John Oliver and his Last Week Tonight crew decided to do a longer-than-normal show all about museums. Which on the face of it sounds like a terrible idea, but it actually worked, because Oliver’s focus was on the theft by Western colonizers of other countries’ antiquities, and today’s Western museums that are none too keen to give it all back.
Here’s a pretty upsetting fact: In 2018 a French report concluded that more than 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is currently in museums — specifically, museums that are not located on the continent of Africa. Countries there and around the world are today demanding the return of antiquities plundered by colonizers over the centuries, from gigantic Indian diamonds shellacked to British crowns to Chadian wood funeral poles displayed in Paris.
Oliver, who relishes being a self-loathing Englishman, aimed his sights at the British Museum, which still houses massive numbers of antiquities plundered from the many places colonized by the British Empire.
“Honestly, if you’re ever looking for a missing artifact, nine times out of 10 it’s in the British Museum,” Oliver said. “It’s basically the world’s largest lost and found, with both ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in the heaviest possible quotation marks.”
The museum was founded in 1759 with the collection of an Englishman whose money came in part from Jamaican sugar plantations worked by the enslaved; Oliver made sure to point out this means the very foundation of the museum is inextricably linked to not just colonialism but slavery. He then took apart arguments often offered by Westerners for why artifacts stolen decades or centuries ago shouldn’t be returned to their home countries today.
“It was a different time back then — everybody looted and it was totally OK!” is one argument often used, but Oliver pointed out that British Prime Minister William Gladstone responded to the British Army stealing Ethiopian treasures by saying he “deeply lamented for the sake of the country and for the sake of all concerned… that these articles… were thought fit to be brought away by the British Army.”
Gladstone said that in 1868.
“We didn’t even know how to fix a UTI without leeches back then,” Oliver said. “But we knew that raiding other countries for their shit was ‘deeply lamentable,’ which is British for ‘super fucked-up.’”
Another argument is that countries are unable or unwilling to take proper care of their own artifacts, so the West has to do it for them. Oliver pointed out that Western museums — including the British Museum — have rich histories of damaging artifacts themselves.
A third argument, that the museums serve as a showplace for all the world to be able to see the artifacts, is patently stupid, since the museums are often thousands of miles away from the people whose heritage is actually on display. Additionally, museums show just a fraction of their artifacts; the British Museum’s collection numbers around eight million objects, but only one percent of them are on public display.
Artifacts are still routinely bought, sold, donated, and stolen with the help of dealers, auction houses, private collectors, and, yes, museums, which sometimes serve as reputation launderers for thieves. Say an antiquities thief donates pieces to a world-renowned museum. The museum happily accepts the donation, and the thief can now say they couldn’t possibly be a thief because a major museum would never accept stolen artifacts.
That is far from true. For instance, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has accepted pieces from known antiquity thieves, has had nine search warrants executed against it in the past five years alone. They led to 37 pieces bring seized by authorities.
“There is so much that we need to do to reckon with the harms both past and present of colonialism,” Oliver said, “but this should really be the easy part.”