Written by: Elah Cohen
The Museum is a familiar concept, one that is integral to the art world. With little effort you conjure the vision of an array of goods- a shining celebration of Humankind’s finest qualities and abilities.
Recently, however, the museum has become a controversial space, subjected both to literary fire and scrutiny. Alice Procter argues the contentious histories and human price which the admired objects are steeped in, for some, supersede the shallow enjoyment gained.
Certainly, the British Museum has unashamedly adopted an attitude of “finders keepers” by hardly promoting the nature of the acquisition of what they display- in turn remaining a visible remnant of power and Imperialism.
Delve deeper beyond the glossy façade and you will unearth a murky past behind the artefacts. Created using the lost wax technique, the Benin Bronzes (located in present day Southern Nigeria) are regarded as the most stunning historical example of bronze casting. Looting under the British Empire meant they are now dotted around Europe, mostly located in the British Museum. Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh has created posters advocating their return in an initiative with museums in Dresden. Hickley (2021) reports Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, Nigerian ambassador to Germany, stressed their return would be “worthy of emulation towards healing the tragic trauma of colonialism by facilitating the restitution of these artefacts” in a letter to Angela Merkel.
From this, we see these beautiful artefacts represent pride in the exploitation of Empirical rule. Arguably, non Western Art has been insidiously rendered a trophy, a symbol of power.
Despite the fact that museum ownership possesses many complexities in the modern world it is essential to consider the indisputable advantages of the actions quick to be labelled as greed. Museums have often protected precious artefacts which are constantly pitted against humans and their capabilities of destruction. Indeed, arguably one of the most infamous artefacts brought upon British soil – the Elgin Marbles – owe their preservation to Lord Elgin’s removal of them. Had they not been plucked from Greece, they would have suffered a familiar fate to The Bamyan Buddhas, located in Pakistan. For, once regarded as beautiful symbols of Buddhism, they fell victim to changing ideology and religious intolerance. The literal hole they leave makes a poignant point about the cultural significance and history lost by the hand of Man.
Moreover, many pieces of art have been passed round by multiple cultures, resembling a global game of pass the parcel, demonstrating Britain is not solely guilty. One of the most famous artworks of all time - Leonardo’s Mona Lisa – with its unparalleled legacy in popular culture, resides in France and not Italy. The idea of a utopic period, where art has respectfully or peacefully been left alone, is the true fallacy. In fact, the earliest museum is indicated to have been built by the Babylonian Empire, around 530CE: packed to the rafters with labelled spoils of war, demonstrating a global concept far older than the birth of the European Empires.
Hence, from a Utilitarian perspective, the benefits of thieving certain pieces of art as a means of protection, outweigh the murky moral question. However, art is more than just an object – they are items brimming with history and iconic symbols belonging in heart and soul to the country for which they were made. What right has Britain to cling on to the Elgin Marbles, especially considering the economic plight of Greece?
The issue is one that seems unlikely to find an effective solution. Whilst it is imperative that the artefacts be enjoyed for their magnificence alone – and not as trophies of conquests past - we cannot forget the etymology of the word museum itself is, ‘seat of muses’. Is it right to manufacture these facilities, sources of inspiration, into monsters and to ignore the worthy things they champion – curiosity and education?
Hickley, C., 2021. Dresden Poster Campaign Draws Attention To Looted Benin Bronzes In City’S Museum. [online] Theartnewspaper.com. Available at: <https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/dresden-poster-campaign-draws-attention-to-benin-bronzes-in-city-s-museum>
Lewis, G., 2020. Museum | Definition, History, Types, & Operation. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/museum-cultural-institution>
Minamore, B., 2018. Slaver! Invader! The tour guide who tells the ugly truth about museum portraits. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/24/slaver-invader-tour-guide-ugly-truth-empire-uncomfortable-art-tours-alice-procter>