Institutions Featured

Not Looted: the world’s treasures in western encyclopedic museums

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Elizabeth Weiss
Written by Elizabeth Weiss

A common narrative found in today’s new stories about museums is a call for repatriation of materials – antiquities, artifacts, human remains, and a variety of cultural objects — that are perceived to have been stolen and are currently housed ‘unethically’ in the West’s great encyclopedic museums. Encyclopedic museums, unlike national museums, collect, house, and preserve materials from around the world; the purpose is to tell the human story rather than focus on national pride.

The calls for repatriation of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria are just a few recent examples. Human remains repatriations are also increasing, such as Penn Museum’s collection of skulls from Samuel Morton. Although journalists covering these stories may be convinced by the cries for returning remains and objects to their homelands, there are good reasons to prevent the emptying of museums, such as the British Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.

Some reasons for retaining treasures have been previously discussed in History Reclaimed articles and by members of History Reclaimed; for instance, I wrote of impoverished nations’ inability to preserve materials – the harms that may befall artifacts and antiquities include theft and neglect. For instance, in 2011 the National Museum of the Ivory Coast lost over 80 items, including gold jewelry, masks, and statues, due to theft. And, in Ethiopia, the Orthodox Church allowed insect activity to go unchecked and destroy many delicate artifacts. Sometimes the retention of the artifact in a Western museum is for contextual purposes, as explained by David Abulafia in the Spectator in regards to the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone, which was discovered by Napoleon’s men in 1799 and was confiscated by the British after Napoleon was run out of Egypt, would not only be uninspiring in the Cairo Museum, surrounded by so many outstanding ancient Egyptian materials, but its fame is also linked to the interpretation of the text etched on the stone. Although not a very important stone in and of itself, the Rosetta Stone gains its importance through the work of Thomas Young, a British polymath who spent the rest of his life working on a dictionary of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Jean-François Champollion, a French researcher dedicated to languages and one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists. Both engaged in studying the texts until they could decipher the hieroglyphic writings; this feat allowed Egyptologists a new tool to understand far more ancient Egyptian material than ever before.

Some argue that the Benin Bronzes were stolen as war-bounty, but as Mike Wells points out, in the 1890s, Oba Ovonramwen, Benin’s king, was trading in humans and the colonial governors were trying to stop the slave trade. Thus, the bronzes were taken to defray costs to overthrow the slave-running Oba and this ‘loot’ saved a many Africans from a life of slavery. In the case of the Benin Bronzes, the Restitution Study Group, a United States based non-profit organization concerned with slavery justice, have argued against repatriation, because it would enrich the descendants of slave traders rather than the descendants of slaves—and indeed, would prevent these descendants from seeing these works.

There are still more reasons to keep museum collections in the safe halls of Western museums; James Cuno, in his 2008 book “Who Owns Antiquity”, notes that many collections have no connections beyond geography to the modern people living on the land; geography alone does not mean that the material should returned. After all, as in Ancient Egypt, the culture, language, writing, religion, and people are now different to those in the Pharaonic times. Should the bust of Nefertiti, which is currently housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin, be returned to Egypt, just because it was discovered in Egypt? German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt collaborated with Egyptian archaeologists to excavate the Tell-el-Amarna site in Egypt. The finds by this collaborative scientific excavation in 1912 were divided; the Egyptian authorities had provided official permission for the excavations and historic documents show that the bust was lawfully removed from Egypt. At the time of the discovery, Egyptians weren’t particularly interested in ancient materials and the bust was upside-down in dirt. Calls to repatriate the bust claim it was falsely taken because it was hidden by being covered in dirt, with some implication that this was intentional, but its glory might not have been revealed without the German archaeologist’s interest, initiative, and repair undertaken. The bust of Nefertiti belongs in a place where it can be appreciated as a treasure of mankind – no more related to the modern Egyptians than to any other people – and conserved; currently, the Neues Museum in Berlin fits that bill.

As with the Nefertiti bust, many museum collections should not be returned to their homeland because they were legally and ethically obtained. Unlike the picture drawn by repatriation activists that the great museums of the West are racist colonial institutes that hold the non-Western world’s looted cultural heritage, the true story is that the founding collectors of museums, such as the British Museum, the Smithsonian, the Louvre, and American Museum of Natural History, the Neues Museum, and others, obtained collections in ways that were legal and considered ethical at the time. Many of the museums’ earliest patrons and founding fathers wished to create places in which the public could be educated, where the wonder of humanity could be shared, and where we can learn to appreciate other lands and cultures. Such patrons and founders included Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who bequeathed his vast collections of treasures from around the world to start the British Museum, and Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons (1852-1945), who felt most at home with the Tlingit Indians and who aided the American Museum of Natural History with their Northwest Coast Amerindian collections. They and many others like them collected archaeological artifacts, which are materials from past cultures, and antiquities, which are materials now old, but which were not necessarily old when first obtained, in ways that we would recognize as legal purchases, often combined with written permission to remove the materials from the country in which they were located.

The famous carvings from the Tlinglit, Haida and Nootka off the Northwest Pacific Coast, housed in the American Museum of Natural History, have inspired many students to study archaeology and their display has instilled a love of this artisan style that has led to a continuing rich tourist and art gallery trade in Washington State, British Columbia, and Alaska. Much of the American Museum of Natural History collection was bought by Herber Bishop (who made his wealth from Cuban sugar, and later gas, iron and railroads), with the help of Israel Powell, who chose some of the most famous Haida totem poles on display at the American Museum of Natural History. The most famous piece of the Bishop-Powell acquisition was a twenty-one meter long Haida canoe. The canoe, which hangs from the museum’s ceiling, was paddled from its place of origin in Skeena River to Victoria by Haida men. The natives of the Northwest Pacific Coast were paid for their labor in transporting this canoe, but more generally the other materials, ranging from small pieces of carvings to large totem poles, were also paid for. Calls for repatriation of these legally purchased materials hopefully will be unfruitful.

