What happens when another country “owns” a substantial amount of your country’s archaeological treasures? That is the situation in which non-western nations find themselves, with the majority of their cultural legacy housed in European and American museums, particularly London’s British Museum.
For years, these stunning artifacts have been the subject of heated dispute. Cultural institutions like as the British Museum insist for their right to exist in the United Kingdom. According to the heirs of individuals who created these pieces of art, this is not the case. A basic issue lies at the heart of this: who gets to own history?
Some of the Benin bronzes are on display in the British Museum’s Africa Galleries in London, under thick vitrine glass in room 25. An inscription tells the story of how the artifacts ended up in the museum’s collection. It has evolved through time. It used to tell the narrative of imperial valor in the face of bush savages; now it conveys the story of colonial cruelty and expansion. British soldiers destroyed Benin to the ground towards the end of the nineteenth century, smashing the mud-walled complexes as well as hundreds of dwellings and ceremonial buildings. Officers constructed a golf course on the old royal grounds. Then they took hundreds of royal and religious artifacts with them.
The bronzes were first displayed to demonstrate the empire’s broad reach. Today, institutions such as the British Museum are at a crossroads, striving to reconcile their colonial history, taking some efforts to repatriate artifacts but refusing to relinquish their cherished collections.
Geoffrey Robertson in his book “Who Owns History?” writes: “This is a time for humility – something the British, still yearning for the era when they ruled the world, i.e., for Brexit, do not do very well. Before it releases any of its share of other people’s cultural heritage, the British Museum could mount an exhibition – ‘The Spoils of Empire’.”
Take, for example, Nigeria. After conquering the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, British forces seized around 4,000 statues. Over a century later, surviving bronzes may be seen in museums in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, and the United States, but not in Nigeria, where they were discovered. The 2018 film Black Panther alluded to this topic during a robbery sequence staged in the fictitious “Museum of Great Britain,” in which protagonists retrieved treasures taken from Wakanda, an African kingdom.
Easter Islanders, Egyptians, and Nigerians are not the only people demanding that Britain restore their cultural heritage. Greece is interested in the Parthenon Marbles. Ethiopia wishes to own the holy Maqdala tabots, which represent the Ark of the Covenant. During the Raj, one of India’s biggest Buddhist sanctuaries, the Amaravati stupa, was destroyed and taken away. People want it back as well. A sixth-generation grandson of Aboriginal warrior Cooman says he’ll keep returning to London until Captain Cook returns his ancestor’s shield, which he claims was stolen.
Some plundered artifacts have been returned, but the majority of the Museum’s disputed collections have not been returned. The contention is if they were to honor historical claims of ownership, the British Museum would lose some of its most renowned and significant assets, such as the Rosetta Stone or the Benin Bronzes, which are some of the museum’s most controversial artifacts.
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