Art in the Diaspora

What Is Happening at the British Museum?

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A recent wave of controversies surrounding the repatriation of stolen artifacts has enveloped the hallowed halls of the British Museum. It all began in August when an employee faced termination for the alleged theft of priceless items from the world’s third-most-visited Museum. Under intense scrutiny, the Museum faces mounting pressure to recover and repatriate a trove of invaluable objects. Among them are some of Africa’s long-lost treasures, such as Benin Bronzes and the sacred Congolese nkisi nkondi figures.

This call for repatriation has sparked a global movement, with nations such as Greece and China also stepping forward to retrieve these culturally significant artworks. This is not the first time the British Museum has been under fire for housing stolen artifacts. The theft issues allowed different nations to understand the importance of having the items in their institutions. The point of repatriation is still ongoing. However, there are significant laws that prevent full restitution of these products.

The Mold Gold Cape dates to around 1900BC-1600BC. Image courtesy of The Art Newspaper.

Among them is the 1963 British Museum Act, which currently hinders the total return of the Museum’s artifacts, including those of Welsh origin. The application of this legislation to Welsh objects remains unclear, adding a legal dimension to the debate. Moreover, the Museum faced external storms, such as security. The accused, Peter Higgs, was an integral part of the British Museum for three decades and responsible for the institution’s extensive collection. Higgs’s family vehemently denied these allegations, further deepening the intrigue surrounding the Museum’s security and integrity.

Even more confusing is that the Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, made a significant decision to step down from his position on August 25th. This adds another layer of uncertainty to the institution’s future. This restitution case comes just after museums over the years continued to return stolen artifacts to Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt.

Part of the British Museum’s display of the Benin bronzes, taken from modern-day Nigeria by British forces in 1897. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

The British Museum continues to defend its position, citing the international reach of its exhibitions and loans of artifacts. Heads of state in Africa and beyond continue to offer suggestions for compromise, such as displaying replicas in the British Museum while returning the originals to their rightful homes, which are gaining traction. With more countries demanding the return of looted treasures, it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds soon.

As the world watches, the fate of these stolen treasures hangs in the balance. The British Museum’s role in the larger discourse on cultural repatriation remains a topic of vigorous debate. The global call for justice echoes the sentiment that art and heritage should be returned to their places of origin. Only when they are in their rightful place can they again tell their stories that inspire. This call for repatriation will enrich the lives of those they belong to.


Rose Mwikali Musyoki is a creative writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Business and Finance from the University of Embu, Kenya, and is the founder of Bloom Inc, an art startup in Kenya. Currently, she works as a writer for Art News Africa.

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