• Noor Sehgal

The British Museum

Museums across the globe have a long history linked with the concept of colonialism but none of them have had the lasting Legacy as the British Museum. Although the British Empire is long gone the British Museum even today continues to be its imperial war chest, full of cultural and historical artefacts , plundered from its former colonies, showcased and glorified as war trophies .The exquisite collections of this museum are deemed to be one of the finest and most reputed in the world but quite contrary to its name the museum has very few British artefacts, large section of these were acquired by the British Empire through colonial conquest, exploitation and looting of its former colonies.

British Empire and it's Loots

Britain's empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality and war.

At its peak the empire controlled about a quarter of the world's population and used this in their best interests. They extensively exploited the colonies’ manpower, imposing slavery, plundering them of their natural resources for their own benefit, collecting high taxes to met Britain's financial requirements, forcing production of raw materials in order to supply for the British industries and exports thereby ruining the self-sustained economies of the colonies and also suppressing any opposition along the way. But apart from all this, they also looted these colonies of their rich culture and heritage and took it back with them to Britain as war trophies.

The Benin bronzes, Amaravati Marbles, the Hokusai paintings, the loots from the old summer palace in Beijing, the Rosetta Stone, the Magdala Treasures , the Elgin Marbles, the Admonitions Scrolls are just a few of the countless looted artefacts proudly displayed by the museum in its galleries

Magdala Treasures

Significance of these Loots

These artefacts in the museum have been moved from their original context and even though they might be just objects for the museum and the world to see, the colonies to which they belong have been deprived of their important historical heritage for decades.

“Universal museums” are still holding onto antiquities and cultural items, regardless of the dubious circumstances by which they may have acquired, the violence that went behind them and countless demands to return them, is just proof that the cultural imperialism, the sense of pride in the conquests of British empire and ignorance to their violent past is still alive.

The damage is renewed every day that the museum doors are unlocked and these trophies are displayed to the public for its legitimises the violence and atrocities that went behind acquiring the artefact.

Benin Bronzes

In 1897 British launched a punitive expedition in order to capture the city of Benin(modern day Nigeria). The British forces not only plundered the city of thousands of its precious artefacts but also burned the royal palace to the ground and massacred an unknown number of inhabitants as a sign of breaking the power of monarchy . These artefacts better known as the Benin bronzes are brass bronze or Ivory sculptures and carvings, one of the finest African creations. At present the British museum is home to 950 such bronzes are now one of the museum's most prized possessions.

Elgin Marbles

A similar situation is that of the Elgin marbles. These sculptures also known as the Parthenon marbles once adorned the Parthenon and the other buildings in Athens acropolis. These were taken by the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century. It is claimed that he had obtained permission from the then Ottoman Empire to acquire these antiquities but the Greeks today continue to dismiss these claims.


Over the years the demand for repatriation of these artefacts has risen but the museum, also restricted to do so by the British museum act 1963, is adamant over its stand to not return the artefacts and they seem to have numerous reasons for it. They claim that they are the capable ones to look after this Looti, other times stating sending them back would be tedious considering how fragile and delicate these artefacts are and sometimes also saying that it would narrow the diverse and multifaceted collection which would be a disservice to the people.

It is important to note that if the British museum began to return the artefacts it has stolen, The museum would be nearly emptied.

Question remains as to whether the museum will be able to acknowledge the violence that went behind the collection of the artefacts it flaunts in its galleries and repatriate them or continue to remain an imperialist institution in the post colonial era.