John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, dedicated his entire weekly show on Monday, October 3, to a discussion about some of the ethical issues plaguing Western museums. In a longer-than-usual segment (above 34 minutes), Oliver touched on subjects like hesitant repatriation, antiquities looting, and the shady acquisition practices of auction houses and museums. Despite increasing awareness of these issues, they have not necessarily been part of the mainstream conversation.
“If you are ever looking for a missing artifact, nine times out of ten, it is in the British Museum,” Oliver says at the beginning of the episode. He pays special attention to the London institution’s vast holdings of other countries’ patrimony (including the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin bronzes); the art trafficking ring that has resulted in dozens of seizures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and artifacts stolen from Cambodia and Nepal.
“The British, in effect, stole and scrambled a nation’s memories,” he said about the looting of the Benin Bronzes. “A crime so fucked up that even Black Mirror hasn’t thought of it yet.”
“If I could impress one thing on you, it’s that when these objects end up in the West, we put them behind glass and we call them ‘art,’” Oliver says. “But in their home context, they can be much more.” He explains that the majority of museum objects are held in storage — at the British Museum, only 1% of its collection is on display — and disputes claims that when Western museums hold these objects, the artifacts become visible to a wider public.
Oliver goes on to discuss how these objects make their way into Western museum collections in the first place, citing grisly colonial histories and contemporary looting schemes. He cites Erin L. Thompson and Emiline Smith’s 2021 opinion piece for Hyperallergic titled “Stumbling Toward Repatriation” after discussing Sotheby’s consignment of a Cambodian statue that was taken in a brazen act of looting.
“But often, these are recent injuries, performed by looters or thieves snatching art for the Western market — sawing off heads to increase their profit by selling them separately, or hacking a sculpture out from a temple wall so rapidly that they leave the feet behind,” Thompson and Smith wrote.
The show also highlights Hyperallergic’s 2021 article about an Ethiopian Coptic Bible and set of horn beakers that were withdrawn from an auction in England. British troops stole the objects in 1868.
Oliver wrapped up his segment with a sketch about an imagined “Payback Museum.” The fictional institution’s African, Latin American, and Asian art galleries are empty — those objects are scattered throughout museums in the West, of course — but an arch from Stonehenge, Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, the tip of George Washington’s nose from Mount Rushmore, and the Louvre’s Mona Lisa are on display. In the storeroom, a box contains three of late president Gerald Ford’s ribs. The sketch was performed by Hollywood actor Kumail Ali Nanjiani.
“The conversation about what museums should hold has been changing rapidly in the last few years,” said Thompson, a Hyperallergic contributor and associate professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I hope the episode will let even more people know that they have the right — even the obligation — to ask ‘how did this get here?’ when they visit a museum.”