NIKKI GEMMELL: The Australian
SEPTEMBER 16, 2023
Why are they there? Our objects, our treasures, from this land, languishing in the bowels of the British Museum. Items deeply meaningful to Indigenous people but also to anyone who lives on this vast and wondrous continent like no other. Objects that tell the story of us, stretching back thousands of years. Taken, bartered, stolen, whatever you want to call it, these items need to be in an institution that cherishes them, or returned to their people. How wonderful if they could one day, perhaps, be displayed in a place easily seen by all Australians – or at least kept in a respectful place if they are secret and sacred.
Instead, many items from this land languish like restless, lonely ghosts in the hidden basements of the British Museum in London, underneath those other charged icons from another land, the Parthenon Sculptures. And as with those glorious friezes, so many of the British Museum’s items of significance have a dodgy, contested provenance.
I write this as the recent scandal of thousands of missing items from the museum deepens. The lack of care, the arrogance, the brushing-off in this sorry tale of greed and neglect is gobsmacking. This is the institution that tells other nations, imperiously, that their precious objects are safer with them than the country of origin. That they will care for the items because, sniff, the origin country quite possibly can’t, in the same way.
But now this. Several thousand objects have been stolen from the basement repositories of the museum, over decades. Gems, glassware and jewellery from Greek and Roman times; some of it popping up on eBay for a fraction of what it’s worth, some of it damaged, some melted down. That’s right, lost forever to the host nation, the nation of origin, and the world.
A long-term employee from the antiquities department is being investigated; it’s believed the thefts stretch over 20 years. Yes, it was that easy. And right under the noses of bosses. What is coming to light is just how shabbily the museum treats its vast collection. Cataloguing hasn’t been thorough. Security lax. A Danish antiques dealer raised his suspicions with the museum in 2021 yet for more than a year he was fobbed off, told his allegations were “completely unfounded”.
This is the British Museum after all – this doesn’t happen. But no one checks the curators and collection care assistants. The very people who know precisely which objects are left to languish on forgotten trays, their value, and what channels to sell them through. An unnamed source told
The Times that these people are free to roam the vast basement rooms unaccompanied, and aren’t searched on exit. The source explained, “in essence, if you’ve got that clearance and no one else is around… a lot of it does depend on trust”.
It’s an enormous blow to the museum’s reputation. Its director has stepped down. Other nations are getting restive – not least Greece, which has agitated for generations for the Parthenon Sculptures to be returned home. This scandal only strengthens their case.
And quite possibly, ours. For the return of those contentiously acquired Australian objects that remain overseas, having been sent to museums and medical institutions during colonial times. There’s no better place for these objects than here, in Australia. The British Museum holds some eight million items from all over the world, yet only 80,000 are publicly displayed. Among the vast collection are Australian artefacts (including, dare I say, body parts) that haunt the basements, uncherished. Untouched. And so far from home.
Bring what is ours back, I say, because they will be better cared for here. There would be the weight of love and history and belonging involved. These are items of national significance, for us, as a nation. Why leave these objects to languish in that damp and indifferent foreign air, under the auspices of a management so negligent and indifferent?