Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Thievery at the British Museum

As Alanis Morrissett would have it, isn’t it ironic? It’s like stealing from one of the biggest thieves of the British Empire.

In August the British Museum announced that they’d been robbed, and would the antiquarian-loving public please help them to retrieve the 2,000+ items? The items in question ranged in age from 15th to 19th century and were gold, jewellery and semi-precious stones. Sometime during the last two decades the objects had been removed from their locations in storage. The BBC reported that the museum’s management were alerted by an art dealer in February 2021, and even earlier, after he saw items belonging to the museum for sale online. The BM investigated the missing items, but did not uncover any problems.

Now controversy is well and truly erupting.

A staff member has been sacked and police are investigating, interviewing the ex-staff member but not yet making any arrests. The museum’s director has stepped down, after accepting that the 2021 investigation was mishandled. The objects were not part of the museum’s display, but rather in the research and storage section of the museum where they had been unregistered for 200 years. Legal action is being taken against the former employee but no information has been released about their identity.

This controversy exposes some hypocrisies about the British Museum’s status as a reputable store house of cultural treasures. It also reminds us that legacies of colonisation aren’t distant memories about events that happened somewhere else. The role museums play in our society is changing, often forming a contested space for those who wish to see change and history acknowledge, and those who prefer the objects to stay where they are.1 Here I look at three examples.

Brass plaque commonly known as "bronze". Benin kingdom (Nigeria). British Museum (London) (photograph by Michel wal via Wikimedia Commons)


It should be noted at the outset that so many objects in the British Museum’s collection were acquired by theft, looting and other acts of nefarious colonial design. For hundreds of years these activities were accepted, encouraged and practiced as standard scientific procedure.

In her book The Whole Picture Alice Procter describes British attitudes to slavery in a way that rings true of these colonial legacies as well. She says,

…the history of slavery is both the most discussed and least visible element of British imperialism… there is a pervasive sense that it is something that happened elsewhere, somehow disconnected from the British people who perpetrated the profited from it.

Similar attitudes played out in the entitlement of many collectors whose acquisitions ended up in the BM. Attitudes maintained by selective language within the the museum that is only recently beginning to acknowledge these ‘difficult histories’. The stories of how objects came to be in the collection are now taking centre stage whereas previously its audiences and benefactors would not need to question why and how their collections grew. It was entirely natural that many museums, and this one in particular, would amass objects from across the world.

Holding these attitudes in mind, it’s worth noting some statistics about the museum.

Since its founding in 1753, the British Museum has amassed approximately 8 million objects, of which only 80,000 are visible to the public. That’s 1 per cent! Of the 99% not on display a not-insignificant proportion are uncatalogued. Yes, an unfortunate consequence of the empire’s greed is its own ignorance of the objects it has acquired. The recently reported thefts were a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, according to Professor Dan Hicks of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

It’s not as simple as returning all of the objects to the people they were originally taken from. In some cases it isn’t possible to determine whether theft was involved. In other cases source communities are still being identified. And this is part of the colonial legacy playing out in institutions like the British Museum: objects were taken by enthusiastic collectors, their labels often did not meaningfully identify the owners, meaning today many museums do not have a complete picture of everything they possess and are slowly working their way through their catalogues.

Main entrance to the British Museum, (photograph by Ham via Wikimedia Commons)

Our faith in these institutions rests on their reputations as storied preservers of the human past, but what happens when they don’t do a very good job? What happens when a staff member acts in self interest (presumably seeking a profit) and the objects are sent out into the world to adorn private collectors’ cabinets? Does it make a difference that the stolen objects were not on display?

I have many questions.

The Guardian reported that 4.5 million of the 8 million objects in the collection have been added to its public database. (Of these, 1.6 million have been photographed, and others have illustrations.) Half way there! (waoh-oh).

I believe in the role museums play as important sites of research, particularly unpacking the difficult histories surrounding how their objects came to be housed there. And I am by no means intending to discredit the work being done inside those institutions by hard working individuals. I also support the work of communities whose objects have been found in these collections and their campaigns for restitution and repatriation. Museums have shown their willingness to step up and return items in cases where source communities can be identified and collaboration can take place.

In September this year the University of Manchester’s Museum formally returned 174 objects to representatives from the Anindilyakwa community of Groote Eylandt, Australia. The collection included paintings, boomerangs, spear throwers, spears/heads, pipes, scrapers, message sticks, armbands, baskets and 80 shell dolls which had been acquired by anthropologist Peter Worsley in the 1950s. The community are now connecting with their heritage and continuing to revive their traditions.

This is a positive outcome. The figure I always hold in my mind is 250,000. This is the estimate from historian Phillip Jones, of the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural objects held in museums outside Australia (and notably not including private collections).2

These legacies also offer the possibility for new ‘discoveries’ to be made in the archives and storage vaults of museums. In 2008 a species of beetle collected by Charles Darwin in 1832 was located in the Natural History Museum collections, London, and described for the first time. But the for indigenous communities across the world, whose patrimonial heritage resides in these store houses, the process is not as simple as identifying cultural objects and returning them.

Gweagal Shield

For many years this shield was labelled as ‘Bark Shield’ and thought to have been acquired by James Cook upon landing at Kamay (Botany Bay) in 1770. The British Museum display described the events of Cook’s landing, claiming that the shield had been dropped by a retreating warrior when fired upon by Cook and his men.

Gweagal Shield, British Museum (photograph by Geni via Wikimedia Commons)

Beginning in 2017 the shield was removed from display and research into its origins and journey to London (provenance) were undertaken. Two journal articles resulted which in part quell rising claims for the shields repatriation. The research produced by BM staff and collection scholars is unfortunately paywalled by Taylor and Francis.3 Sarah Keenan summarises the events in a short article here and explains the claims by descendants of the warriors who encountered Cook on the fateful day.

