John Oliver ripped into western museums and their collections of stolen artifacts, as well as the current antiquities market, on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. Antiquities from the south of the world — particularly Latin America, the Middle East and Africa — have been stolen and stored in European and American museums “on a much larger scale than you might think,” he explained. A 2018 report commissioned by the French president, for example, found that more than 90% of all of Africa’s cultural heritage outside of Africa was held by major museums, which have vast collections of “essentially stolen goods.”
“We don’t have time to summarize the whole history of colonialism and the looting of antiquities – there are so, so many stolen items we can talk about tonight,” Oliver said, but to “say a lot with a little” he turned to the British Museum. “Frankly, if you ever look for a missing artifact, nine times out of ten it’s in the British Museum,” he noted. “It’s actually the world’s largest lost and found object with both ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in the strongest possible quotes.”
The British Museum and others claim to be places of noble intention, where world treasures can reach the widest possible audience. “Clearly, that idea of museums as a place where people can connect with our shared history and with cultures around the world is not fundamentally bad,” Oliver explains. “But it’s also not entirely representative of the actual history of the number of museums that have emerged.”
He pointed to the original patron of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, who was married to the heiress of Jamaican sugar plantations that were worked by slaves. Sloane bought much of his collection with that wealth, “meaning the foundations of the museum are inextricably linked to slavery and colonialism,” Oliver said.
Oliver noted varying responses from Western institutions to the issue of returning stolen artifacts. First, that such artifacts were acquired at a different time, and that the present cannot be judged by the standards of the past.
But, as Oliver noted, people at the time knew it was an ethical crime. After the British Army invaded an Ethiopian kingdom in 1868 with a representative of the British Museum in tow to bid on the most exquisite items, the British Prime Minister said he “deeply lamented … that these items were deemed fit for purpose by a British army” and insisted that they be held only until they are recovered.
“He said that way back in 1868,” Oliver exclaimed. “We didn’t even know how to fix a UTI without leeches at the time, but we knew it was ‘deeply upsetting’ to raid other countries for their shit, which is British for ‘super fucked up’.”
Another argument is that stolen artifacts would be safer in the care of Western institutions than in their home countries, but the care record in some museums is “mixed at best,” Oliver said. The Elgin marbles brought from Greece in the British Museum, he noted, had been permanently damaged in the 1930s by wire brushes and a harsh detergent.
Then there’s the argument that these museums are a repository of world treasures open to everyone, which “is only true if you can reach the museum in question, and it’s also worth noting that most only display a small fraction of their collections” said Oliver. For example, the British Museum has a collection of about 8 million objects, but only 80,000 are on display. “It can be quite painful for people to discover that their heritage, which is often part of a vibrant contemporary culture, is in storage in the British Museum’s underground loot prison.”
Theft of antiquities is not a crime of the past — “this practice is still very much going on,” explained Oliver, turning his attention to the modern antiquities market, which includes notorious dealers of stolen goods and museums or auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, conducting cursory provenance research.
Many deals take advantage of prolific Western institutions “to launder their reputations,” Oliver said, such as Subhash Kapoor, a former leading source of Asian art for museums; the Met currently has 86 of his items in its collection. Kapoor has been identified as a smuggler of stolen goods with flimsy covers, mostly items from his girlfriend’s family collection. “You might think, ‘that’s so stupid, it would only work on a collection of real ding-dongs,’ which I’d say you’re absolutely right. It appears to have worked at the Met 86 times,” Oliver said.
“There’s just a degree of despicable callousness here, and to be honest, some institutions are finally coming to terms with it,” he continued. “The fact is, museums need to be asked hard questions about every aspect of their purchasing process and their collections as part of a much-anticipated discussion about where their items came from and whether anyone wants them back.
“That conversation should be led by the groups to which those objects originally belonged, because while museums are obviously not allowed to break the law, they shouldn’t be against moral decency either,” he concluded. “There’s so much we need to do to account for the damage of both past and present of colonialism, but this really should be the easy part.”
In the meantime, Oliver offered an alternative: a virtual tour, hosted by Kumail Nanjiani, of the Payback Museum – “the world’s first public museum dedicated to providing refuge to countries that have been treasured throughout history. plundered by colonial acorns”.