Why I... think British museums should hand back their loot

December 18, 1998

Reader in contemporary cultural studies, University of Central Lancashire

As a Glaswegian and an American studies lecturer, I was delighted at the recent decision by Glasgow City Museums to return a 19th-century Native American ghost shirt to the Lakota Indians. Ghost shirts were believed to possess special powers. This one was stripped from a dead Indian body, and was donated to Glasgow by Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West show a century ago. It is being returned following representations from the Battle of Wounded Knee Survivors' Association to Glasgow council.

The systematic slaughter of its own indigenous peoples was one of the founding acts of the Land of the Free, and this was recognised by Glasgow museum-goers: 95 per cent were in favour of returning the shirt. Did the ghost shirt resonate with the cries of the Clearances (the Scots hearing an echo of their own Highland history repeated overseas)? Whatever the motivation, the act of giving back the loot of history builds a small bridge from Clydeside to South Dakota.

Of course, the cause celebre here are the Elgin Marbles, brought back (looted) from Greece in 1801-02. Flourishing a dubious document provided by the Ottoman Empire which then controlled Greece, the Earl of Elgin used saws to cut up the friezes from the Parthenon and shipped them back with statues to England. Some "stones of no great value" (as Elgin put it) sank in the Mediterranean. Elgin did not donate the Marbles to the British Museum, he sold them to the government in 1816. Today the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum are an icon of imperial inertia. It is time to give them back.

I acknowledge the irony here (the seventh Earl of Elgin was Thomas Bruce, a Scot, another great Scottish servant of empire). But if we must have some sort of testimony to Britain's faded empire, let us just look at Scotland again. The monument to the Scottish heroes of the Napoleonic war on Calton Hill in Edinburgh was started in 1822, intended as a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, at the suggestion of the Earl of Elgin himself. It remains unfinished - surely as neat a monument to imperial theft as you could ask for.

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