Marc Fennel’s Stuff the British Stole podcast features an episode all about the shield.

I’ve also written briefly about the shield for the secondary school history publication, Agora in 2022. I(t might be available through your library, or you can contact me.) The contested nature of this particular cultural object makes it useful for teaching history through an object-based approach and it makes plain the politics surrounding repatriation and the need for ongoing research and community collaboration.

It does raise the question though, if we acknowledge that there is a patrimonial connection with First Nations people of Botany Bay, where would an object like this best be located to serve its community? Probably not in London.

I visited the British Museum in 2016 but didn’t view the Enlightenment Room in which the shield was displayed, there were 79,000 other objects vying for my attention and instead (I think) I went straight for the Parthenon Marbles.

Parthenon Marbles

One of the best introductions to the controversy and calls for restitution of the marbles is this episode from Stuff the British Stole. It includes the perspective of Greeks in Australia and demonstrates how these sculptures have meaning in many places, not just Greece. If you listen, tell me you’d just give them back if you could?

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When I visited the marbles it was on a warm, summer day. The room where they are displayed felt dark and chilled by contrast, creating a sombre atmosphere which might have been deliberate, or might have been my projection, it’s a deliberately intimidating room. Working my way around the large space I was struck by the number of people also looking, posing, and learning about the objects. Like me they were on the hunt, tourists ticking off the key artefacts on their grand tour of the building. It was difficult to picture them as they once were because they felt so removed from their context. Much like the final example.

Benin Bronzes

Another series of cultural objects with long-associated calls for repatriation are the Benin Bronzes, a large collection of which are located in the British Museum.

The Kingdom of Benin occupied southern parts of present-day Nigeria between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. A rich sculptural tradition used bronze and other materials such as iron, wood, ivory and terra cotta and with the objects representing themes in the history of the kingdom, displayed in the royal palace.

That is until the British enacted a bloody and devastating occupation in 1897. During the territorial land grab known as the ‘scramble for Africa’ trade with European nations had proceeded in the way you’d expect (slavery had been abolished but the British weren’t leaving the West Coast). The British dominated the Nigerian coast by the late nineteenth century and had no intention of accepting Benin’s trading conditions.

The BM’s website carefully describes what happened in January 1897 as

an allegedly peaceful but clearly provocative British trade mission was attacked on its way to Benin City, leading to the deaths of seven British delegates and 230 of the mission's African carriers. This incident triggered the launch of a large-scale retaliatory military expedition by the British against the Kingdom of Benin. In February 1897 Benin City was captured by British forces.

These forces proceeded to loot the city, including taking thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed to expedition members. This included the ceremonial brass heads of former Obas and their associated ivory tusks and 900+ plaques illustrating historic practices and traditions dating from sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see above). Objects were sold, distributed and traded between collectors and museums and some even came to the British Museum through major private collections during the twentieth century many ended up in various European museums.

Nigeria has long sought the return of the bronzes (I could not locate an exact date, but it no doubt coincides with the period of decolonisation and independence in 1960). Between the 1950 and 1972 30 Benin Bronzes were sold to the government because the British Museum mistakenly believed they were duplicates (and therefore superfluous). In an effort to remedy centuries of cultural insensitivity (and worse) a dialogue group was formed in 2007 and is working towards the repatriation of Benin objects from all over the world with eventual display in a purpose built museum in Nigeria. Multiple museums have agreed to begin returning Benin Bronzes, though not all the objects and some will only be loaned.

In the meantime, Benin Digital is a platform cataloguing more than 5,000 African artefacts in (currently) 131 institutions from 20 countries.

Frieze from the Parthenon Marbles, housed in the British Museum, regarded as stolen by many. (photograph by Txllxt Txllxt via Wikimedia Commons)

Looting the looters

On the one hand thefts at the British Museum sounds funny, and I started this chuckling to myself. But I hope by looking at these objects we can see behind the façade of deserving respectability cultivated over the centuries by museums like the British Museum. The story isn’t over for the three examples I’ve described, and they are by no means unique legacies of British imperial activity.

Paying attention to the politics of repatriation reminds me that museums are changing. In his 2020 book The Brutish Museums Dan Hicks describes marks out where further work needs to be done:

In light of the sheer brutishness of their continued displays of violently-taken loot, British Museums need urgently to move beyond the dominant mode of ‘reflexivity’ and self-awareness in museum thinking, which often amounts to little more than a kind of self-regard, turning the focus back upon the anthropologist, curator, or museum as both object and subject of enquiry, performing dialogue with certain ‘source communities’.4

Curators are approaching their work in new ways. We recognise now, that while museums are valued spaces, they are not the neutral natural homes for things we once thought they were. Repatriation is taking different forms. By way of example, I end with a link to a recently published chapter I wrote about Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung artist William Barak’s artworks returning home through crowd-funding efforts last year. Its available as a preview on Google Books, or why not request you library to buy a copy?

The British Museum holds many Brass plaques dating from 16-17th century (photograph by Mike Peel, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a post from Slow Looking, a newsletter about art and history. Subscribe at https://nikitavanderbyl.substack.com/

1 See for example Tiffany Jenkins’ work.

2 Phillip Jones, Ochre and Rust (2007), 5.

3 Nugent, Maria, and Gaye Sculthorpe. "A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions." Australian Historical Studies 49, no. 1 (2018): 28-43. https://doi.org/10.1080/1031461X.2017.1408663.
Thomas, Nicholas. "A Case of Identity: The Artefacts of the 1770 Kamay (Botany Bay) Encounter." Australian Historical Studies 49, no. 1 (2018): 4-27.

4 Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums (2020), xiii.