Hiding behind Glass: The Dark History of Museums

While museums can be the safe haven for many artists and art pieces, they can also be quite the opposite. The history of museums actually points out that the latter might be more prominent.

Nov 21, 2023

[Image described: The dark history of museums, through a virtual tour. End ID]( museum tour (1).jpg)
In an increasingly dystopian capitalist world, the museum can feel like a breath of fresh air. A place rooted in celebrating human love for creativity, it acts as a respected institution representing lofty ideals. However, the history behind the clean white walls and protective glass cases is darker than one might think.
The birthplace of the modern museum can be traced back to the 16th-century German tradition of “Wunderkammer” or “Cabinet of Curiosities” where wealthy homeowners would collect intriguing objects to show their friends. These collections included all sorts of objects like geological or archaeological finds, ancient relics, religious works, and more. These private collections amassed in size and once they were released to the public, they became known as museums. The world's largest museum collection is held by the British Museum.
The collection for this museum was originally started by Sir Hans Sloane, a physician who promoted inoculation against smallpox. Through the British Museum Act 1753, King George legitimized the museum and the collection grew exponentially as Britain expanded their colonial territories. With over eight million artifacts, this collection contains many magnificent pieces — pieces that the British should not have. The violent history of colonialism bleeds into the art market, as religious or culturally significant sites were raided by the British to divide and sell. These objects show up later in prestigious museums that refuse to acknowledge the means of their acquisition. In recent decades, as the global Decolonizing movement has gained momentum, there has been a great call to return these objects to their rightful homelands.
The most infamous example of these “controversial” objects is the Benin Bronzes. These beautiful bronze plaques and sculptures are adored internationally for their skilled craftsmanship and exquisite design. These objects originally decorated the palace of the King of Benin, currently the Edo state of Nigeria. Almost all of these types of works were collected during a horrific massacre called the “Benin Expedition of 1897.” Repatriation, or the return of these objects, has been debated since Nigerian Independence. However, the British Museum, where one of the largest collections of Benin Bronzes is kept, has cited that they have no plans to return these objects. The British believe that other countries do not have the proper infrastructure or even the right to keep their own objects. They also use the excuse of being a “universal museum” to forgive themselves for their colonial exploitation without any benefits being awarded to the countries that are affected.
To respond to these arguments, the Nigerian government established a beautiful museum in Lago that, even with its architecture, ties into the cultural heritage of Nigeria. This state-of-the-art facility, called the Nigerian National Museum, has successfully received Bronzes through purchase and repatriation from museums like the University of Aberdeen and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. The British Museum still refuses the repatriation.
This injustice is made worse by the recent events at the British Museum. In August of this year, the museum announced that they had lost over 2000 Greco-Roman items. With its immense collection, the administration simply did not notice the absence of these objects until it was too late. With suspicious listings on eBay, the return of these objects feels futile at best. On the other hand, this event has refueled the call for repatriation as the British Museum often cited political instability or concerns of security as justification.
The dismissal of repatriation is actually a dishonor to the importance of museums and their role in society. In countries still recovering from the trauma of colonization, presenting their art is a way to reclaim their heritage and heal as a united society. Children should be able to view the famous magnificent works of their ancestors in their home country, not fight with embassies and spend thousands of pounds to see them in a so-called “universal museum.” To keep them in the colonizer’s home is to continue the dark history of exploitation.
Insiya Motiwala is Staff Illustrator and Columnist. Email them at
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