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The British Museum's 'loot' was bought and paid for, says director

The British Museum is not an organisation of “looters” because many of its global artefacts were bought and paid for, its director has insisted.

The British Museum's 'loot' was bought and paid for, says director
An employee looks at a marble statue of Crouching Venus, an exhibit at the British Museum
[Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP]
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, the institution has faced increased scrutiny over its collection with treasures such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes long being the subject of calls for repatriation to their nations of origin.

However, Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, said it was a “simplification” to treat the collection of 13 million historical objects as a hoard of stolen goods that can be returned.

The roster of items began with the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, whose financing of collecting with profits from slavery led to his bust being removed from its plinth at the museum.

Mr Fischer has argued that many significant pieces in the museum were acquired by less controversial means, including purchases, donations and treasure finds.

These items cannot simply be sent back to their country of origin, the director said, and the legitimate acquisition of objects had to be taken into account.

He told the BBC’s Gary Younge: “The museum has acquired works, some, when they were sold at auction. This needs to be obviously acknowledged. We all understand and acknowledge that we have different views on this, and this conversation will be ongoing. I think it is a great simplification to simply say that the British Museum is a place of loot and stolen goods. There is acquisition, there is exchange, there are gifts.”

The British Museum's 'loot' was bought and paid for, says director
The redisplay of the Hans Sloane bust is part of the British Museum’s efforts
to address Britain’s colonial past [Credit: Paul Hudson]
After campaigning by Black Lives Matter activists, the museum has worked to address its colonial legacy, and the issue of possessing cultural artefacts taken during the pomp of empire.

A trail has been set up guiding visitors through 16 objects, at the Bloomsbury site in central London, which were acquired in a range of ways. It aims to educate the public on how items came to be displayed.

The Parthenon Marbles, still claimed by Greece, are not included. But steps have been taken to acknowledge that the Nigerian Benin Bronzes were seized in 1897, and new labels explain how items were taken from subjugated peoples around the world.

When asked why treasures cannot simply be handed back, Mr Fischer referenced the complex histories of many of the displays.

Items from the Sutton Hoo hoard were gifted by Edith Pretty, the landowner of the site where the famous ship burial was found, and pieces like the Bronze Age Ringlemere cup were given to the museum after being legally declared as treasure finds.

Some important pieces, including many from Egypt, have also come to the museum after being unearthed in legitimate archaeological excavations, which the museum continues to participate in.

Author: Craig Simpson | Source: The Telegraph [August 27, 2020]


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