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The British Museum’s “Looting” Problem

This weekend, headlines across the internet announced that the British Museum was to “return looted antiquities to Iraq.” Eight tiny artifacts, some of them 5,000 years old, were handed to Iraqi officials in a ceremony on Friday, to be transported to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. But the antiquities were not, as the headlines implied, a part of the British Museum’s own collection; they were just identified there after police seized them from a dealer. The distinction is crucial, because the Museum houses one of the largest permanent collections of human culture on earth, some of which came from the old-school kind of “looting”—colonialism.

According to the Museum’s press release, the objects consist of an Achaemenid stamp seal; two stamp-seal amulets “in the form of a reclining sheep or showing a pair of quadrupeds facing in opposite directions”; and five Sumerian artifacts. Three of these objects are clay cones inscribed with the sentence, “For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the White Thunderbird.” The inscription locates the objects as originally part of the Enninu temple of the Sumerian god Ningirsu.

The objects were seized by the London police in 2003 from a dealer who could not provide proof of ownership (and who is no longer in business). They were not among the treasures stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, but rather come from Tello in southern Iraq, where the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu once stood. The press release emphasized that the objects were identified “thanks to the British Museum’s Iraq Scheme,” which was founded in 2015 “in response to the appalling destruction by Daesh (also known as so-called Islamic State, ISIS or IS) of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.” The program “builds capacity in the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training 50 of its staff in a wide variety of sophisticated techniques of retrieval and rescue archaeology.”

The scheme is no doubt an important one, and the region’s artifacts have been, no doubt, in danger. But as the media picked up the story of the handover, a strange impression arose: that the British Museum gave something back. The British Museum never gives anything back. ...

Read entire article at New Republic