The "Unbritish" Museum

“A Night at the Museum” would, if set in the British Museum, lead to an excellent horror movie. The now sentient artefacts wake up and find themselves kidnapped and trafficked to a strange land. As they try to get out, the British Museum Act of 1963 malevolently stops them.  The villain’s motivations are complex: They fear the artefacts won’t be taken care of back home.


Recent thefts from the institution’s collection correct the narrative of a “place to care for the world’s treasures”. As Britain’s  power dwindles, its cultural institutions continue their condescending attitude to maintain a chokehold on the world’s most prized artefacts: They must remain until their countries of origin prove themselves to be responsible enough to take care of them. The catch? There is no policy in place to assess foreign institutions as “fit enough”. 


The 1963 policy forbids, or at least heavily restricts, attending requests to transfer more than 2 million objects back to their foreign origins. Of those 2 million items, only 80,000, or 1% of the collection, are exhibited in its galleries. David Cameron put it bluntly in his 2010 appearance on the Indian TV channel NDTV, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty”.


These restrictions are not London exclusives. The Museums and Galleries Act 1992 extends these rules to the entire country. The National Museums Liverpool’s collection of over 10,000 Western African Items and the Leeds Museums and Galleries' ownership of over 3,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa will likely remain for the foreseeable future. While this may seem like an innocuous appreciation of African history, a 2019 report by economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Bénédicte Savoy reveals that about 90 to 95% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage lies outside the continent.


The current 1963 act (and its 1999 amendment) should be updated. Instead of discouraging the return of items, foreign museums who comply with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) by employing high-quality Collection Management Systems should be allowed to retrieve their “kidnapped” artefacts if they are also subject to the same accreditation standards as their UK counterparts.


This framework enables high-quality foreign institutions to officially retrieve items, satisfying the British concern for care. The solution is still widely condescending, but it’s a step in the right direction.


The Economic impacts of these changes are hard to quantify. Researcher Sara Selwood pointed out that operations of most UK museums rely on public funding. Economists regard them as “market failures”; that is, they’re unable to generate enough income to support their activities. Instead, their existence is justified as one of cultural importance, and measuring their economic impact is often used as an advocacy tool rather than empirical, impartial studies. 


Besides, this policy change would slow the fade-out process, thanks to the bureaucracy’s famed inefficiency. A slow and steady phase-out of certain items at the museum would give it plenty of time to adapt its collection and exhibitions to visitor’s tastes.


Out of the 11.6 million yearly visitors, very few fly into the country with the sole purpose of visiting the museum. Spending would not leave the country, and increased competitiveness in the sector could lead to the closure of unattractive museums. Of course, public funding may still be used to correct market failures if the research and cultural value seem to justify this investment. 


There is also the issue of UK researchers lacking easy access to a vast, rich collection of prized items. Under this new distribution, researchers would mimic Indiana Jones. If they wish to study ancient artefacts, they should travel to their land (while remembering their hats). This forces interaction and collaboration with historians and anthropologists from these populations’ descendants, enriching cross-pollination in the discipline while creating a better system than forcing researchers to come to the UK to understand their own past.


Holding popular items is beneficial for museums. Millions flock to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa; thousands enter the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone, and way too many watch the Met during the Met Gala. Some items in their collections, however, are unsurprisingly more valuable in their native land: Churchill’s suit will attract more visitors to a London museum than in a Cambodian one. For the foreign institutions receiving their items back, having their own Mona Lisa or Rosetta stone would make them more attractive in their communities. The population would have direct access to their history, their collections would gain more visibility, and the world would allocate its resources more efficiently. 


Whilst this change would represent a victory for former colonies, the biggest win would be to the crown. Narratives matter. The stories we project to the world and tell ourselves shape and define what it means to be British. The struggles with colonialist legacies and unfair advantages will haunt the nation until the end of time. Economist Daron Acemoglu convincingly shows in his 2012 book “Why Nations Fail” that a significant proportion of the economic inefficiency of some poor countries lies in their inheritance of defunct institutions designed during colonialist rule. This form of historical injustice is incredibly difficult to rectify and will most likely never truly be resolved.


Reforming the British Museum Act of 1963 and creating a framework to repatriate pieces of world history (preferably with an apology letter attached) should be relatively easy in comparison. These items are in the country due to historical injustices and war crimes committed by us. It’s time for British politeness to reign above the tyranny of the past. Let’s enjoy “A Night at the Museum” as a comedy, not a tragedy. 


All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.