A misappropriation of culture

Alan Cai

January 12, 2024

It’s interesting that most of the works displayed in the British Museum in London are not actually British. There are Assyrian statues, Greek sculptures, Chinese pottery, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and other masterpieces from a plethora of different cultures and civilizations. The world-famous Rosetta stone, which was instrumental in decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphics for historians, is stored in one of the museum’s central exhibits. Perhaps this discrepancy can be justified by their willingness to increase cultural representation. However, this apparently altruistic motive is contradicted by the nature of attaining many of the displays such as the Elgin Marbles(one of the cornerstone pieces of the museum’s Greek collection), which arrived in the United Kingdom from Greece. The Greek government has recently demanded their return.

The British Empire has historically perpetuated a legacy of colonialism throughout nearly every corner of the globe. Its history of conquest and domination has splattered the pages of history and its habit of bringing back exotic luxuries is well-documented. No other country can boast as comprehensive of a collection as the British Museum not because they despise diversity, but because they simply lacked the colonial past to accumulate these treasures. Although the Elgin Marbles were not taken from a British colony(they were taken from the then-Ottoman Empire), British colonial power played a crucial role in securing the transaction.

Britain is not alone in its mission to build so-called universal museums. Countries such as France also use museums such as the Louvre as a projection of power and as a status symbol. The Louvre contains numerous Egyptian and Mesopotamian treasures, many of which were taken without permission amid military conquest or other circumstances.

As nations who rightfully possess the ownership of such historical pieces begin to request the return of those works, it is time for the influential nations of the West to not only return what was never theirs to display but to also reevaluate the globe-stretching contents of their museums. Colonialism is a practice of the past. Yet the dominance of Western-oriented countries continues to transcend cultural boundaries and barriers. Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are among the only countries in the world to put the rest of the world on display for their people to see. To signal that these countries are willing to embrace their troubled pasts and remedy these mistakes, the universal museums must be collapsed into compilations of solely the home country’s works.