Plundered Loot


... In seeking to comprehend the scale of the cultural plunder held by former colonial powers, we become aware of several things. First, that gestures such as the return of little more than twenty Benin Bronzes, in a manner of speaking, doesn’t scratch the surface. If Germany is said to have 1,130 Benin Bronzes, and the British Museum is said to have in excess of 900, then restitution from all parties—private and public—guilty of possessing stolen items would surely need to take place on a larger, more dramatic, and more concerted scale. The other realization is that colossal institutions such as the British Museum are not so much presenting carefully chosen objects and artefacts to a grateful public. These institutions are instead functioning as gratuitous and pathological hoarders on a scale infinitely and unimaginably greater than the afflictions of people who suffer from what has become known as compulsive hoarding disorder. 

The British Museum is said to be a repository of more than 108,000 Greek artifacts, of which around 6,500 are on display at any one time. We can barely comprehend how much square footage of space is required to store more than 100,000 objects properly and respectfully. It would be as extraordinary as it is improbable if every single one of the hundreds of millions of items held by the British Museum and other such museums (only a tiny fraction of which are on public display) was held in professional standard archival conditions. Cynically perhaps, one imagines that the average household contents of a self-storage unit are packed and stored with greater care than the millions of items hoarded by cultural institutions.
Supermarket Sweep is an American television game show that has spread far and wide internationally. The format combines a quiz show with the novel concept of a live, timed race through a supermarket, in which teams that have answered the most correct questions are pitted against each other, as they feverishly sweep through a “supermarket” filling their shopping carts. The combined value of items thrown into the cart determines the winning team. Perhaps in an attempt to bring some humor to an otherwise thoroughly depressing subject, Frieze appended its concluding references to Olusoga as follows: “Speaking at the Hay literary festival, Olusoga cited a friend’s solution: an edition of Supermarket Sweep in which each country is handed a shopping trolley and given two minutes in the British Museum.” Olusoga’s friend might well have been on to something with their television light entertainment reference. Perhaps, instead of Hoarders, the American documentary reality television series depicting the supposed real-life struggles and treatment of people who suffer from a compulsive hoarding disorder, the show should instead engage with those such as the British Museum’s trustees, in an attempt to fathom the pathology that informs the centuries-long hoarding of loot that will never see the light of day through many of these same trustees’ lifetimes. Were the British Museum to return most of its spoils, it would surely still have enough booty to occupy its conservators and engage its audiences, for centuries to come.
The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' "Plundered Loot", Art Journal, Volume 82, Issue 2, Summer 2023: 5-7 See