The British Museum of London is widely known as the stomping ground of colonialist powers—a modern-day curio cabinet for long-imperialist powers, with all the same undertones. Jewelry, statues, and various other ancient artifacts (some even older than our sun!) reside here, but their histories are not all as confined to the past as one might think.
As described by William St. Clair in his bookLord Elgin and the Marbles, statues such as Easter Island’s Hoa Hakananai’a and the Greek Erechtheion’s sixth Sister of the Acropolis are famously known to be stolen and now withheld by The British Museum, distinctly apart from their origins. And despite formal requests beginning in 1983 for the latter to be returned to Greece, The British Museum keeps the lost sister away from her counterparts in the Acropolis Museum on claims of superior safeguarding capabilities. Artifacts such as these two are claimed to have been collected from ruins rather than stolen forcefully. Due to this narrative in tandem with lingering imperialist perception of England as a foremost national power, the museum refuses to return its collections to their rightful owners. Thus, the public turns private in the national museum’s ‘finder’s keeper’s’ logic that one would hope humanity might leave on the playground rather than interweave with ancient cultural relics.
While The British Museum has maintained pushback against returning its items by claiming that artifacts are safest in London, a new step toward collection digitization combats this constructed narrative. Following the loss of nearly 2,000 artifacts to the work of thieves and sellers, the museum has announced its decision to enact a five-year, $2.4 million record digitization movement in hopes of preventing further thieving operations. Collections will be stored securely away from the public to minimize external interactions with important items, and viewing will instead occur either online or through highly-monitored one-on-one visits. But what does this new methodology of exhibition say about the maintenance of stolen artifacts?
Items from as far back as the 15th century have disappeared under The British Museum's nose, and it apparently lacks the power to recover them effectively. A public announcement was made this past summer to encourage public assistance (especially on social media and art dealership sites) in the recovery project. Ironically, the thefts were originally realized by the museum after concerns about auctions on Ebay were alerted to high ranking employees by international art dealers such as Ittai Gradel. In 2021, Gradel's detailed written concerns of the potential reselling of ancient artifacts received little to no serious response despite their since-established validity. The general public, rather than the supposedly safe and responsible museum, not only realized the thefts were occurring but also have been enlisted to solve the problem as well.
The question of digitization as a method of preservation exemplifies the hypocrisy of The British Museum's philosophy. Mark Jones, the current director of the museum, stated in a press release that "the single most important response to the thefts is to increase access, because the better a collection is known—and the more it is used—the sooner any absences are noticed.” Yet access in accordance to this scandal creates an even greater distance between artifacts and their rightful owners, whose deeper cultural connection would provoke more incentive to protect collections that The British Museum has proven to possess (in their 3+ year stint of disregarded thievery).
What is access when it is through a computer screen, devoid of physicality and its emotional provocations? What is this expensive method of safeguarding items that were already claimed to be in their most possibly safe environment? How does this careless loss of history and reinvention of exhibition change the English narrative of superior protective services?
The viral news of this ongoing scandal parallels many similar searches for stolen art and artifacts. The traveling wampum belt exhibit—featuring an interpretive recreation by multiple Wampanoag artists of a traditional wampum belt—hopes to recover Metacom's lost belt. Metacom, also known as King Philip, was murdered during King Philip’s War in 1678 and his belt, a cultural staple and work of extreme artistry, was stripped from his body and shipped to Europe as a prize. The belt has since been lost, most likely into a private collection, and the Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America exhibit hopes to raise awareness about the search and others like it to someday recover the stolen masterpiece. While featured in various museums ranging from the Vanderhoop Homestead of Aquinnah to the Guildhall Art Gallery of London, this exhibit has received the most attention from audiences who already have the deepest connections to its emotional, historical significance.
While highly respected locally, this exhibit has not reached international headlines or public concern to the same degree that The British Museum's scandal has for every event of its ongoing nature. Yet because of the search’s deep connection to its culture, through both leadership and ownership, a distinct degree of legitimacy and integrity is both prominent and different from The British Museum’s own methodology of recovery. The wampum belt exhibit not only raises awareness of an overlooked act of grotesque thievery but simultaneously educates its visitors in a way that The British Museum’s digitized search-and-rescue does not even attempt. To see the wampum belt in person is to learn not only Metacom’s history but is to directly engage with Wampanoag culture, people, and lived history.
A difference in these two instances of loss and recovery also lies in the question of ownership. What right does The British Museum truly possess to deserve a second chance at withholding art and artifacts that never justly belonged to it? Should this international scandal of irresponsible misplacement provoke a deeper conversation about the relocation of not only withheld items but items actively wanted by their home countries? And will this massive digitization project close the door even further on this conversation in a way that creates a ticking clock of potential recovery?
(Cover Image: Richard Moss)