Elgin Marbles British Museum

The British museum has a history going back some two hundred and fifty years, and the museum now houses some thirteen million objects. It started though in pre-Empire days from donated personal collections. The British Museum has paid also for excavations around the world, and has greatly benefited from the items gathered. From a start of books relating to natural history, the British Museum now houses collections spanning every continent and every notable civilisation.

The British Museum though is no different from any other museum and a number of its most famous exhibits are subject to claims by other nations, claims of looting and illegal movement of nationally important items. Many observers do point to the fact that as the British Empire grew around the world in the nineteenth century it was easy for officials and private individuals to just take what they wanted with no thought of legality. The basic fact is though that all artefacts within the British Museum are legally owned by the Museum following the British Museum Act of 1963.

Some claims do make national and international headlines, and although not legally obliged to, the British Museum has been known to return artefacts. The most famous of the artefacts returned were the heads of Tasmanian Aboriginals, although it did take twenty years of negotiations.

Even more famous though is the dispute surrounding the Elgin Marbles. The Marbles are freezes from the Parthenon rescued in the eyes of the British Museum by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. Given permission to remove them by the ruling Ottoman government, other parts of the Parthenon had been destroyed by locals after lime. Two hundred years later Greece still calls for their return and even has a museum with an empty display waiting for the Marbles to be returned.

Egypt has also put in a strong case for the return of the Rosetta Stone. The stone originally looted by the French was taken by the British army when the French army was abandoned in Egypt, and has been in the British Museum since 1802.

Other notable examples of claims include Nigeria and the Benin Bronzes.

The Empire cannot be blamed for the most controversial of the artefacts housed within the Museum, the Rosetta Stone and the Eglin Marbles became part of the British Museum’s collection long before the reign of Queen Victoria and the rise of the Empire.

As to whether it is right for museum’s to hold onto the artefacts of other nations is debatable. Museum’s all around the world would say that they are the institutes best placed to store, study and maintain the artefacts for future generations.