The British Museum is Full of Looted Artifacts

By Josh Jones

As critics and fans wrote excitedly upon its release, Marvel’s Black Panther did an excellent job of creating sympathy for its villain. Many found Erik Killmonger’s radicalism more appealing than the hero’s moderation for some specific reasons, beginning with the heist at the “Museum of Great Britain,” a thinly fictionalized British Museum. “In one scene,” writes gallerist Lise Ragbir at Hyperallergic, “the blockbuster superhero movie touches on issues of provenance, repatriation, diversity, representation, and other debates currently shaping institutional practices.”

As a gallery director who is also black, I was awed by Killmonger’s declaration to an overconfident curator that she was mistaken. When the curator condescendingly informed Killmonger that items in the museum aren’t for sale, my hands began to sweat. And I was downright thrilled when the villain bluntly confronted her: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”

He does not exaggerate. The scene “describes a centuries-old truth,” artist Deborah Roberts remarks”—"colonialists robbing black culture to put on display for European consumption.” The issue, in other words, is not only who gets to tell the stories of African and other non-European people, but who gets to see and hear them, since so many non-white people have been excluded from museums and museum culture.

As Casey Haughin wrote in the Hopkins Exhibitionist, the film “presented [the museum] as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays.” So-called “disputed museum treasures,” the Vox video above shows, are essentially stolen artifacts, with claims of ownership that elide, omit, or fabricate the history of their acquisition.

Some looted treasures have been returned, but when it comes to the majority of the Museum’s “disputed” collections, “so far, it isn’t giving them back,” Vox explains, despite calls from formerly colonized nations. It’s easy to see why. If they were to honor historical claims of ownership, the British Museum would lose some of its most celebrated and significant holdings, like the Rosetta Stone or the Benin Bronzes, “some of the most contentious items in the museum.”

These bronzes, from the wealthy Kingdom of Benin, located in modern-day Nigeria, were “looted by British soldiers during an 1897 raid,” Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet. Faced with calls from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments to return them, the British Museum held meetings that lead to more meetings and a “declaration” that “outlined an intention”—all stalling tactics that have not produced results. Learn why these artifacts are important to Nigerians and how the 19th-century “scramble for Africa” created so much of the museum culture we know today, one still heavily mired in its colonialist roots.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness