Benin Bronzes and Elgin Marbles among objects under scrutiny at British Museum, as new curator is appointed to research its collection

The more than 200-year-old museum has hired a curator to conduct research into how the collection was built

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Sections of the Parthenon Marbles also known as the Elgin Marbles are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

The British Museum has hired a curator to research the history of its collection, which includes contested objects tied to the colonial era and slave trade.

Historian Isobel MacDonald will lead the History of Collection research, delving into the museum's vast collection – about eight million objects – and how it was built over its 262-year history.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, a British Museum representative explained that the creation of the role is not to "examine the specific histories of contested objects", although MacDonald's work will likely cover the controversial objects and that "issues such as the role of the slave trade and empire… will be relevant to some of the research undertaken".

They also explained that MacDonald will develop a general overview of how the artefacts and artworks have come to the museum and how they fit into a larger historical context.

The debate around the ownership of the institution’s prized possessions has been circulating for decades, with many countries calling for the repatriation of artefacts acquired during British colonial expansion. Artefacts such as the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, and the Benin Bronzes have been claimed by Greece and Nigeria, respectively.

The marble sculptures were said to have been removed by agents of a British nobleman in the beginning of the 19th century, though the earl claimed that he obtained the objects via official decree.

The Benin Bronzes were taken by British forces during an expedition in what was once the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. The British Museum has agreed to loan the plaques back to a new museum in Benin City in Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were taken from Africa by British troops in 1897. The return of a basalt Easter Island Head figure has also been requested this week by The Governor of the Easter Islands, Tarita Alarcón Rapu amid a broader call for artefacts taken during colonial rule to be restituted. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at the British Museum in London in 2018. Getty Images

A great number of items from the museum's collection have been purchased from collectors or received as gifts, including about 71,000 artefacts donated by Hans Sloane, who had links to the slave trade. In August 2020, Sloane's bust was removed from its display in the British Museum after Black Lives Matter protests that took down the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, last June.

British Museum director Hartwig Fischer told The Daily Telegraph last year: "We have pushed [Sloane] off the pedestal. We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge."

FILE PHOTO: The Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are displayed at the British Museum in London October 16, 2014. Hollywood actor George Clooney's new wife, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, made an impassioned plea on for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, in what Greeks hope may inject new energy into their national campaign.  REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo
The Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles. Reuters

The museum's reputation has been affected by the controversies around various contested objects and their historical links to violence and subjugation. A recently published book by academic Dan Hicks titled The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution focuses on the Benin Bronzes and urges for their return as part of a movement towards restitution.

The British Museum had said that it plans to publish part of the findings from its History of Collection research in the future.