Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Museums, history of colonialism

By Bryn Fawn

Museums are amazing additions to society by creating an atmosphere of wonder and allow those curious enough to learn about their subject of choice. Science museums are wonderful for children and adults alike, teaching scientific concepts in enthralling ways. Art museums let us peek into the past, admire the beautiful and feel the emotions of the artists through their craft. History museums let us learn about and perpetuate colonialism. 

After the death of Queen Elizabeth, many took the opportunity to call out the blatant acts of colonialism by the royal family. Elizabeth herself still had power in other nations not her own at the time of her death. The attention swiftly turned to museums as well, especially the British Museum. John Oliver released a clip of his weekly late night show discussing the matter of museums Oct. 3. The segment begins with showing Greek statues in their respective museum, Acropolis, and how strangely pieces of them are stark white. As it turns out, those pieces are within the British Museum, and Acropolis had to use plaster to fill in the gaps for visitors. 

Oliver then reveals to the audience that the pieces on display in Britain were never lost, but in fact stolen. These stolen pieces are known as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Lord Elgin was the one who ordered the fragments of marble to be sawed off and then sold them to the museum where they still remain. The British Museum refuses to return the Elgin Marbles to Acropolis. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister at the time, reported to Ta Nea, a Greek newspaper, in 2021: “The U.K. government has a firm, long-standing position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time and have been legally owned by the British Museum’s trustees since their acquisition.”

The Elgin Marbles aren’t the only stolen pieces of history. The Rosetta Stone still resides in the British Museum. It was originally property of France, but in 1801 British troops arrived in Egypt and stole the granodiorite stele amongst other things, according to Matador Network. The Benin Bronzes are also pieces that can be seen in the British Museum that were stolen in 1837. Nigeria has demanded for their history to be returned to them, but the British Museum holds firm on their position to refuse to return the artifacts.

Even the royal jewels, symbolism of the monarch, are stolen themselves. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond, encrusted on the front of The Queen Mother’s Crown, which can be seen on display in the Tower of London. Different groups in India, including the Taliban, have demanded its return to no avail. 

The British aren’t the only ones at fault. America has, to no surprise, stolen from indigenous people. So many artifacts from several tribes lie in storage boxes beneath the museums, never to see the light of day or to be seen by others. 

Museums often also disregard illegitimate paperwork stating the authenticity of ownership of these artifacts in order to purchase them and take them from their native homelands. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a sarcophagus of a pharaoh that was actually stolen from Egypt and then sold to the states, which the paperwork revealed to be illegitimate.

Museums are a great way to learn about one’s history and where we come from, but only when sourced ethically. Items that are in museums that have no cultural right to own them should return them, allowing for the true owners to see their beauty and history. The western world has already taken so much from these “third world” nations and forcibly washed them of their culture, there is no need to subject them to more.

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