The British Museum’s heartless repatriation policy exposed

Elena Martyn
3 min readJun 5, 2021
The Enlightenment Gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum

No artefacts have been returned to their country of origin in response to a repatriation request made to the British Museum since the start of the millennium.

A Freedom of Information request uncovered that a total of six formal requests for the repatriation of 149 objects in the British Museum’s collection were made between April 2014 and December 2020.

A third of these requests included objects hidden in storage.

Images © The Trustees of the British Museum

Onyekachi Wambu, Director of AFFORD, said: “The positions that people are striking are not sustainable. We as a country now stand for certain values and all of this is in contradiction to those values. So, in the end, the items will go back; how long it takes is the question.

“All these artefacts are a vision into the kinds of societies that were there before colonialism, and the achievements of certain civilisations and societies, and it’s important for people from those countries to have a conversation with their past and to draw on some of those lessons from the past to construct their futures.”

The British Museum was founded in 1753 and holds an estimated eight million objects within its collection.

2019 visitor figures gathered by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions identified the British Museum as the most visited museum in the United Kingdom, with a total of 6,239,983 visits.

Objects of immense cultural value were violently stolen from their country of origin during the British colonial period - when the majority of the British Museum's collection was ‘acquired’.

Rodney Kelly looking at the Gweagal Shield at the British Museum in November 2016 @sovereignmbc

On 29 April 1770, Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay, Australia where he encountered two members of the Gweagal tribe armed with wooden shields and spears.

Cook fired his musket at warrior Cooman, penetrating his shield with ease.

That same shield now hangs crudely from metal rods in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, unobserved by most visitors.

246 years later, Rodney Kelly, a sixth-generation descendant of warrior Cooman, made a repatriation claim to the British Museum for the return of the Gweagal shield.

His request was denied.

Momentum is growing for the repatriation of artefacts acquired as a result of colonialism. France, Germany, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Cambridge have all pledged to repatriate items in their possession.

However, The British Museum Act 1963 prohibits the deaccession of any object held in the museum’s collection, bar exceptional circumstances.

Dr Tatiana Flessas, Associate Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “We’re at a turning point, either the British Museum has completely dug its heels in and is going to reify that, or it’s like that moment before the dam breaks when things look like they’re never going to change, and then they change all at once, really quickly.

“The British Museum is afraid. They’re really worried that if they open the floodgates, we’ll lose everything. Or, if they repatriate one thing, then we’ll have people from foreign countries crawling through our storerooms.”

For now, these items shall remain within the firm grip of the British Museum. You can observe the Sculptures from Amaravati, the Gweagal Shield, the Marble Relief, and Hoa Hakananai’a yourself by visiting the British Museum or take a virtual tour with Google Arts & Culture.

Interactive Map of the British Museum feat. Contested Objects