Can We Trust The British Museum With Our Cultural Treasures?

Feature Article Oba Esigie and attendants triumphant return from the Idah war, Benin, Nigeria, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Oba Esigie and attendants triumphant return from the Idah war, Benin, Nigeria, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

When I first saw the British Museum some decades ago, I was impressed, not to say overwhelmed, by the massive concrete structures of the venerable institution on Great Russell Street, London. I wondered whether anybody could walk into the building complex and say he wanted to see whatever was there. The fence reminded me of African speers used in war against enemies. After my initial shock at the unknown complex, it took me quite a while to muster enough courage, and with the great encouragement of a friend, we decided to venture into this mighty citadel.

Once in the museum, I realized why one needs such a solid structure. There were mighty artefacts from Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Sudan and precious objects from all over the world, mostly looted during colonialist conquests. Some of the subjects of the British Empire might one day want to collect their ancestral treasures from the imperialist capital. I kept from the earlier visit a firm conviction that no one could ever steal from this impregnable citadel. Once in the British Museum, always in the British Museum.

The recent news of thefts in the British Museum shocked us thoroughly. (1) Was this the same museum that had always impressed us with its solidity and security? How can thieves get into this monstrous structure and steal imperial conquests? Most of us had never thought that the items in the famous museum could be stolen from inside by the people who were paid to look after the precious objects. Yes, the newspaper reports, spread all over the place, informed us that a staff who had worked in the institution for some thirty years had been dismissed in connection with alleged thefts dating as far back as 2021, and we are now hearing about this in 2023. Did the Director of the Museum, who has resigned immediately, not want us to know about these thefts of some 2000 precious objects? What about the Deputy- director of the museum? We read he had been told not to continue with his work until the thefts had been solved. What about the Trustees of the museum? They assured us that the matter had been promptly handed over to the London Police, who are dealing with the case.

Though Hartwig Fischer’s departure came at a surprise, those who have watched closely the goings-on in the British Museum would have noted for some time that all was not well between Fischer and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, George Osborne. We noted the discussions with Greece were conducted by George Osborne. We wrote:

‘We note in passing that Hartwig Fischer, the current Director of the British Museum, has been silent. In contrast, the Deputy director, Jonathan Williams, and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, George Osborne, have been busy defending the British museum. How are we to understand this? Have other forces in the museum silenced Fischer, or are directors of the British Museum no longer expected to defend their museum? The aggressive nationalism mentioned by Osborne could also be active in this context.’ (2) Hartwig Fischer, German Director of the British Museum, was pushed aside by George Osborne, British Chair of the Board of Trustees. Could this have happened in the time of Neil MacGregor, British, former Director of the British Museum(2202-2015)? Where is McGregor now? Could he not temporarily return to save some of the damaged reputation of the British Museum?

We have yet to find out what the two thousand stolen items were. Were they African treasures, Benin bronzes? Perhaps Asante gold or Maqdala treasures from Ethiopia? The venerable museum continues its tradition of secrecy, even when informing us about stolen items. How do we know what the museum

officials are talking about? The museum may not know what has been stolen since the institution does not still have a complete catalogue of all items there. The officials have never known exactly how many objects are in their museum. A fact sheet of the British Museum gives only a general estimate:‘ The British Museum collection totals at least 8 million objects’. What does this mean? (3) Wikipedia refers to 13 million objects in the British Museum but does not give any source for this figure. (4) Considering the turbulent nature of the world, where every political disturbance or war seems to involve the displacement of a large number of artefacts that eventually end up in Western museums, it is unlikely that the total number of objects in the British Museum has remained all these years at about 8 million. And does the museum not have a policy of yearly acquisitions? We know that in 1999, the museum, according to a former Director (1977-1992), David M. Wilson, made 6,000 acquisitions. (5)

The British Museum does not seem to care very much about figures. We read from a fact sheet the following:

‘The British Museum collection totals at least 8 million objects. Roughly 80,000 objects are on public display at the British Museum in Bloomsbury at any one time. This is 1% of the collection,however,the displays include most pf the important items. Fact Sheet-British Museum.’ pdf

However, The A-Z Companion to the Collections of the British Museum,by Majorie Caygill, published in 2017 by the British Museum Press states at p.8 ‘ Not all of the Museum’s collections of approximately twelve million objects are on display’.

Similarly, one cannot completely rely on the figures the museum provides on the number of African artefacts it holds. I have seen the figure of 69,000 in serious scholarly works but I have also seen the figure of over 200,000 in a guide for visitors published by the British Museum Press in 2018. Can we be sure of the number of Benin artefacts the British Museum holds?

Others who have attempted to secure more information about the number of items in the British Museum have usually faced a wall of silence.

The British Museum needs to show photos of the stolen items so that the public can help. I suspect the museum is simply continuing its general policy of keeping the public ignorant or half-ignorant about museum matters in order to control narratives.

