How museums connive in the looting of the world

In yet another outstanding episode of his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver looks at the ugly history of how western countries looted the heritage of people around the world by robbing them of their historical artifacts in order to stock their museums and enrich themselves. He takes apart the excuses that are given by these museums to retain their stolen goods.

What I found particularly depressing was that only a tiny fraction of the looted items get displayed even in the museums of the western countries. Almost all of them are buried in their vaults so that no one gets to see them.

When people talk about historical wrongs, they often complain that it is hard to know how to rectify it. In most of these cases of looted items, it is not that hard. We know what the looted items are, we know where they came from, and who the rightful owners are. They must be returned.


  1. Bruce says

    Yes. Museums might have claimed they should keep all items because they display them better. But when museums don’t even display 80-90% of the items anyway, then they can’t make that claim, even by mere implication. They should scan their items and display 3-D printed replicas, and return all the items to the governments in question. It’s better for say the British Museum to display replicas than to hold originals hostage.

  2. outis says

    Mmmm, John Oliver is really good, but the perspective in this particular segment is very British. The British Museum is not the only museum in the world, and the history of looting goes a long way back.
    If one considers just Europe, absolutely everyone there has looted something from someone else, and putting things to right would be a HUGE headache. In Italy there’s a section of the “carabinieri” police which specialises in hunting and returning items of historical value smuggled out of the country: in the last half century or so, the number of recovered objects is in the millions range!
    Further, apart from blatant cases of theft like the Parthenon marbles and the Benin bronzes, a “universal movement for restitution” would find many difficulties in adjudicating the correct destinations. For example, the ancient Romans also had a taste for looting, and they liked Egyptian obelisks, so much that there are now more of them in Rome than in Egypt, IIRC. And they have been there for a konger time than they existed in Egypt, so what to do?
    One cannot help but admit that stolen goods should be returned, but in many cases for such ancient objects the exact property rights are not so easy to determine.
    It will be interesting to see how this develops.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Great, another “Video unavailable. The uploader has not made this video available in your country [Canada]”. The most-repeated words on this blog.

  4. Silentbob says

    @ 3 Rob Grigjanis


    I get it. I get the same message (Australia). But it seems silly to keep griping about it when Mano can’t control the restrictions and numerous workarounds have been offered on this blog over the years.

  5. Silentbob says

    … Oh you just right click the “video unavailable” message and click “copy video URL” if that wasn’t clear and past in that site. Conversion takes seconds.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    ardipithecus @4: Well, that is different anyway: “Video unavailable. This video contains content from Home Box Office Inc., who has blocked it on copyright grounds”.

  7. jenorafeuer says

    Rob Grigjanis @7:
    Well, it didn’t say that yesterday when it was originally posted here.

  8. John Morales says

    That link @4 was to a pirate content-stealer; many of those around but only last until Youtube takes action, usually not long at all.

  9. Silentbob says

    @ 10 John Morales

    Hahaha. Cool story, bro.

    Downloading YouTube videos for personal use is actually perfectly legal. Google owns both Chrome and YouTube and so will not permit developers to create downloading extensions, but downloading extensions for other browser are common and perfectly legal, eg.:

    (Morales is just taking random pot-shots at me because I keep calling him out (like now) and he feels humiliated.)

    Using the site I linked is fine as long as you don’t distribute or sell the download, ignore that clown.

    VPNs are also legal although I’m sure now that I’ve mentioned them Morales will put out a public warning. X-D

  10. Silentbob says

    Oh sorry, I might have humiliated myself this time by getting the comment number wrong.
    Disregard and cue, ” you’re so vain… I bet you think this comment is about you…”

  11. John Morales says

    (Morales is just taking random pot-shots at me because I keep calling him out (like now) and he feels humiliated.)


    What I feel is kinda sad for you.

  12. Silentbob says

    @ 13 John Morales

    That’s so sweet, but there’s no need. I’m just doing what normal people do when they get something wrong in public --  immediately pointing it out and make fun of themselves. Others familiar to us all would deny they ever said anything wrong, double, quadruple, quintuple down, and claim anyone who said they made a mistake is a liar out to get them. I know we both know people like this. Some who have been on this quest to justify a mistake for seven years or so. Some who may have a name reminiscent of the worlds greatest consulting detective. Some of whom you may see in a

    I’m happy to be a role model for laughing at one’s own mistake and moving on. But if you think it will stop me laughing at others who think themselves superior but are unable to do the same -- you’re shit out of luck, sunshine. X-D

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