The big-scale theft of cultural objects from the British Museum by one in all its staff, and the failure of its management to take care of it appropriately, have induced widespread reputational harm to the establishment over the previous few weeks. Though the British Museum might need regarded itself as too massive to fail, its false sense of exceptionalism has now jeopardized its future as an establishment that claims to epitomize the safety of the world’s cultural heritage.
A lot irony might be discovered on this simple institutional failure. The irony of the British Museum falling sufferer to insider theft when it has lengthy confronted criticism for holding, and refusing to return, looted cultural objects. The irony of George Osborne, present chair of the British Museum, blaming the thefts on documentation points, when they’re a direct results of his six years of extensive budget cuts as a chancellor of the Exchequer within the identify of “austerity,” which left the British tradition sector scrambling for funding.
This embarrassing safety breach, and the entire failure of the museum’s management to deal with it, solely reveals that its assortment has turn into unmanageable and its premises outdated. Different museums in the UK have made progress in decolonizing their accumulating, curation, and repatriation practices. The British Museum is lengthy overdue for such an perspective shift. Clearly, it can’t preserve its universalist strategy to accumulating and curating; its vanity in believing it may preserve its elitist, colonial, old school methods has now price the general public about 2,000 objects. The British Museum wants reconceptualizing.
Nigeria with the Benin Bronzes, and Greece with the Parthenon Marbles, are renewing their requires the repatriation of their cultural objects, stating that they don’t seem to be secure within the British Museum. They’re now joined by international locations like China and even Wales.
In an unprecedented assertion, journalists from the Chinese language state-sponsored each day newspaper the Global Times lately printed an official request for the British Museum to “return all Chinese language cultural relics acquired via improper channels to China freed from cost, and to chorus from adopting a resistant, protracted and perfunctory perspective.” They pose it as a “take a look at and verification of Britain’s sincerity in clearing the colonial stain and making amends for its historic sins.”
Whether or not you just like the Chinese language state media or not, this looks like the one manner ahead for the British Museum to successfully survive as an establishment.
A change of the guard, a complete database of its whole assortment as suggested by archaeologist Dan Hicks, hiring its personal artwork detective because the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones proposes, and even selling off a part of its assortment as urged by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins is not going to be enough to verify the British Museum is match for the twenty first century. So as to correctly look after its assortment and regain public belief, the British Museum must cut back the objects it holds by lastly returning all cultural objects which have lengthy been demanded again by their communities of origin.
For many years, the British Museum has hidden behind its deaccession coverage, the British Museum Act of 1963, which has conveniently been used to refuse repatriation primarily based on the colonial argument that the UK is the most secure and greatest place for cultural objects.
The notion that communities of origin can’t care for their very own heritage is introduced within the UK as a truth, relatively than a direct outcome of the lengthy historical past of exploitation and colonial violence imposed by the UK and different European nations. After the current insider theft, repeating this justification could be comically flawed and intensely insulting.
Nevertheless, this is a chance for the British Museum to reinvent itself. It isn’t too late for the British Museum to turn into a logo of transparency, accuracy, and restorative justice. This doesn’t imply the British Museum could be empty — not all the eight million objects in its assortment had been looted or obtained by immoral or unlawful means. Key right here is that communities of origin are foregrounded within the decision-making and knowledge-creation processes round objects, in order that entry, company, and possession are restored the place desired.
In the end, the British public, the museum’s true beneficiaries, ought to demand a museum that represents UK society as it’s immediately. Cease upholding, celebrating, and defending establishments constructed on racist ideologies, colonial looting, and immoral and illicit practices. As an alternative, allow us to actively work towards confronting and dismantling ongoing colonial narratives, advance towards restorative justice, and reckon with imperial crimes. Proactively making certain that communities of origin have possession of, entry to, and company with regard to their cultural heritage is a vital first step towards these objectives, and the one manner the British Museum ought to be capable to survive.