The British Museum’s latest exhibition, Rediscovering Gems, displays a range of prized ancient Roman and Greek artefacts. The exhibition stemmed from an announcement last year that numerous pieces from the museum’s collection were missing, stolen or damaged. Some of the gems exhibited are among those previously classified as missing.

Hartwig Fischer, the former director of the British Museum who resigned days after the announcement, stated that the museum had tightened its security arrangements and begun working alongside “outside experts” in order to “throw our efforts into the recovery of objects”.

The museum’s uncompromising programme of recovery, begun in August 2023, has involved the Metropolitan Police, international experts, taking legal action and dismissing staff.

On hearing about the stolen artefacts, and subsequent recovery programme, I sensed a whiff of irony that was echoed by others on social media. While the British Museum celebrates recovered items in its new exhibition, it has continuously refused to return historically looted items in its own collection back to countries of origin.

From irony to hypocrisy

Over the past year the British Museum, under increasing pressure, has ratified a new loan agreement which essentially functions as “short-term” restitution.

The first new case of this short-term restitution agreement was announced in January – 15 historical Asante objects are due to be returned to the Asante Kingdom in Ghana in May. The objects will remain with the Asante for three to six years before having to be legally returned to the British Museum. Since then, discussions surrounding another loan agreement have circulated relating to the long-contested Parthenon marbles.

And herein lies the hypocrisy of Rediscovering gems. Since August 2023, the British Museum has been relentless in its efforts to permanently recover and then exhibit stolen artefacts from its collection. But when it comes to historically looted items in its collection, the museum has only agreed to “loans”. The opening of Rediscovering gems displays an open embrace of institutional hypocrisy.

British Museum trustees tend to fall back on two arguments when interrogated about looted artefacts. First, that the museum’s collection is safely and uniquely placed to tell the story of humanity. Or second, that UK law prohibits the return of artefacts to countries of origin.

The first argument has fallen to pieces in the past year, as the stolen artefacts question the museum’s supposedly “safe” environment. The latter legal question seemingly presents a more robust barrier, yet in 2009 UK laws were altered to give previously prohibited museums the power to return cultural objects relating to Nazi-era looting. There is no legal barrier preventing the amendment of laws enabling the permanent restitution of historically looted objects.

Beyond the British Museum

So where to go from here? As well as continuing to pile pressure on the British Museum and UK lawmakers, I would argue that community stakeholders and national leaders should look beyond most national museums which are prohibited by law from returning objects to countries of origin. This includes the Science Museum Group, Kew Gardens and Wallace Collection.

These museums make up a very small percentage of the roughly 2,500 museums found across UK. Not all 2,500 hold looted material, but many certainly do.

As well as striking the loan agreement with the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, Asante representatives also struck a deal with the Fowler Museum at the University of California in Los Angeles. This resulted in the permanent restitution of seven objects in February. This is precisely how I think community stakeholders and national leaders should proceed with negotiating object returns – pressurising more prominent law-bound institutions while also working with less prominent alternatives.

In November 2022 the Horniman Museum permanently returned six objects to Nigeria. A year later the Manchester Museum permanently returned 174 items to the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community.

The Wellcome Trust currently holds historical Asante objects in its collection. I have been working alongside Asante and Wellcome representatives since last year to facilitate discussions regarding the future of these objects.

These examples indicate that there remains a large untapped selection of museums which may be more willing to engage in conversations about permanent returns.

The British Museum declined a request from The Conversation to comment on this story.

Nathan Bossoh is Research Fellow in History, University of Southampton.

This article was first published on The Conversation.