John Oliver on stolen antiques in western museums: ‘Wretched callousness on display’ | John Oliver

John Oliver stormed western museums and their collections of stolen artifacts and today’s antiques market on Last Week Tonight’s Sunday night. Antiquities from the Global South – particularly Latin America, the Middle East and Africa – have been stolen and preserved in European and American museums “on a much larger scale than you might think,” he explained. For example, a 2018 report commissioned by the French President found that over 90% of all African cultural heritage was held outside Africa in major museums that have extensive collections of “essentially stolen property”.

“We don’t have time to recap the entire history of colonialism and antiquities looting — there are so, so many stolen artifacts we could talk about tonight,” Oliver said, but to say “a lot with little,” he said focused on the British Museum. “Honestly, if you’re ever looking for a missing artefact, nine times out of ten it’s in the British Museum,” he observed. “It’s basically the largest lost property office in the world, with both ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in quotes as big as possible.”

The British Museum and others profess to be places of noble intention where world treasures can reach the widest possible audience. “Clearly, this idea of ​​museums as a place for people to connect with our shared history and with cultures around the world is not inherently bad,” said Oliver. “But it’s also not entirely representative of actual history as to how many museums have come about.”

He pointed to the British Museum’s original patron, Sir Hans Sloane, who was married to the heiress to Jamaica’s sugar plantations, which were worked by enslaved people. Sloane bought much of his collection with this wealth, “meaning the foundations of the museum are inextricably linked to slavery and colonialism,” Oliver said.

Oliver noted several stock responses from western institutions to the question of returning stolen artifacts. First, that such artifacts were acquired at a different time and one cannot judge the present by the standards of the past.

Except, as Oliver pointed out, people at the time knew it was an ethical crime. After the British army, with a representative of the British Museum in tow, invaded an Ethiopian kingdom in 1868 to bid on the choicest items, the British Prime Minister said he “deeply regretted … that these items were thought fit to be taken away by a British army.” to become”. demanded that they be kept only until they are restored.

“He said that in 1868,” Oliver exclaimed. “We didn’t even know how to fix a UTI without leeches at the time, but we did know that to invade other countries for their shit was ‘deeply deplorable’, which means ‘super shitty’ in British.”

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 taken from Greece to the British Museum were said to have been permanently damaged by wire brushes and harsh cleaning agents in the 1930s.

Then there is the argument that these museums are depositories of the world’s 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 tiny fraction of their collections.” said Oliver. The British Museum, for example, has a collection of around 8 million objects, but only 80,000 of them are on display. “It can be quite upsetting for people to find that their heritage, which is often part of a vibrant contemporary culture, is being held in the British Museum’s underground loot prison.”

Antique theft is not a crime of the past – “the practice is still very widespread,” Oliver explained, turning his attention to the modern antiques market, which includes shady dealers in stolen goods and museums or auction houses such as Sotheby’s. conduct superficial provenance research.

Many businesses use prolific Western institutions “to whitewash their reputation,” Oliver said, such as Subhash Kapoor, a former leading source on Asian art for museums; The Met currently has 86 of his items in its collection. Kapoor has been identified as a dealer in stolen goods with thin cover stories, most commonly that items came from his girlfriend’s family collection. “You might be thinking, ‘This is so stupid, this would only work on a real ding-dong collection,’ and I completely agree with you. At the Met, it seems to have worked 86 times,” Oliver said.

“There is just a certain level of pathetic callousness here that, to be fair, some institutions are finally coming to terms with,” he continued. “The fact is, as part of a long-overdue conversation about where their objects come from and whether anyone wants them back, museums should be asked tough questions about every aspect of their acquisition process and their collections.

“This conversation should be conducted by the groups to which these items originally belong, because while museums obviously shouldn’t be breaking the law, they shouldn’t be breaking basic moral decency either,” he concluded. “There’s so much we need to do to reckon with the damage of colonialism past and present, but that really should be the easy part.”

Meanwhile, Oliver offered an alternative: a virtual tour, hosted by Kumail Nanjiani, of the Payback Museum – “the world’s first public museum focused on helping nations that have been cared for by colonial rulers throughout history.” greatest treasures were plundered stubborn”.