Will the Museum built on the foundation of colonialism, ever return the stolen artifacts?

Some of the world’s greatest cultural and historical treasures are housed in the London’s British Museum that were once taken by the Britishers during their long imperial rule. Many countries are calling on the museum to return the looted items that belong to them as these artifacts are culturally very important to them.

Archaeological treasures bring a sense of cultural property and pride with them. These treasures tease us with their window into ancient history, customs, and people. Sometimes it takes us to the different worlds we haven’t visited, but here pops up an important question of “who owns these archaeological artifacts??”

The non-western nations around the world often find themselves in the position where most of their cultural heritage is residing in the museums of European nations and the U.S- but mostly in British Museum, which is the world’s largest history museum. The museum holds more than eight million cultural and historical artifacts from all over the world which covers two million years of human history.

Problems hidden in the museum:

The biggest problem arising with the museum is that the British need to face the reality that cultural imperialism is dead. They clearly cannot any longer coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were once acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago. The British Museum holds a number of artifacts whose true ownership is disputed.

This museum in London for the last many years has more often accused of exhibiting “pilfered cultural property.” Several countries across the globe are continuously asking the British government to return the treasures that belonged to their countries that were once taken by the conquerors and the colonial masters.

The British Museum contains hundreds of contested items, the spoils of the British Empire’s reach across the globe. Some of the museum’s most popular and prized items are included: the Rosetta stone, the Benin Bronzes, the Parthenon Marbles. Britain has a particularly bad image when it comes to the stealing of items that possess archaeological importance. As one enters the museum, it is easily observable that many of the property present in the museum belongs to some other country whose people were once ruled by the British empire.

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The British Museum is full of stolen artifacts:

In 1897, British troops stole some 4,000 sculptures after invading the Kingdom of Benin (now southwestern Nigeria). Over a century later, these bronze which survived are on display at museums in different western countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and the United States, but not in Nigeria, which is actually the country where these sculptures originated from.

Benin bronzes on display at the British Museum. (Photo credit: History.com)

For decades, Nigeria has been asking the U.K. government to return their Benin bronzes and in late 2018, the countries struck a deal in which the British Museum will send some bronzes to Nigeria for the Royal Museum the country plans to open in 2021. But, here’s the crack, the British Museum expects Nigeria to return the goods again to them, as according to them they are only loaning the sculptures to Nigeria (the artifacts that originally belong to Nigeria).

The list of stolen artifacts present in the British Museum is endless. Egypt wants its Rosetta Stone back, while Easter Island has asked the museum to return its Moai head statue. Even Greece, a fellow member of the European Union, wants the museum to return some Parthenon marbles that are often called the “Elgin marbles” after the Scottish nobleman who took them.

Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum. (Photo credit: British Museum)

Not just Kohinoor, but many other artifacts that belong to India, and Indians are taken by the Britishers to their land. The British Museum contains many items that were taken by its officers when India was under colonial rule. The British Raj not only took 100 years of freedom from Indians but have also stolen many of India’s treasures including the Sarasvati idol, the Buddha statue, the idol of Hindu god Shiva, the Amravati Marbles, etc.

Idol of Lord Shiva dancing on display at the British Museum. (Photo credit: British Museum)

These are just a few items that are present in the British Museum despite not being the British possessions. There is an endless list of items that are present in the museum unlawfully and regardless of their origins.

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How these artifacts were stolen?

In late 1600, the British empire began spreading across several continents. It became the largest empire in the history of mankind, controlling about a quarter of the land and population of the world. During its centuries of long rule, the empire took precious resources and wealth from countries all over the world including cultural and historical artifacts.

Many of these cultural artifacts collected from all across the globe ended up in the British Museum which was founded in 1753. Since then, the museum is growing and today holds the property of more than eight million cultural artifacts showcased as the property of the British empire. Many a time, the British Museum is accused of telling a string of carefully-constructed lies and half- truths about how these historically important artifacts were ‘saved’ or ‘salvaged’ or ‘rescued’.

Do these historical objects belong to their country of origin?

Objects obtained without consent are termed as stolen and should be returned to the countries from which they came. In recent years, many of the countries missing their cultural heritage have been asking for some of these items back. Western museums are beset with demands to give back stolen property — the cultural heritage of oppressed people plundered by colonial armies in the 19th century or taken unfairly by grasping missionaries or egregious ambassadors.

In law, a thief is not allowed to keep stolen stuff no matter how long ago they were taken, or how much he or she may have improved them. In the past, a lot of cultural property was wrongfully extracted from places that are now independent states. The governments of those states want the loot sent back to where it was created and to the people for whom it has the most meaning.

It’s time for the museum to return its stolen treasures to the countries to which these artifacts rightfully belong.

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