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The British Museum: A Collection of Other People’s Stuff

Museums are some of the most celebrated cultural institutions in our society. They serve as windows to the past, repositories for ancient artifacts, and as perfect places to bore your young children to tears. Or, in the case of our generation, even your not so young children. But history, as it turns out, can be a double edged sword, especially because when you dig deep enough into said history, more often than not you’re going to find some uncomfortable truths. And perhaps no museum in the world struggles more with this fact than one – the British Museum.

The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world, with a collection of some eight million works of art and artifacts from cultures across the globe. That sure is impressive – impressively controversial. You see, many of the artifacts held in the British Museum were taken from other countries centuries ago, during the age of the British Empire. More often than not, empires are held together through violence, and the British Empire was no different. When an army rolled into a city, there was often quite a bit of looting, and that looting usually meant that some culturally significant items were pilfered and hauled back to London to be displayed in places like, to choose completely at random, the British Museum.

Now, with the British Empire long gone, those countries that had their stuff stolen by it are starting to ask for them back. Today, we’re going to talk about three countries in particular, all of whom have a bone to pick with the British Museum. You see what we did there? A bone to pick? Because… bones are artifacts? You know what, let’s just start.

Greece – The Elgin Marbles

The first set of artifacts that we’re going to talk about are the so-called “Elgin Marbles”, also known as the Parthenon Marbles. These are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures – classical Greece being the period right before Alexander the Great, just to give you a little frame of reference there. The sculptures were first crafted by a man named Phideas, and were put on display in the Parthenon in Athens, hence the name “Parthenon Marbles”.

Elgin Marbles east pediment
Elgin Marbles east pediment. By Andrew Dunn, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In the time between their completion and ending up in the British Museum at the turn of the 19th century, the Elgin Marbles had a seriously bad time. Many of them were intermittently damaged by earthquakes and then, famously, over half of them were destroyed in 1687 when the Ottoman Empire used the Parthenon as a gunpowder storage building, which was about as good of an idea as you’d expect. The Venetians, who were at war with the Ottomans at the time, fired an artillery round into the building, and in addition to killing over 300 people, the Parthenon and the sculptures inside were horrifically damaged in the resulting explosion. After this event, locals and others scavenged the ruins for anything of value, leaving the Parthenon a shell of its former self.

Which brings us, finally, to the year 1798, when a man named Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed as “Ambassador Extraordinary” to the Ottoman Empire. How posh. Anyways, Lord Elgin appeared to have a keen interest in the Parthenon as a building, and before he left for Athens he asked the British government if they’d be interested in funding a project to “take casts and drawings” of the Parthenon sculptures. The government said no, probably because they were dealing with the French Revolution and Napoleon at this point, so they had bigger things to worry about. But Elgin would not be denied, and decided that he was going to make this project happen himself. He hired artists to take casts of the sculptures, but by 1801 that had somehow evolved into having materials from the Parthenon removed from the site and shipped to Malta, then a part of the British Empire. And it wasn’t just the Parthenon – buildings from all over the Acropolis, the site where the Parthenon is located, had ancient artifacts systematically extracted and removed. Over the course of 11 years, around half of the surviving sculptures were taken from the site and shipped to Malta, before they were then sent to London some years later.

Lord Elgin initially planned to use the sculptures to decorate his house, but then he got into a messy divorce and went into debt, forcing him to sell them to the British government instead for less than half of what he spent to have them excavated and removed. Talk about a bad investment. Anyway, the sculptures were eventually placed in the British Museum, where they’ve remained ever since. So yeah, a British nobleman walked into the Acropolis, started taking things because no one told him he couldn’t do that, and then had to sell them at a loss because his wife cheated on him.

