The Infamous History of the British Museum

Who can declare ownership of artifacts possibly thousands of years old?


Jaina Soppet

Museums are windows into history and culture. They allow us to study a physical catalog of different times, people, and ways of life. Yet, most museum artifacts were stolen, and some are asking to be returned. The question is, who really owns these items?


The British Museum is one of the world’s most impressive displays and collections of history. It is home to about eight million artifacts and displays. Some items were sold to the museum, but many were stolen during years of colonialism that Great Britain took part in. This issue is a pertinent debate between different nations and institutions worldwide. Who can declare ownership when items are over 100 years old, or even ancient? 


A notable case of stolen works is that of the Benin Bronzes. Benin is a kingdom in Nigeria that is home to beautiful and meticulous works of art throughout the ages. Engraved plaques, busts, statues, tusks, and tiles are among the diverse art of the area. In the 1890s, countries such as Great Britain and Germany stole these items in events of ransacking. Since these events centuries ago, these artifacts have been moved around and a majority have ended up in museums throughout Europe.


The Benin Bronzes aren’t the only stolen items on display either. Extremely famous items such as the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Statues, and Hindu god statues were also stolen during the colonization period, and are now displayed in the British Museum. 


This poses many questions. Who deserves to keep these items? Should they be returned to their original owners, or does the museum own them now? Many would argue that huge institutions such as the British Museum keep these artifacts much safer and make them more available to the public. In these locations, they can be studied and serve as a window into historical cultures. However, people in these countries have been further separated from their culture in these endeavors. Do they deserve to be brought back to their native country?


Many artifacts may have derived from nations that no longer exist or are unsafe now, such as Mesopotamia or North Korea. When asked if stolen artifacts should be returned, Alexzaiha Castillo, a junior here at Broad Run, said “If the homes are gone or unsafe, then the artifacts should be kept in museums. But, if they’re safe, they should be returned. History shouldn’t get destroyed.” Arwa Kadri, a sophomore at Broad Run, agreed with that statement. She said, [about the Easter Island and Hindu god statues] “I think they should be returned to their native home.”


Museums make it possible for average citizens to see real surviving historical items in person. It is a living catalog to a no-longer living time. However, if items are in a whole other continent because colonizers stole them in conflicts centuries ago, people of that culture may never get to see them. Zoya Kadri, a senior who has seen a few artifacts in person, stated, “It was so cool seeing those in real life. I think people deserve to see it in their homes. Because if you are Egyptian or something, you shouldn’t have to travel to a place like England to see your own culture.”


Even if something was stolen yesterday, or 10,000 years ago, if the native country wants it back, a return can be considered. For a long time, British law prohibited the return of these items. Now, legislation that has passed this year finally allows looted items to be given back. This moral question is finally being solved after years of struggle. Who gets to own history?