OPN British Museum.
Tourists in the Great Court at the British Museum Image Credit: Shutterstock

The numerical figures are stark but the story is even starker.

It’s a crime story aka novel that spans across continents, centuries and it’s just getting untangled. Complicated, unjust, unfair this is the tale of empire and their loots from colonies that resurface every now and then to haunt the colonised and the coloniser both, albeit differently!

The haunting ghost of wrongful acquisition returned with the case of 192 artefacts belonging to Pakistan. The same was repatriated by Manhattan District Attorney’s office after a year plus investigation.

A major success in repatriation of antiquities in recent times, the incident can be deliberated as a result of a much intensified and continuous movement pressurising European and American Museums to send back objects and art acquired by colonising countries.

Pakistan’s receipt of Gandhara period art needs to be placed in the larger context of colonialism and how art had been acquired by force, and unfair means in past 500 years with rise of colonial powers, making of Europeans middle class and the market that would relentlessly supply artefacts and antiquities from the subjugated lands.

OPN Amaravati Marbles
Amaravati Marbles is a series of 120 sculptures and inscriptions in the British Museum from the Amaravati Stupa in Amaravathi, Guntur in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

I would turn this narrative to sometime in 2018 a year that saw the turning point in the history repartition of art. In November of the same year a path breaking report titled ‘The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage'. Toward a New Relational Ethics was published in French.

Written by Senegalese academic writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, it was a 108-page document that had unflinching recommendations never made before in a report of similar kind leave apart one that has been commissioned by any government.

The report not only defined illicit object as “any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions” but also recommended French President Emmanuel Macron a permanent restitution of African antiquities that were in French domain.

This was a first at more than one level. Unlike any documentation earlier it assessed the history and the current state of the collections that were acquired in an illicit way, and laid out recommendations for cultural cooperation.

Consequently, the report had ripple effect, making displaying the art objects claiming to be their own sit up.

OPN Kohinoor diamond
Kohinoor is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, weighing 105.6 carats (21.12 g)

And yet requests from countries to whom the objects belonged often met with tepid warmth or steely silence. In events of open dialogue, the narrative strangely got submerged in the discourse of ‘proving’ the ownership. Things turned out to be slow.

The pondering question is — why wasn’t rapid action being taken? The answer is a complex story with many factors of which one of course is apparent, tangible — the ambivalent mind of people who were being benefited from such acquisitions that enabled some large number of museums for whom revenue that a Benin Bronze, an Amaravati Marble, the Rosetta Stones, or some such objects would bring in was difficult to part with.

Surprise but no surprise

Surprise but no surprise ambivalence of minds therefore had been one of the reasons for both illegal acquisitions and their late repatriation. In case of South Asia, many times it would be the locals who would be tacit to this unethical exercise of letting the art objects go.

If Africa seems far away land to identify such ambiguous, history of corruption then history closer home is dotted with vile characters like Mir Jafar, Jagat Seth, Rai Durlabh or Omichand who were implicit to Robert Clive’s of East India Company’s pillage.

OPN Iraq’s Ashurbanipal reliefs
Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal is a famous group of Assyrian palace reliefs from the North Palace of Nineveh, Iraq that are now displayed in British Museum

It is no surprise that the history of loot is also a history of accomplice alongside being war booties. In the later category everything pales to Nader Shah’s loot of late Mughal Delhi stripping away treasures worth billions.

Memories of this loot plugged recent public recall when the demands to return world’s one of the largest cut diamond — Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) came to the fore once again, post the demise of England’s Queen Elizabeth II.

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For the starters Kohinoor’s has a long and checkered history first documented in 1740s. It had been a priced possession of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and now sits atop the crown of England.

Needless to say that the theft by Nader Shah changed hands courtesy other Indian rulers, their willy-nilly accomplice, eventually making the gemstone land in the court of England during Queen Victoria’s reign in 1849.

If this can happen with world’s one of the most fascinating gemstone, one wonders of the history of other objects making their way to British Museum’s collection or for that matter to private collections.

A whole range of objects from Siraj-ud-daula’s palanquin to everyday objects like beetal nutcase, combs, crockeries, paintings what not has reached anonymous collections of European and American collectors.

Their stories can amount to a novella in itself. And it is nearly impossible that South Asians themselves have not been a part of such transfers.

Long list of hoards

In a news published in summer of this year it was reported that Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa still has 180,000 objects, Ethnological Museum of Germany has 75,000, Britain holds 73,000 while the Dutch National Museum of World Culture has approximately 66,000 objects that landed in these museums mostly by plunder and or acquired unconsented.

But no number of forcibly owned art and object can be compared with what British Museums has been holding (nearly 8 million) what the Empire gathered from its colonies in last four hundred years, from Nigeria to India from Jamaica to Indonesia.

The British Museum of course along with other museums of Britain have not been paying any importance to repartition neither as a concept nor as recommendation citing the museum act of 1963 though the law of the land permits returning of objects deemed “unfit” to be retained in the country’s museum.

Of the long list of hoards at British Museum are India’s Amaravati Marbles, Iraq’s Ashurbanipal reliefs, Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, Ghana’s Akan Drum, Egypt’s Rosetta Stone, Greece’s Parthenon Marbles, Rapa Nui’s Hoa Hakananai’a, Jamaica’s Birdman and Boinayel figures.

In that light of the return of 192 objects from the US to Pakistan, is a key act of reparation, reaffirming that heritage must belong to the originating country.

And this holiday season if you plan to visit a museum the least you could be is not merely be awed by an exquisite palanquin or a textile piece or a Maori head, also know and feel the hurt of the colonised, hoping that they soon return to where they belong!

Nilosree is an author, filmmaker and columnist