Saturday December 8th saw extraordinary scenes in the British Museum, as around 200 people gathered for an unofficial “Stolen Goods” tour, held without permission within the museum from 2pm to 4.30pm. Participants packed out museum galleries to hear a series of speakers challenge the museum to return stolen culture from Indigenous Australia, Iraq, the Pacific Islands and the Parthenon, and demand the museum stops promoting BP, a company threatening marginalised cultures around the world today.
The tour was opened and closed by Rodney Kelly of the Indigenous Gweagal people, who called for the return of the shield that was violently stolen from his great-great-great-great grandfather by Captain Cook on his arrival in Australia .
The crowds were welcomed by a performer posing as a spoof BP representative, who explained that “the British Museum and British Petroleum are perfect partners as we both put the ‘plunder’ in British”.
Rodney Kelly then told his story next to the cabinet containing the shield, explaining its significance as evidence of the violence of the first contact between the British and Indigenous Australia in 1770:
“This shield can tell the story of that first day when the British arrived on our shores. We were never respected as human beings, as people. We were fired upon. We had everything taken. People back in Australia don’t know that. The youth don’t know that…we can teach the youth the true history of Australia, and what happened, and this shield can do that. But still the British Museum [refuse] to give it back.”
He explained how the return of items like the shield could also help to restore and revive Indigenous culture, language and skills, and challenge racism in Australia.
The unofficial tour then moved outside the British Museum’s new BP-sponsored “Ashurbanipal: King of Assyria, King of the World” exhibition . Here Shahla, a campaigner of Iraqi descent explained the anger many are feeling at seeing looted artefacts from what is now Iraq being used to promote an oil company that was complicit in the 2003 invasion. She said:
“I am here representing a group of first and second generation Iraqis who are outraged at the exploitation of stolen cultural artefacts by institutions like the British Museum and sponsorship by oil companies like BP. Government documents from meetings in 2002 in the lead-up to the Iraq war quote BP representatives as being “desperate” for intervention in Iraq, and that Iraq was ‘the big oil prospect’. As we know the war in Iraq claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians…For BP to now sponsor an exhibition of stolen art from modern-day Iraq reeks of moral bankruptcy, and an audacious attempt to whitewash their complicity in war and destruction.” The crowd loudly booed the BP logos on the exhibition banner.
In the third stop of the tour, the audience crammed into the museum’s “Living and Dying” room, to hear powerful testimony from members of the Interisland Collective, a group of Pacific Island artists and cultural workers. Ahilapalapa Rands, an artist of Hawaiian descent, read a blessing to the Moai head Hoa Hakananai’a sent by the Rapanui people of Easter Island, who are calling for the Moai’s return. In a powerful and emotional open letter, Ariana Davis, a speaker of Māori descent, called on the British Museum to return colonially acquired items including the 2,300 Māori taonga (artefacts) held by the museum, and said:
“The British Museum is founded on the belief that their patrons, random visitors, will get more out of seeing these artefacts on display than the Indigenous peoples that they belong to. A quick short survey of people passing through this room today found hardly any of the visitors have truly understood the cultural significance of the taonga here. They just wanted to take their pictures for Instagram, pair it with a hashtag and go. As an Indigenous person, it hurts to know that there are 2,300 taonga locked away, especially when you view these taonga as living objects containing the life force of your ancestors.”
Ariana Davis then pointed out that the Rapanui people have offered to make an exact replica in return for their Moai, and that this could be a way forward for other repatriation discussions – or items in museums could be exchanged for pieces of contemporary Indigenous artwork. The speakers also read a statement from the Rapanui Pioneers Society, an Indigenous cultural organisation from Easter Island, that said:
“It’s not “if” rather “when” our moai is going to return. Same with your [artefacts]. The current board should decide whether they want to make history or prefer to remain stubborn and let others with more vision make it in the near future.”
The tour then moved to the Parthenon Marbles, where Danny Chivers – a member of the activist theatre group BP or not BP? who also has Greek Cypriot heritage – spoke about the removal of the marbles by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century and called for their return. He read a statement sent by Jane Suzman, the Chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, which said in part:
“Next year the New Acropolis Museum [in Athens] will celebrate its tenth anniversary. On its top floor there are yearning gaps where these very sculptures should be sitting, joined with the other half of the pedimental carvings and in direct sight of the ancient building from which they were chopped, and which, astonishingly, still stands proud on its ancient rock…they were never intended as separate ‘works of art’, but as part of the mighty whole of Athena’s glorious temple.”
Danny Chivers also challenged the museum for promoting the fossil fuel company BP in the middle of a climate crisis, and spoke about the importance of seeing the connections between the different injustices present in the museum. He said:
“These issues have the same root causes: the elitist and colonialist attitudes present at the top of the museum, where the Board and Directors ignore the impacts their decisions have on people at the sharp end, whether that’s climate change, workers’ rights, colonial display language or stolen culture. Meanwhile, the Indigenous peoples of the world have been leaders in defending forests and lands from exploitation and fossil fuel extraction. Those of us with the privilege and opportunity to raise our voices need to see these connections and support these struggles.”
BP provides less than 0.5% of the British Museum’s income, and campaigners believe the company is using the museum to promote its interests, boost its tarnished reputation and lobby for new oil deals.
The tour was accompanied by performers dressed as robbers, holding a banner reading “Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Climate”. Hundreds of leaflets were given to museum-goers, and large numbers of participants filled in British Museum feedback forms demanding that the museum return stolen artefacts and end BP sponsorship.
The tour concluded inside the museum’s new Captain Cook exhibition, where Rodney Kelly told the gathered crowd that if the British Museum returned stolen items, it would be possible to build a relationship where Indigenous peoples could give permission for agreed objects to be displayed in the museum. He said:
“They’ll have the correct wording, and be displayed the way we want them to be displayed, and there will be no problems. No stolen objects, all acquired legally. And that will be a powerful exhibition.”
 In 1770, Captain Cook arrived at Kamay (also known as Botany Bay), and encountered a group of the local Gweagal people, including a warrior called Cooman. Cook and his men opened fire on the people, and a bullet passed through Cooman’s shield and wounded him in the leg. The people were forced from the beach, and Cook and his men seized the shield (and other items). Cook later gave the shield to the British Museum. Rodney Kelly is the 6th generation direct descendant of the shield’s original owner Cooman and is calling for its return on behalf of the Gweagal people. The Australian Senate has passed a motion supporting Rodney’s claim, and the community plan to fundraise for a special museum for the shield when it returns to Kamay. However, so far the British Museum have shown no sign that they are willing to return the artefact.