The status of the Elgin Marbles has been in a rather awkward state ever since, with Greece growing more and more vocal in their desire for the marbles to be returned to Athens. The British Museum initially said in the 1980s that the marbles didn’t have a safe, appropriate place to be held, but Greece opened the magnificent Acropolis Museum in 2009, complete with an empty exhibit specifically for the Elgin Marbles, which the British Museum silently ignored and hoped no one would notice. But for all the awkwardness behind the Elgin Marbles, it’s at least not as bad as the story of the next set of artifacts on our list.

Nigeria – The Benin Bronzes

Whereas the Elgin Marbles were the story of one man’s strange obsession with a specific piece of architecture, the story behind the Benin Bronzes is one that instead highlights empire at its worst. For over 800 years in what is today Nigeria, there existed a kingdom called Benin, centered around the capital city of Edo, today known as Benin City. This city, by every standard, was a thriving metropolis, one of the largest in West Africa at the time and bigger than even some contemporary European cities. And of course, a large wealthy city means a large opulent palace for the ruler. It was enormous, itself the size of a small town and even having its own walls for defense. In total, an archaeologist once estimated that constructing the city of Edo and its palace would’ve meant excavating 100 times the material contained in the Great Pyramid of Giza – a colossal amount of work that highlights just how rich and powerful the Kingdom of Benin was.

A Benin Bronze plaque on display in the British Museum
A Benin Bronze plaque on display in the British Museum. By Matt Neale, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

But more than being a trading capital, Edo was also a religious center. Each time a new ruler ascended the throne, they would commission a bronze head from local metalworkers, a tradition to pay homage to their predecessor, and they would display them near altars and shrines to local gods and spirits. Around 170 of these ruler sculptures exist, and by the late 1800s, there were a total of more than a thousand of these metal plaques and sculptures, depicting everything from rulers and their wives to local deities.

But today, the Benin Bronzes represent more history than their creators might’ve ever expected them to. In the 1890s, the Scramble for Africa was in full swing, and the Kingdom of Benin soon found itself dealing with the British Empire. The land within the kingdom was rich in certain natural resources, including palm oil, rubber, and ivory. The kingdom was more than happy to sell these resources to the British, but friction between the two groups increased as time went on, helped along with a good dose of racial prejudice. Then, in 1896, following multiple trading disputes with the British, the ruler of Benin ordered a complete cessation of trade with British merchants.

A man by the name of James Robert Phillips set out with a large group of officials and porters, ostensibly to try and resolve the situation. In reality, he intended to capture the city of Edo and depose the king, and those “porters” were actually African soldiers hired to do just that. In addition, Philips had written to the British government outlining his intentions: “I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.”

Philips expected to meet no opposition to his expedition, but the kingdom quickly organized a strike force to ambush him. On January 4th, 1897, Philips’ expedition was destroyed in an incredibly lopsided battle; only two Europeans survived the engagement in what was quickly termed the “Benin Massacre”. That was the excuse the British were looking for, and not long after, a Rear Admiral named Harry Rawson was appointed to lead a punitive expedition to the kingdom. Rawson set out with 1,200 men for the city of Edo, which was captured on February 18th.

The British expedition proceeded to sack the city, systematically looting objects and artifacts from the royal palace, including almost all of the thousand or so Benin Bronzes. But those were far from the only things taken that day – ivory and gold sculptures, religious artifacts, and so much more were looted from the city. The expedition itself was characterized in Britain as “liberating the population from a reign of terror”.

Much of the objects taken from Edo that day were auctioned off by the Admiralty; around 40% of the artwork was given to the British Museum. The rest were scattered throughout various collections, from private officials of the British government to museums in Germany and the United States. Today, the Benin Bronzes are scattered throughout the world, with the vast majority held in museums in the UK, Germany, and the USA. Of all the examples of empire looting, the Benin Bronzes are perhaps one of the worst. But they’re by no means the only example, as you’ll see.

China – The Old Summer Palace

Our last example takes us to the other side of the Old World, to the city of Beijing, China. In 1707, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty, the Kangxi Emperor ordered the construction of a new palace as a gift for his fourth son, which basically ruins every Christmas gift your parents ever got you. Yeah, you got an Xbox one time, but did you get a freaking palace? I bet you didn’t.

