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Kwame Opoku: British Museum "Guards" Looted Syrian Object?

Culturar commentator Kwame Opoku comments on the disclosure of the British Museum holding and "protecting" a very valuable Syrian object, illegally removed from the country.

“We are holding an object we know was illegally removed from Syria and one day it will go back.” Neil MacGregor. BBC.

“Museums, libraries and archives must take precautions to ensure that they acquire, or borrow, only ethically acceptable items and reject items that might have been looted or illegally exported. To ensure they do this, they need to exercise due diligence.

Museums should acquire or borrow items only if they are certain they have not been illegally excavated or illegally exported since 1970.”

Combating Illicit Trade, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, October 2005.

We were, to put it very mildly, surprised to read in the mass media several articles stating that the British Museum was “guarding” a looted Syrian artefact until peace returns to that country. The Times wrote: “The British Museum is holding a precious object illegally removed from Syria in the hope of returning it when the country is stable, Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director has disclosed.”

The director also added that the British Museum has been trying to protect antiquities looted from conflict areas. He is also reported to have called on the British Government to explain why it has not signed the Hague Convention on protection of artefacts in cases of armed conflict. (1)

No one would deny that the venerable British Museum has vast experience in dealing with looted objects. After all, the museum has more looted objects than any other museum in the world. Among its reported 9 million objects are a considerable number of looted objects from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania.

Some might think therefore that the museum in Bloomsbury has “impeccable credentials” for dealing with such objects. We noted in the reports that nobody raised the question whether it is right that a museum that is under permanent criticism for holding looted objects of others or objects acquired under dubious circumstances now presents itself as “guardian” of looted artefacts.

The British Museum’s “guarding” of looted antiquity lends itself superbly to interesting analogies and comparisons in various sectors of life- farm life, hunting practice, banking experience, animal life and everyday life.

Most readers will be familiar with how this museum “guards” the Benin Bronzes: it refuses to return them but sells them.

The handling of the Parthenon Marbles which the British Museum always claims to be holding for the benefit of humanity needs no elaboration here but a recall of the disputed recent loan of the Ilissos statue to Russia and the refusal to have UNESCO mediation of its dispute with Greece throw light on the singular and arrogant character of this particular “guardian.”

From the reports on this peculiar guardianship of a looted Syrian artefact, it appears the museum is not willing to state the following:

  1. The name and exact description of the precious object it now wishes to guard.
  2. How the object or objects reached the British Museum.
  3. Why that museum was chosen to receive the object.
  4. Previous contacts and relationships with whoever brought the object or objects.
  5. The conditions attached to this “guardianship”.
  6. Who will determine whether peace has returned to the country and it is stable enough to return the object or objects.

How does the holding of the looted Syrian artefact by the British Museum comply with the guidelines issued by British Government in 2005, Combating Illicit Trade which the Chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, Mark Wood, welcomed as follows?

“I very much welcome these guidelines? They mark a significant step in the steady progress museums, libraries and archives have been making to ensure that as collections develop and diversify, it is on the basis of the highest ethical standards. It is no longer acceptable for our public institutions to collect or borrow material which comes from an unethical source. This document gives the clear guidance which all institutions will welcome and want to implement.”(2)

If a museum or for that matter any person, knows that an object, whether artefact or not, has been looted or illegally exported, it would be my view that the matter  should be reported to the police and in any case one should refuse to handle or deal with the object, however precious it may be.

That the object is precious or of an extreme importance to the history of a particular country should not be allowed to prevail. Lord Renfrew and all those who have studied the illegal traffic in antiquities have said that the trade is driven by the desire of the museums and other institution to acquire artefacts. If those dealing in illicit traffic thought there would be no market for the items they would be less inclined to go to all the trouble in looting or illegally exporting the objects. (3)

Laws and regulations must be respected, both in spirit and word. When some years ago, this author raised the issue whether legitimacy and legality were still viable concepts for western museum directors. not many were happy but they kept quiet. Philippe de Montebello however responded in his way by an attack. (4)

But the issue still remains whether museums should or should not abide by normal morality and legality. Recent acts of the British Museum and reports on the looted Syrian artefact show that many believe the institution does not have to abide by normal standards. None of the reports raises the issue whether the conduct of the museum is correct.

Is this new role of the museum to be confined to the British Museum or extended to others? Can other museums in the West replicate the latest exploit of the famous museum? If this becomes the practice of most museums, we can be sure that most of artefacts from conflict areas will soon be under “guardianship” of museums in the West and we can hardly distinguish between legitimate acquisition and illegal acquisition.

Kwame Opoku, 7 June 2015.

Picture Credit: "British Museum from NE 2" by Ham - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Museum_from_NE_2.JPG#/media/File:British_Museum_from_NE_2.JPG


  1. 1. BBC London Live: Updates from London on Friday 5 June ... www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-england-london-32919321
    British Museum 'guarding' Syria loot - WorldNews, article.wn.com/view/2015/06/05/British_Museum_guarding_Syria_loot/ www.csmonitor.com/.../British-Museum-guarding-looted-Syrian-artifact
    British Museum 'guarding' object looted from Syria  BBC News‎
    British Museum guarding antiquity looted in Syria  The Times‎
  2. http://www.elginism.com/similar-cases/british-government-warns-museums-not-to-acquire-looted-artefacts/20051105/265/#sthash.wsKwQsLs.dpuf
  3. Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, Duckworth, 2000.
  4. Kwame Opoku responds to Philippe de Montebello - Elginism: www.elginism.com/.../kwame-opoku...to-philippe-de-montebello
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