A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. Photo: Wikipedia.

After Solidarity Statement, British Museum Faces Renewed Demands to Give Up Loot

In an attempt to recognize and align with the Black Lives Matter movement, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer issued an online statement expressing the institution’s solidarity with the black and African American community—a move that has invited heated criticism from those who claim the words will ring hollow until the museum reckons fully with the looted objects in its collection.  

“We stand with everyone who is denied equal rights and protection from violence in the fullest sense of these terms,” Fischer wrote. “These are challenges that we as a society must address, injustices that must be overcome. The death of George Floyd and of many others must sharpen our awareness of how much more we as a major public cultural institution need to do in the fight against inequality and discrimination. We need to embrace the fact that diversity of background, thought, ability and skills are essential for the success of our museum. And for the heritage sector as a whole.”

One Twitter user wrote that if the British Museum “was actually serious about racial justice,” it would demonstrate this by restituting the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, the Gweagal Shield to the First Nations, and the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, as well as myriad other objects to their countries of origin. “Let’s keep joining the dots between statues, colonial violence, white supremacy, and museum displays,” someone else tweeted. Many have responded to the statement by circulating a clip from the movie Black Panther (2018), in which Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) confronts a curator from a thinly veiled British Museum about how the artifacts in its West Africa exhibition were stolen by the British.

Among the countries currently seeking the return of cultural heritage objects from the museum are Greece, which has repeatedly tried to secure the restitution of the Elgin marbles pilfered from the Parthenon in Athens; Ethiopia, which has called for the restitution of tabots, Christian plaques representing the Ark of the Covenant; and Chile, which has demanded the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, a stone monolith taken from Easter Island.

French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese academic writer Felwine Sarr—the authors of a groundbreaking 2018 report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron on the restitution of African art that led France and Germany to commit to returning African artifacts—said that the British Museum has long avoided the issue. “There’s an expression in French, la politique de l’autruche, which means something is in front of you and you say you can’t see it, like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” Sarr told The Guardian in an interview last year. “They will have to respond and they can’t hide themselves any longer on the issue.”

The museum has previously attempted to engage in public discussion about the origins of art in its collections through programs such as its “Collected Histories” talks. Art historian Alice Procter has commended the museum for such efforts, but criticized their emphasis on “legitimate provenance,” which she said is often an “incomplete story.” Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer and advocate for restitution, has also called out the British Museum for failing to address the mounting pressure to restitute looted objects: “We cannot right historical wrongs—but we can no longer, without shame, profit from them.”

In response to the wave of criticism, a museum spokesperson told Artnet News: “We value all audience feedback and recognize that restitution is an issue many people feel very strongly about.” The representative also noted that this is one of the issues that will be tackled in the institution's new masterplan, which Fischer said “provides a unique generational opportunity to reconsider, rethink and rebalance the display of the collection, introducing greater diversity of collections on display, expanding museum narratives. And above all, involving multiple voices.”

Earlier this year, Arts Council England (ACE) commissioned a new set of guidelines on restitution in the UK from the Institute of Art and Law to “encourage a more proactive and coordinated approach across UK museums by providing them with a practical tool that will include case studies, best practice and signposting to other resources,” the ACE said in a statement. The document is slated to be released this fall.