Anyways, this new palace was designed as an expansion of the Imperial Gardens, and it contained a great deal of flora and waterworks such as lakes and streams. Inside the palace, court eunuchs would participate in “living tableaux” where they would pretend to enact scenes from everyday life in China, right there in the palace. There were entire fake farms and villages where eunuchs would act as farmers or shopkeepers, and the royal family would interact with them. The palace even contained imitations of European-style palaces and gardens, complete with Western architecture. And of course, the material treasures of the palace were just opulent, including sculptures, porcelain, precious statues made of jade and gold, and silk fabrics and textiles.

old summer palace
Old summer palace. By 颐园新居, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

So, we have yet another example of China’s emperors building a giant palace to show off how rich they are. Which brings us to 1860, when Britain and France were fighting China in the Second Opium War, which essentially boiled down to Britain and later France pushing China around for money and trading rights. To simplify further, the British and French used their more modern military technology to smash the Chinese military, and after four years of fighting it was clear that the Qing emperor was going to have to surrender. Negotiations were in progress when one incident changed everything.

In mid-September, two British negotiators and their escort were taken prisoner just outside of Beijing by the Qing general, Sengge Rinchen. It’s unclear why the general did this, but he ordered the delegation to be sent into the city of Beijing, where over two weeks they were tortured and many of their number executed. Allegedly, their bodies were so badly disfigured that they were barely recognizable.

In retaliation, the British High Commissioner to China ordered the soldiers to destroy the Old Summer Palace. That High Commissioner, by the way, was James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin – as in, the son of the same guy who took all those statues from the Parthenon. It runs in the family, I guess. The British and French troops proceeded to enter the Old Summer Palace, meeting essentially no resistance since the war was basically over at this point. Then, after looting it of most of its valuables, the British proceeded to systematically burn down the palace, a task which took 3,500 soldiers more than three days due to the sheer size of the estate. 300 palace courtiers died in the fires while hiding from the soldiers.

The soldiers looted primarily porcelain Chinaware, and notably they took twelve bronze animal heads from the Haiyantang Zodiac fountain. Today, the British Museum still holds and displays artifacts taken from the Old Summer Palace, a fact which particularly irritates the Chinese government. Some years ago, there were requests to allow the British Museum to let Chinese investigators inspect the collection for any artifacts that were taken from the palace, but this was refused out of a worry that the museum would be asked to return them. Which, yeah, is kind of the idea. Nonetheless, given international politics these days, it seems unlikely that such a requests will be granted anytime soon, guaranteeing that the status of the Summer Palace artworks will continue to be disputed.

Should They Be Returned?

The three entries into this list are only a tiny section of the long list of objects taken during the age of empire, and believe me, the list is a very long one, indeed. If you’ve made it this far in the video, you’re probably quite invested in this topic. So, should the British Museum, as well as other museums, give back plundered cultural objects?

It’s a difficult question. On the one hand, in the cases of the Benin Bronzes, the case for restitution is pretty clear given the painful circumstances surrounding their removal. Many of these artifacts are also not on display, but in storage, which makes you wonder why they’re still hanging onto them. And there is a hint of bad faith in how museums argue to keep their collections, usually for reasons of self-preservation rather than caring for the art.

But at the same time, it’s natural for a museum to worry about losing a sizeable portion of their collections by setting a precedent for repatriation. In addition, the British Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world, giving many more people the chance to see them. And lastly, there’s concerns that in some countries the safety of these artifacts would be at risk, as seen in Syria and Iraq when many ancient Assyrian sculptures were destroyed by Islamic State in the mid-2010s.

Ultimately, every object has a different story, which is why some have suggested doing things on a case by case basis. Others suggest a middle path of sharing objects between museums, sending them back and forth and promoting a “sharing is caring” attitude. At the end of the day, the answer probably isn’t going to be an easy one, and there will always be people who think that they’re in the wrong place.

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