Nov. 4, 2019 (GIN) – An outspoken human rights lawyer in a new book is calling for European and US institutions to return treasures taken from subjugated peoples by “conquerors or colonial masters.”
In the new book by Geoffrey Robertson, the British Museum is accused of exhibiting “pilfered cultural property” and urged to ‘wash its hands of blood and return Elgin’s loot’.
“The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display,” Robertson charges.
His views appear in the book, “Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure.”
Along with a distinguished career as a trial lawyer, human rights advocate and United Nations judge, Robertson has appeared in many celebrated trials, defending Salman Rushdie and Julian Assange, prosecuting Hastings Banda and representing Human Rights Watch in the proceedings against General Pinochet.
In his just released book, he scores the British Museum for allowing an unofficial “stolen goods tour”, “which stops at the Elgin marbles, Hoa Hakananai’a, the Benin bronzes and other pilfered cultural property”. The three items he mentioned are wanted by Greece, Easter Island and Nigeria respectively.
“That these rebel itineraries are allowed is a tribute to the tolerance of this great institution, which would be even greater if it washed its hands of the blood and returned Elgin’s loot,” he wrote.
He accused the museum of telling “a string of carefully-constructed lies and half- truths” about how the marbles “were ‘saved’ or ‘salvaged’ or ‘rescued’ by Lord Elgin, who came into possession of them lawfully.”
He criticized “encyclopedic museums” such as the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York that “lock up the precious legacy of other lands, stolen from their people by wars of aggression, theft and duplicity”.
“This is a time for humility,” he observed, “something the British, still yearning for the era when they ruled the world do not do very well. Before it releases any of its share of other people’s cultural heritage, the British Museum could mount an exhibition – ‘The Spoils of Empire’.”
Advocating the return of cultural property based on human rights law principles, Robertson observes that the French president, Emmanuel Macron has “galvanized the debate” by declaring that “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European museums”.
“Politicians may make more or less sincere apologies for the crimes of their former empires, but the only way now available to redress them is to return the spoils of the rape of Egypt and China and the destruction of African and Asian and South American societies,” he writes.
“We cannot right historical wrongs – but we can no longer, without shame, profit from them.”