The large-scale theft of cultural objects from the British Museum by one of its employees, and the failure of its leadership to deal with it appropriately, have caused widespread reputational damage to the institution over the past few weeks. Although the British Museum might have regarded itself as too big to fail, its false sense of exceptionalism has now jeopardized its future as an institution that claims to epitomize the protection of the world’s cultural heritage.
Much irony can be found in this undeniable institutional failure. The irony of the British Museum falling victim to insider theft when it has long faced criticism for holding, and refusing to return, looted cultural objects. The irony of George Osborne, current chair of the British Museum, blaming the thefts on documentation issues, when they are a direct result of his six years of extensive budget cuts as a chancellor of the Exchequer in the name of “austerity,” which left the British culture sector scrambling for funding.
This embarrassing security breach, and the complete failure of the museum’s leadership to address it, only shows that its collection has become unmanageable and its premises outdated. Other museums in the United Kingdom have made progress in decolonizing their collecting, curation, and repatriation practices. The British Museum is long overdue for such an attitude shift. Clearly, it cannot maintain its universalist approach to collecting and curating; its arrogance in believing it could maintain its elitist, colonial, old-fashioned ways has now cost the public about 2,000 items. The British Museum needs reconceptualizing.
Nigeria with the Benin Bronzes, and Greece with the Parthenon Marbles, are renewing their calls for the repatriation of their cultural objects, stating that they are not safe in the British Museum. They are now joined by countries like China and even Wales.
In an unprecedented statement, journalists from the Chinese state-sponsored daily newspaper the Global Times recently published an official request for the British Museum to “return all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels to China free of charge, and to refrain from adopting a resistant, protracted and perfunctory attitude.” They pose it as a “test and verification of Britain’s sincerity in clearing the colonial stain and making amends for its historical sins.”
Whether you like the Chinese state media or not, this seems like the only way forward for the British Museum to effectively survive as an institution.
A change of the guard, a comprehensive database of its entire collection as suggested by archaeologist Dan Hicks, hiring its own art detective as the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones proposes, or even selling off part of its collection as suggested by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins will not be sufficient to make sure the British Museum is fit for the 21st century. In order to properly care for its collection and regain public trust, the British Museum will have to reduce the items it holds by finally returning all cultural objects that have long been demanded back by their communities of origin.
For decades, the British Museum has hidden behind its deaccession policy, the British Museum Act of 1963, which has conveniently been used to refuse repatriation based on the colonial argument that the UK is the safest and best place for cultural objects.
The notion that communities of origin cannot take care of their own heritage is presented in the UK as a fact, rather than a direct outcome of the long history of exploitation and colonial violence imposed by the UK and other European nations. After the recent insider theft, repeating this justification would be comically flawed and extremely insulting.
However, this is an opportunity for the British Museum to reinvent itself. It is not too late for the British Museum to become a symbol of transparency, accuracy, and restorative justice. This does not mean the British Museum would be empty — not all of the eight million objects in its collection were looted or obtained by immoral or illegal means. Key here is that communities of origin are foregrounded in the decision-making and knowledge-creation processes around objects, so that access, agency, and ownership are restored where desired.
Ultimately, the British public, the museum’s true beneficiaries, should demand a museum that represents UK society as it is today. Stop upholding, celebrating, and defending institutions built on racist ideologies, colonial looting, and immoral and illicit practices. Instead, let us actively work toward confronting and dismantling ongoing colonial narratives, advance toward restorative justice, and reckon with imperial crimes. Proactively ensuring that communities of origin have ownership of, access to, and agency with regard to their cultural heritage is an essential first step toward these goals, and the only way the British Museum should be able to survive.