The big question: should museums return their treasures?

Amid calls for the ‘return’ of artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, the Elgin Marbles, and art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, now held in museums far from their places of origin, four experts discuss the ethical and historical aspects of the ‘restitution’ of such treasures

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Tiffany Jenkins: “The best way to respect people who came before us is to research history without judging it through the eyes of the present”

In the early eighth century, monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow Abbey produced three enormous bibles. Two remained in Northumbria, but only fragments of one survive. The third travelled with the abbot as he set out to Rome, intending to present it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. Known as the Codex Amiatinus, it is in astonishing condition – and is the oldest surviving complete Latin Bible in the world.

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This monumental text, one of the greatest works of Anglo-Saxon England, is now kept in the Laurentian Library in Florence, beyond Britain’s borders – and a good thing, too. Culture doesn’t have a fixed nationality. It’s not like a person who needs a passport. Though a product of particular time and place, as they move to new locations such artefacts spread knowledge about their origins, the different lives they have touched and meanings they have held.

It’s true that some artefacts were taken in circumstances we now find unpalatable. But history is long and complicated; the situation is always more tangled than ‘baddies’ versus ‘goodies’.

Consider the Parthenon of ancient Athens. Many elements were removed from that monument in modern times, and some (known as the Elgin Marbles) are now displayed in the British Museum, others in Paris and Copenhagen; activists would have them returned to Greece. Yet the Parthenon itself was a display of power, built mostly by slaves.

Part of the Elgin Marbles
A frieze which forms part of the Elgin Marbles. (Photo by Graham Barclay, BWP Media/Getty Images)

Likewise, though the way British acquired the Benin Bronzes is ugly, the story of their creation, seen through the eyes of the present, isn’t without taint. The glory of Benin was built on the slave trade: the contested Bronzes in European museums were crafted from manillas (metal bracelets used as currency in west Africa) brought by the Portuguese to trade for slaves. It is not possible to repair that past. Nor will judging it through the eyes of the present aid an understanding of ancient Athens or the court of Benin. The best way to respect the lives of the people who came before us is to research and understand history without such an agenda.

We should aim to live in a world where artefacts from other times and places are shared. We should aim to unlock the past, not overturn it. That is what museums are for, and what they do best. That is why they should keep their treasures.

Tiffany Jenkins is the author of Keeping Their Marbles (OUP, 2016).


Lissant Bolton: “Objects help relationships between museums and communities worldwide to be created and sustained”

Museums should be (and are being) more transparent about collecting histories. However, discussions about where objects should be situated tend to skirt over the complexity of shared histories and to ignore long-standing effective relationships between curators and heritage professionals working in partnership with museums and communities internationally.

The British Museum is constantly engaged in collaborations with communities who want to document, revive and restore their distinct cultural heritage. Objects provide a point of connection and opportunity that enable those relationships to be created and sustained over time. Those relationships are often also personal: they are not only about connections between institutions but also about connections between curators and community members at different levels. In my own case I have worked for more than 30 years with, and at the invitation of, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in the South Pacific, supporting the work of women who want to sustain and develop their cultural knowledge and practice.

Some of our most important recent collaborations have developed around our collections from the African continent. For many years our staff have worked with a number of African museums, focusing on exhibition and research collaboration, collection care, infrastructure development
and capacity building.

As part of this collaboration, last year our director, Hartwig Fischer, visited both Ghana and Nigeria to meet and support our colleagues there. In particular, he visited Benin City, the centre of the historic Benin empire that is strongly represented in the British Museum collections. During this visit, the Oba [ruler] of Benin talked about the value of having historic collections both in Benin City and across the world
to act as ‘cultural ambassadors’ of Benin culture; he also expressed his desire to have some of those collections returned to Benin City (on loan and permanent return).

Working as a member of the Benin Dialogue Group – along with Nigerian and other European museums – the British Museum is supporting the development of the new Benin Royal Museum and has confirmed that it will lend objects to the new museum.

Lissant Bolton is Keeper of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at The British Museum.


Kehinde Andrews: “This is not a complicated issue: the only ‘right’ to hold these artefacts was the dominion of empire”

The empire may have crumbled, but British colonial arrogance towards the former colonies certainly has not. While colonising a quarter of the globe, Britain stole treasures and artefacts for the British public to marvel at in museums. There simply is no justification for holding on to these stolen goods.

Nigeria has been struggling for decades to get Britain to return the Benin Bronzes, a collection of sculptures and plaques that decorated the palace of the Kingdom of Benin as early as the 15th century. British forces looted the bronzes during an expedition in 1897, and British museums seem to think this gives them a divine right to keep hold of them. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has become so frustrated that they are now resorting to asking to borrow their own property back.

This is not the only example of the idea of loaning back stolen goods. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is proposing to loan back the Maqdala treasures to Ethiopia, which were ‘acquired’ when British troops plundered the kingdom of Emperor Tewodros II in 1868. So great was the theft that it took 15 elephants and 200 mules to move the loot. After refusing Ethiopia’s demands to return the items, including a crown and a wedding dress, the V&A put them on display in 2018 and offered the loan as a ‘compromise’.

In reality this is not a complicated issue. Britain, and other European nations, stole treasures from across the world to display in their museums. Their only ‘right’ to hold these artefacts was the dominion of empire. As much as many people may yearn for an ‘Empire 2.0’, those days are long gone. The continued sense of entitlement is now just a delusion, and Britain and its European neighbours owe restitution to their former colonies in a myriad of ways. Returning some of the proceeds of their crimes to their rightful owners would be a step in the right direction.

Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University and the author of books including Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2018).


Olivette Otele: “Many countries in west Africa do not have the facilities to preserve valuable artefacts”

In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron promised that African artefacts would be returned to the continent. The economic and political dimensions of the decision didn’t escape observers. Europe’s hold on Africa’s natural resources had been under threat for decades, but the focus on culture and art raised eyebrows.

In that context, Macron commissioned historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr to produce a report on restitution. It recommended that a portion of the 90,000 objects originating from Sub-Saharan Africa currently held in French public collections should be returned to the nations from which they originated – including in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. When it opened in 2006, this museum caused a storm of controversy because its presentation of objects from African, American, Asian and Oceanian civilisations omitted any mention of colonial conquests or the way those artefacts had been acquired.

The debate did not, therefore, start with Macron. Yet Macron’s initiative has plunged museums into difficult but necessary discussions about the past, and about the historical roles of museums as vehicles of dominant Eurocentric narratives. In Britain, the debate has led to other responses. Lending objects to nations from where they originated was seen as a way forward, but that sparked controversy when the objects in question were obtained through looting, provoking an image of a thief lending his prizes to the owner.

British museums have a staggering number of objects that are not displayed and are unlikely to be seen by museum-goers. Having been evaluated, these objects are now British assets sitting in storage. On the other hand, the Savoy-Sarr report recommended that nations ask for restitution. Many countries in west Africa have not come forward to do so because they do not have the facilities to preserve those valuable artefacts and protect them from theft; new funding would need to be provided to museums already suffering from a lack of government funding.

Nonetheless, in principle, as far as France is concerned these countries are entitled to restitution. In Britain, restitution is still met with resistance. It seems the debate in the UK about decolonising museums is only about diversifying the narrative, not the restitution of artefacts.

Olivette Otele is professor of history at Bath Spa University.

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This article has been edited for publication online. The full version can be found in the April/May 2019 issue of BBC World Histories magazine