his celebrated work Das Kapital.

Yet, for all its majesty, the British Museum is haunted by controversy.

Stolen, coerced or scammed from their owners, many of the riches within the walls of the museum have disputed ownership. Foreign governments regularly issue demands for the return of their artefacts, with Greece, Australia and Nigeria all campaigning for repatriation. In addition to the renowned case of the Parthenon marbles taken from the Athenian acropolis under the direction of Lord Elgin, there are several other contested treasures housed in the museum.

In 1897 the British Army launched a campaign in Nigeria known as the ‘Punitive Expedition’. In a retaliatory move, after several British soldiers were killed in colonial campaigns in the Kingdom of Benin, the army set Benin City aflame. In the aftermath they collected their ‘spoils of war’, looting priceless artworks from the King’s former palace. These became known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, the prize of the British Museum’s ‘Africa’ gallery. After selling pieces to museums, galleries and collectors across the world, the British Museum had made a hefty profit. Today, many activist groups are attempting to ensure their return to Nigeria. These requests are met with frequent refusals.

The government of Chile, too, has petitioned for the return of the Rapa Nui Moai. More commonly known as Easter Island, Rapa Nui is home to a collection of statues that represent their kings and spiritual guardians, one of whom is situated in the Polynesian portion of the British Museum. Australian indigenous relics sit in the same room, although of the 6,000 precious and irreplaceable pieces collected on the colonial frontier only a handful remain on display. Aboriginal activists have campaigned for decades for the spirits of their family members, imbued in spiritual artefacts, to be returned from the storerooms of the museum.

The Maqdala Treasures too, collected in the wake of a war in Abyssinia, sat for decades out of view of the public in a back room of the British Museum. Exchanged, they are now found in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Ethiopian government has pleaded, to little avail, for their return to a museum where they can be celebrated by the descendants of their creators.

British Museum interior

The Museum has, in 2020, attempted to acknowledge its inextricability from colonialism. A bust of founder Sir Hans Sloane has been removed from its pedestal, and is now displayed alongside an image of the interior of one of the slave ships he used to traffic Africans to his plantations in the Caribbean. Certain items, including the Benin Bronzes, are displayed alongside a brief history of their inglorious journey to the museum.

Yet it is worth considering that the British Museum carefully preserves a countless number of high quality artefacts, many of which could have been lost to wars or to ill-care. It allows free, unrestricted access to world history.

Is that enough to justify hoarding the world’s looted treasures?

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