With the recent thefts of items in the British Museum, the venerable museum has lost its last, if not the most vigorous defence for keeping stolen colonial artefacts: that the museum in Bloomsbury is the safest and best place to keep valuable world treasures. After the announcement of the thefts, Greece immediately renewed its call to return the Parthenon Marbles to the Acropolis, Athens. Nigeria repeated its demand for the restitution of the Benin artefacts. Ghana renewed the call to return all artefacts looted under the colonial regime. The Welsh have demanded the restitution of their national artefacts held in the British Museum. (6) The Scots and the Cornish also want their treasures back from the British Museum. (7) The Chinese demanded the return of their looted artefacts from the British Museum. The Chinese newspaper The Global Times published an editorial this week demanding that all items illegally acquired from China be returned. (8)

The heat is on, and there is no valid argument for the British Museum. The States that have requested restitution of their cultural artefacts must set up a system of constant discussion and consultation to ensure that the British Museum starts to prepare for restitution. This will not happen unless there is enough pressure as has been shown by more than a hundred years of discussion without any concrete result. This has to change. States might even appoint restitution ambassadors or attachés to study and propose necessary measures, including trade and cultural boycotts, to speed up restitution. One such measure could be to bring the issues of restitution directly to the British public to let them know the true histories of the objects in the British Museum. They should be told these are mostly results of brutal robbery by the British army and that we want our treasures back. These are not gifts to the museum that has refused to return any treasure.

The British Museum must now come out with complete lists of the looted artefacts from each former British colony and elsewhere and start preparations for restitution. The debate on restitution, i.e., whether looted items should be restituted, must end now. African States must not allow Western museums to keep them waiting by any baseless argument.

The last decades have shown that Western States and museums have no valid arguments for still holding stolen artefacts. The thefts in the British Museum and the attempts to hide them should end all doubts about the need for peoples and nations to look after their cultural objects unless they want to continue the colonialist and no-colonialist status.

‘One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets, when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.’

.Victor Hugo.(9)
1. Announcement regarding missing, stolen and damaged items ( Press Release 16 August.

REUTERS, British Museum seeks recovery of some 2,000 stolen items

The Guardian, Artefacts stolen from British Museum ‘may be untraceable’ due to poor records

Aljazerra, British Museum director resigns, admits to failings in theft investigation

BBC, What we know about the British Museum thefts so far

The Indian Express, Director of British Museum steps down amid controversy over thefts of ancient items

2.K.Opoku, Even The Big Elephant In Bloomsbury Must Defend Itself: British Museum Reacts To Recent Wave Of Restitutions

3. htps://

4. ‘The original 1753 collection has grown to over 13 million objects at the British Museum,’.,-Wide%20view%20of&text=The%20original%201753%20collection%20has,Sydney%20Smirke%2C%20opened%20in%201857

5. David M. Wilson, The Collections of the British Museum, p.12, The British Museum Press, 2003.

6. The Art Newspaper,
British Museum thefts: Welsh politicians join the queue in calling for objects to be repatriated


8. Chinese state media demands British Museum return 23,000 cultural relics relics-to-china/8666a7a5-7768-4021-a3f8-bb752f93752b

9. The sack of the summer palace
(UNESCO Courier, November 1985) by Victor Hugo

The sack of the Summer Palace
To Captain Butler
Hauteville House,

25 November 1861

Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Ife head, Ife, Yoruba, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Queen-mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, looted in 1897 by the notorious British Punitive Expedition to Benin, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Pair of leopard figures, now in Her Majesty Collection, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Admiral Rawson Collection., London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force to Benin in 1897 sent the pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City, now in British Museum ,London, United Kingdom.

Oba Esigie and attendants triumphant return from the Idah war, Benin, Nigeria, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Chinese porcelain vases in the British Museum, Percival David Collection.

Twenty dragon tiles, ceramic, Shanxi province, Ming dynasty, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Cloisonné jar, Ming dynasty, China, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.


Altar-vase, Qinq dynasty, China, now in British Museum, London ,United Kingdom.

Gold disc pedant, Asante Kumase, Ghana ,now in British Museum London, United Kingdom.

Crescent shaped pendant-akrakonmu, Asante, Kumase, Ghana, now in British Museum, London ,United Kingdom.

Soul disc, Asante, Kumase, Ghana ,now in the British Museum ,London, United Kingdom.

Orthodox Christian processional crosses ,stolen at Maqdala, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Prince Alemayehu, Ethiopia, as photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron at the Isle of Wright 1868. When will Britain return to Ethiopia the remains of Prince Alemayehu ,son of Emperor Tewodros II, who was stolen along with Ethiopian crosses and tabots ,brought to Britain at the age of 7 where he died at the age of 18 and was buried in the grounds of Windsor Castle? Ethiopia has been seeking in vain from Britain for decades to return the human remains of the Prince for a fitting burial in Ethiopia. Does Britain have a valid excuse? The sad story of the young Ethiopian prince can be read in Andrews Heavens, The Prince and the Plunder: How Britain took one small boy and hundreds of treasures from Ethiopia. The History Press,2023.