John Oliver on the big problem with museums

Here's a great follow-up to my recent post about zoos as colonialist institutions. This one's about museums, and, well, it should come as no surprise that museums are also colonialist institutions! (Zoos are, after all, a kind of museum, and zoos and museums are both grounded in the display of colonialist plunder). 

Recently John Oliver did a brilliant show focusing on how and why Western museums — specifically in the United States and Europe — display cultural antiquities from around the world, particularly from Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Oliver starts by citing not-so-shocking-but-still-truly-horrifying statistics from a recent study showing that over 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is held outside of Africa, in the world's major museums. He provides the example of the Benin Bronzes, which were stolen by British troops in 1897 from what is now Nigeria, and that now reside in the British Museum as well as in other museums across the United States and Europe. The British Museum claims that they are doing the world a favor by allowing the Benin Bronzes to be seen by anyone who wants to visit, but scholar Chika Okeke-Agulu says this line of thinking is flawed. He emphasizes that only privileged people can fly to London to see the artworks — "most Nigerians will never see them."

Oliver explores both how antiquities from around the world ended up in Western museums to begin with (spoiler alert: colonial plunder) and how the modern antiquities market works (spoiler alert: theft and privilege to ignore such theft). Oliver also focuses on the growing movement to repatriate cultural heritage objects back to their home countries, as well as the deeply entrenched resistance by Western museums to let go of their stolen goods.

Oliver presents and then debunks the standard explanation/excuses that Western museums provide for why they keep stolen antiquities in their collections. First, museums claim that the objects were acquired at a different time, and posit that you can't judge the present by the standards of the past. This is wrong, though, because there is plenty of proof showing that even back in the plundering days, the plunderers knew stealing objects was wrong. Second, museums claim that the objects in their possession are safer under the care of Western institutions than they would be in their home countries. There is also plenty of evidence that this is wrong, as there are many instances of less-than-ideal caretaking in many Western museums — there are numerous examples of objects being damaged by water leaks, destructive cleaning, and more. Finally, museums claim that they are open repositories and increase the number of people that are able to enjoy the art. Again, this is false because only the privileged are able to fly to museums around the world to view art, and, furthermore, museums only display a tiny percentage of their collections. Most of what they own is stuffed in boxes and placed in basements and other storage facilities, never to be seen by anyone. 

Oliver then focuses on the modern antiquities market, which continues to supply Western museums with goods. While museums and art brokers claim to care about "provenance" (where objects come from, or the life history of an object) above all else, they also very easily ignore questionable provenance when it suits them. Oliver provides very convincing evidence that Sotheby's auction house, for example, knowingly has sold stolen goods, and museums such as the Rubin Museum in New York, have knowingly bought stolen goods. 

Finally, Oliver proposes the "payback museum" as a clever way to point out how ridiculous it is that Western museums insist their stolen collections are rightfully theirs. This fictional museum, presented by actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, houses a Stonehenge arch, the Liberty Bell, George Washington's nose from Mount Rushmore, the Mona Lisa, and more. Nanjiani, as "spokesperson" for the museum says, if you want these things back, sorry, the answer is no: "It's all ours, forever!"

Here's the YouTube link to the brilliant John Oliver segment. It's definitely worth a half hour of your time. The YouTube description reads: "John Oliver discusses some of the world's most prestigious museums, why they contain so many stolen goods, the market that continues to illegally trade antiquities, and a pretty solid blueprint for revenge."

Thumbnail image:  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)