Furthermore, much of the work done by the Northwest Pacific Coast natives could not have been completed without the interaction between them and Europeans, including Russians, and Americans. Although the tribal artwork had already been developed before contact, the most intricate and iconic pieces benefitted from tribal members trade with those foreigners. The foreigners were engaged in the fur trade and would buy pelts from the native peoples. In exchange for the furs, the Haida, for instance, obtained metal tools, such as brass and iron blades, which were then used for the carvings. The metal tools enabled artisans to increase their production and fine tune their techniques. The swap of materials should not be surprising – to this day when one travels to non-Western places, trade for Western goods still goes on. When I was in Kenya at Koobi Fora Field School in the 1996, I traded a few t-shirts for a small hand-carved doll and a few bracelets from the Turkana; such actions benefit both parties. Captain James Cook traveled to the Northwest Pacific Coast, the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti, where he was able to engage in bartering and purchasing materials, some of which, like the famous Hawaiian feather helmet, are now on display at the British Museum.

Examples of legal acquisition abound in cases of archaeological discovery as mentioned above in the case of both the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti. Sometimes it takes archaeologists to show an interest in materials for the local people to appreciate the treasures around them. In Egypt, in historic times, those living next to Pharaonic age masterpieces were not interested in these objects and structures. Yet, excavations led by Europeans enabled the recovery of materials that might have been lost forever. The Louvre, British Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Neues Museum all contain ancient Egyptian objects that were legally obtained and helped the world appreciate the nearly-lost story of Egyptian history before Islam. This aid from the West fueled Egyptian tourism, which brought in 12.5 billion US dollars in 2010 (prior to the Islamic Revolution of 2011) to the Egyptian economy, and aided in the development of Egyptology studies in Egypt and around the world.

Great sites, such as the Parthenon, were in near ruins after being misused over time before being discovered by archaeologists. For instance, the Parthenon was turned into a Christian church and images were defaced due to their pagan links; later, frescos were painted over when used by Muslims, and the Ottomans used it to store their ammunition, which led it to being a war target. The ancient temple complex of Dendera in Egypt was being used as a quarry until Champollion persuaded Mehmet Ali (1769-1849), the founder of modern Egypt, to protect the vanishing ruins. Many a great artifact was legally removed from a disastrous fate and subsequently housed, restored, and displayed in the Western museums. Similar works were pulverized to make mortar for new buildings in their homelands. When I lived in Cairo (from 1995 to 1996), my professor of the Architecture of Cairo class taught us to look for ancient Egyptian blocks taken from pyramids and other Pharaonic Age structures in modern buildings, where they had been haphazardly used to make up for missing materials – in one stairwell from a Communist era 1950s apartment building, I remember a block containing hieroglyphics that were eroding away from foot traffic, smog, and everyday use.

The founding fathers of the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum – as well as other great institutions – were keen to preserve past cultures, but they also had the foresight to realize that some cultures were fading, and they wished to preserve the cultural materials before the traditions vanished. In a microcosm example, Deacon Edith May Adams at the Wind River reservation in Wyoming purchased objects from the Native Arapaho and Shoshone and she bequeathed these materials back to the tribe – in this manner, she had preserved their culture. The Episcopal Church built a small museum for the materials. But when the Native American curator passed away and no other Native American was interested in stepping into the job, the Diocese of the Episcopal Church removed the materials from the museum that was falling into disrepair and saved these materials for future generations. The grandson of the original curator took action to reclaim the materials, which currently are on display in the reservation casino and awaiting the building of a new museum that is many years in the making!

Some may argue that preservation is not always intended; for instance, one tribal elder noted that artifacts held in the American Museum of Natural History should not be preserved because they were “disintegrating beautifully”. And, some collectors, such as Emmons, when he removed objects from the top of graves to prevent their erosion, may have overstepped their boundaries, but their intentions were pure. This differs from looters, who have likely existed since the advent of burial goods. The first recorded evidence of looting in ancient Egypt dates back to 1135 BC; the clerics were astounded by the looting in the Valley of the Kings and, thus, they were constantly moving the mummies to prevent looters from successfully obtaining the grave goods and disturbing the dead. Looters take materials for profit and are not concerned with their destructive ways or in preservation for the greater good. The archaeologists, ethnographers, museum patrons and founding fathers should not be lumped together with the criminally-intentioned looters; they were humanitarians who hoped to open people’s minds up to the gifts of all cultures that unite us as humans.


Caygill Marjorie and British Museum. 2009. Treasures of the British Museum. London: British Museum Press.

Cuno James B. 2008. Who Owns Antiquity? : Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton N.J: Princeton University Press.

Jonaitis Aldona and American Museum of Natural History. 1994. From the Land of the Totem Poles : The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History. New York Vancouver: American Museum of Natural History ; Douglas & McIntryre.

Jenkins Tiffany. 2018. Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums … and Why They Should Stay There First ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kopper Philip Kjell B Sandved Chip Clark and Smithsonian Institution. 1982. The National Museum of Natural History. 1st ed. New York: Abrams in association with the Smithsonian Institution.

About the author

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).