New trend? London museums more willing to return treasures to countries of origin

Winds of change in London museums? Image: claudiodivizia/Canva

Two renowned museums in London are open to returning questionable acquired objects to their home countries. The Horniman museum will return several artefacts from its collection to Nigeria, while the British Museum has indicated that they are open to the cultural exchange of artefacts with Greece. After decades of stalemates and unwillingness to even consider repatriation, it appears museums in London are showing a policy shift.

Horniman Museum

The Horniman Museum, which won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award last July, is set to return 72 artefacts, including its prestigious collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The museum is the first government-funded institution to hand back treasures looted in 1897 by the British forces.

This decision was realised after the board of trustees of the museum unanimously voted to transfer the ownership of the historic artefacts to the Nigerian government. The decision of the board was in consultation with London’s Nigerian community.

The chair of the Horniman museum, Eve Salomon stated, “The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.”

The Nigerian government made a request to the museum for the return of the objects in January. There are plans of displaying the repatriated bronze objects in the Edo Museum of West African Art. The museum is set to open in 2025.

The collection includes a key to the king’s palace, a brass cockerel altarpiece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells, and everyday items such as fans and baskets. The highlight of the exhibition will be the 12 ancient brass plaques called Benin bronzes.

British Museum

For decades, the British Museum has refuted the claims of the Greek government over the Parthenon marbles, popularly called Elgin Marbles. However, the museum is warming up to a new arrangement of ‘cultural exchange’ with Greece, as recounted by the museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams.

In the interview with Sunday times, Williams said “What we are calling for is an active ‘Parthenon partnership’ with our friends and colleagues in Greece. I firmly believe there is space for a really dynamic and positive conversation within which new ways of working together can be found.” The British museum mentions in their statement, that they are willing to loan the sculptures, as they do with various other objects, so they can be displayed to the public around the world as long as they are looked after and returned.

The ancient Parthenon Marbles still remain in the British Museum for now, but Greece wants them to return to Athens. Image: Justin Norris (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

The museum has always enforced the 1963 act of parliament in regard to the Parthenon marbles. This act prevents deaccessioning of ancient objects that have been housed in the institutions in London since the 19th century.

A spokesperson for the Parthenon Partnership project suggests, that they trying to find a suitable arrangement with will be culturally beneficial to Britain and Greece. The agreement will allow many key Greek artefacts to return to their rightful home in Athens for the first time from Britain.

Other museums willing to return treasures

Many museums in Britain and the rest of Europe are changing their stance on withholding controversially acquired treasures. The German Ethnological Museum aims to display only replicas of sculptures and objects and return the treasures to the countries of origin. The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stated, that if owners made a claim, the museum would return the objects.

With this shift in thinking, one can hope that these illegally acquired treasures will be returned in the future to their rightful homes.

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