The demand by TV historian David Olusoga for British museums to repatriate “looted” treasures is a familiar anti-colonial trope that has little historical basis and would be impossible to implement in practice.
Take Olusoga’s prime example: the Benin bronzes, originally made in West Africa. The bronzes were acquired as war booty by a British military expedition in 1897 and are now spread across dozens of different museums and private collections around the world, including two of the largest collections in Nigerian museums.
Such plunder may sound simple, but war booty was considered normal practice in warfare far beyond Britain until the 20th century. It accounts for a large proportion of art treasures in museums everywhere, including those in pre-colonial empires such as China and India, who plundered conquered peoples every bit as rapaciously as any Western colonialists. Even if, today, we think of this as theft, its reversal would be difficult, not least because so many of the populations that produced artefacts have died, moved on, or diffused across multiple new nations. It is very different from returning objects to individuals with proof of ownership, as after the Second World War.
Great art has also travelled the world in peaceful trade since ancient times, and separating that from wartime plunder is tricky indeed. Who owns a Greek sculpture that turns up in a Beijing excavation or a rare Chinese vase found in North Africa? Most problematic would be the fate of Asian or African art treasures excavated and conserved by Western explorers, the much-maligned Orientalists, Arabists and Africanists whom Edward Said so unjustly caricatured. It was their dedication, often at huge personal sacrifice, that unlocked the wonders of many lost classical civilisations.
For instance: before the British came to India, there was no indigenous tradition of exploring or conserving antiquity. The wonderful Buddhist stupas of the Mauryan empire (circa 2nd century BC) were destroyed, abandoned and forgotten during the Hindu revival, and then many Hindu temples met a similar fate during Muslim invasions from the 12th century. British visitors in the 18th century were surprised to find even recent Mughal monuments such as the Taj Mahal neglected and languishing. The Indian approach, still true today, is to embrace the new and discard the old. The rediscovery of a classical past and the romantic appeal of its ruined remnants was a European sensibility.
And so it was British explorers who discovered and rescued some of India’s most iconic antiquities. The so-called Elliot Marbles in the British Museum come from a 2,000-year-old stupa in south India, intricately carved with scenes from the life of the Buddha. Sir Walter Elliot, a Scottish revenue official, rescued the site in the 1840s from being pillaged by locals and carted off some of the finest sculptures to the Madras Museum, whence some later found their way to Britain.
Today they are housed in a special, climate-controlled gallery as part of a Japanese-financed centre for the study of global Buddhism. Back in India, the stupa itself is sadly neglected, while the Madras Museum’s collection of its sculptures is one of its least-visited rooms. That hasn’t stopped the Indian authorities from demanding their return, which has been politely declined. It’s hard to imagine they would really be better appreciated or conserved in the land of their birth.
The fact is that we have no idea what would have become of the world’s “looted” antiquities if they hadn’t been preserved in Western collections. Would the treasures of Beijing’s Summer palace have survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution? Would the Elgin marbles have survived Turkish tour guides chopping off chunks to sell as souvenirs? Would Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] have spared those Middle Eastern artefacts that survive in European museums? And if all foreign treasures are to be returned, should our great global museums be reduced to narrow, native collections?
What such repatriation demands ignore is the role of great collections like the British Museum and the Louvre in making our global art heritage accessible to us all in a world of growing mobility. Indeed, would David Olusoga, the British-raised child of an Anglo-Nigerian marriage, have grown up enjoying Benin bronzes in London if they were confined to a local museum in Benin City, Nigeria?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Dr Zareer Masani is a historian, author and broadcaster.