Can the British Museum change?

February 11, 2022 4 Comments

The recent return to Nigeria of some of the Benin bronzes from collections across Europe has heightened the debate about ‘repatriating’ museum objects to the places from which they were illegally seized.

The finely made bronze plaques and sculptures once adorned the royal palace in Benin City and were made over a lengthy period, from the thirteenth century onward.  They were removed by British troops after a violent campaign against the Oba (king) of Benin in retaliation for the Oba’s resistance to British invasion.  In the attack the city of Benin was destroyed, and most of the thousands of looted objects (not all bronze) found their way, by one means or another, into museums across Europe and North America.

Restitution of stolen museum objects gathered pace with the movement in the early 2000s to return artworks seized from their Jewish owners by the Nazis.  I remember attending meetings of the National Museum Directors’ Conference at the time, when the subject was much discussed, and wondering how long it would be before other categories of stolen objects would come under scrutiny.  Since 2020 several authorities have decided to return the Benin bronzes in their collections to Nigeria, including the French and German governments, the University of Aberdeen, Jesus College, Cambridge and the Church of England.

These restitutions put pressure on one of the largest holders of Benin bronzes, the British Museum.  So far the Museum, though it is in discussions with the Nigerian authorities, has refused to return its collection.  Its Trustees shelter behind two arguments: that they’re independent and do not bend to government or public pressure, and that they’re prevented by the British Museum Act 1963 from making restitutions.  Both these lines rest on the assumption that the British Museum is a wholly autonomous, unchallengeable power in its own right, and immune to general opinion.  (Presumably Parliament could pass a new British Museum Act, which did allow the restitution of stolen artefacts?)  Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the Museum bows to the inevitable and returns the bronzes in its possession.

The Benin bronzes are clear examples of illicitly seized objects (no doubt there are other, similar examples in the British Museum’s collections).  The legal status of other museum collections is less clear-cut.  Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures is still fiercely disputed.  There is no surviving evidence of the ‘firman’ or permit from the Ottoman ruler of Greece that Elgin claimed gave him the authority to ship the sculptures to Britain (he originally intended to use them to decorate his own home in Scotland, Broomhall House).  All that Elgin could muster to justify the legitimacy of his acquisition was an ‘Italian copy’ of the firman, though most experts think that document is most likely a fabrication.

The British Museum, which acquired the sculptures in 1816, has consistently refused to consider restitution.  In addition to its usual arguments, it can make the best of the shaky case that Elgin acquired the collection legitimately.  Perhaps aware that legalistic arguments were not good enough to shore up the Museum’s position, Neil MacGregor, when he was Director, developed the idea of the British Museum as a cosmopolitan institution which in reality belongs not to Britain but the whole planet.  It could as easily be called the ‘World Museum’; London just happens to be its location.  According to the Museum’s website, ‘the Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history’ (my italics).

It’s true that the Museum’s collections are astoundingly broad.  You only have to leaf through MacGregor’s book The history of the world in 100 objects, to appreciate how many historic cultures are represented there: all one hundred objects come from the Museum’s collections.  But the ‘world museum’ argument is weaker when you consider the Museum’s users.  It assumes that London is the centre of the world, within convenient reach of everywhere and everyone.  Yet how many Greeks, let alone Nigerians or Malians, can easily hop on a plane and make for Bloomsbury?  The idea that a single physical body can claim to meet the needs of everyone on earth interested in the fruits of the world’s civilisations is implausible – and reproduces the same kind of imperial world view responsible for the growth of the British Museum in the first place.

The arguments for returning the Museum’s sculptures to Athens are strong, and supported by a large majority of people in Britain who hold a view on the question.  At present the Parthenon sculptures are split between different countries – Greece, Britain and others – and it would make sense to bring the different elements of the frieze, metopes and pediments together in the same place, especially since the Acropolis Museum in Athens was designed specifically to accommodate all of them.  The Museum, sited just under the Acropolis, is an ideal location from which to understand the context of the sculptures.  And, last but not least, the statues hold greater significance to the Greek people than they do to the British, or to any notional ‘world audience’.

This last argument is a powerful factor in the case for the British Museum to consider a third kind of ‘restitution’: the return to their communities of objects acquired neither by violence nor through dubious legal means, but completely legitimately.  Take the case of the ‘Mold Cape’, one of the finest gold objects from Bronze Age Europe.  Part of a ceremonial dress, the cape was found by workmen in a burial mound at Mold in 1833.  At the time there were no public museums in Wales, and the British Museum would have seemed an obvious recipient of the object.  It has been there ever since.

The Cape was lent to the National Museum in Cardiff and Wrexham Museum for a short period in 2013, and attracted many visitors and much attention – more visitors and attention, I should guess, than it receives in London.  It was clearly seen not only as a beautiful and impressive object in itself, but also as powerful, felt sign of the cultural vitality of north Wales in prehistory, and an inspiration for local artists and creators today.  Should not the British Museum return the Cape to a museum close to its place of origin (Wrexham or Mold itself), or at least place it there on indefinite loan?

No one knows who made the Mold Cape, or where, but it’s probably of local manufacture, and connected with the Great Orme copper mine, the largest in Europe during the Bronze Age.  The Cape’s gold could have be sourced from the mountains of Wales.  Its burial site is just one of several Bronze Age sites in the same area. Relocating the Cape to north-east Wales would allow its manufacture to be seen in this regional context.  It could be displayed alongside other Bronze age objects discovered in the same area, like the ‘Lady of Llong’ necklace. It would be appreciated and treasured by people in a way it is not while hidden in the British Museum.

The British Museum is one of the most over-centralised and change-resistant of Britain’s national cultural institutions.  It would be good to think that it was capable in future of accommodating the claims, legal and moral, of other countries in the world – and other parts of the UK.

Comments (4)

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  1. Carl Morris says:

    Diddorol iawn Andrew. Diolch am rannu! Ydych chi’n ymwybodol o eitemau eraill o Gymru mewn casgliadau’r Amgueddfa Brydeinig hefyd?

  2. Caroline pringle says:

    Hello. I support the case for the return of the mild cape and for it to be displayed in an museum in wales. I draw your attention to a successful campaign in a very small town in Italy region of Marche. It regards the golden horses of Pergola Just after the war the pieces of two horses, their riders and two figures cast full size in bronze, with even the gilded surfaces preserved. After many years of gradually improving restoration the pieces were finally mounted on modern armature. They are an astounding group of Roman statues to have survived. After a long battle with the regional museum in Ancona city, this small town won the right to set up the monument in situ in Pergola where it attracts many visitors. Maybe you could use this for your campaign to get the cape back to the Marches wales/England together with the gold crescent ornament also whisked off to the British museum

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thank you, Caroline, this is very interesting, and encouraging. The British Museum, when asked by BBC Cymru, was not willing to enter debate on the future of the Mold Cape. The ‘gold crescent’ you mention is maybe the Llanllyfni lunula, also in the BM: By coincidence, I was in a meeting this evening where we discussed the location of the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, removed after its discovery in Gower to Oxford, where he still lies, in relative obscurity, in the Museum of Natural History.

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