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Looting Legacies: The British Museum’s Stolen Treasures

By Chao Shete

Black and White photo of the inside of the british museu
Photo: Matthew Gouiffes via Unsplash

The world's third most visited museum is in crisis, and it’s not looking good. When news broke in August that the British Museum fired an employee over the theft of potentially thousands of items from its storerooms, restitution advocates saw this as the opportune moment to renew calls for repatriation of contested objects in the museum’s collection. No stranger to scandals by now, the calls to return the ‘stolen’ objects have been ongoing for years now, however, the British Museum just can’t afford another scandal. As recently as June, the museum came under fire after reports emerged that it had used translator Yilin Wang’s work without permission. Before Yilin Wang, it was troubled by protests over a longstanding oil company sponsorship — which ended the 27-year deal with BP recently. The museum could have probably managed to escape the public scrutiny were it not for the news release announcing the theft. Following the announcement the director also resigned and has been succeeded by Sir Mark Jones as Interim Director.

The Stolen Objects

Some reports say the number of stolen items is close to 2000 however, the Museum is yet to comment on the severity of the scandal threatening to take down its carefully curated reputation. Home to over 8 million objects and artefacts, the museum’s collection makes it the largest in the world.

For years, the museum has been on the receiving end of worldwide criticism as to how they rounded up this enormous treasure. As history serves, many of the artefacts in its collection were amassed through force when Britain ruled over vast swathes of land. Over the decades lawmakers, advocates, and the general public from around the world have been persistent in their demands that the museum return various contested objects in their collection. Despite these concerted calls, the museum has consistently opposed the return of these stolen artefacts, presenting a range of arguments that vary in their sincerity. One regularly proffered argument is that the museum has a higher standard of protection than those in other countries — the countries from which they were taken.

There is a constant tug of emotions whenever citizens of British ex-colonies talk about the British Museum. On one side, the undeniable wonder and maybe appreciation of the breathtaking objects that showcase not only civilisation but history of otherwise bygone cultures, but on the other hand, there’s no running away from the reality of how these objects were obtained. The backdrop to many of these items is marred with bloodshed, inhumanity, and a loss of dignity. The coordinated plundering and acts of mass destruction that happened across the world in order to acquire many of the items on its walls begs the question:

“Can the emotional damage that came as a result of the plundering ever be undone? Is Britain even remorseful?”

Regardless of whether we'll get an answer to this question in this millenia, the British Museum could borrow a page or two from their counterparts across the world. Look to the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who have given back certain objects in their collections, such as human remains and/or objects sacred to a culture, as well as objects obtained through violence.

Museum Inventory Controversy

As the stolen items continue to pop up on internet sites like eBay, as well as art dealers' private collections, the museum faces yet another damning question they can’t answer: how did the thefts happen over 20 years without them noticing?

About two years ago, an antiquities dealer, Ittai Gradel, emailed the museum with what he said was proof that a senior British Museum curator was selling items from the collection on eBay. In an interview with BBC radio, George Osborne, the museum’s chairman, confirmed that the museum had fired the individual identified by Gradel. Now, for the huge efforts required to track down the stolen items, but how can you track down items that haven’t been inventoried?

Experts estimate that roughly half of the Museum's extensive collection of 8 million items remains uncatalogued, a concerning situation that has undeniably facilitated these thefts. Additionally, the extended period it took to uncover these thefts prompts concerns about the potential disappearance of other items, leaving no discernible trail. Whether some of the missing objects are among the contested objects in the Museum’s collection, still remains unanswered. The British Museum has yet to announce the exact number of the missing objects, however, it is still unclear how they intend to know and identify the exact number without an inventory. For the time being we can only speculate.


About the Writer:

Chao Shete is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She enjoys writing fiction, creative non-fiction essays and book reviews. When she is not writing, she spends most of her time getting lost between the pages of a good book.

Twitter: hope_shete


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