Museums: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses some of the world’s most prestigious museums, why they contain so many stolen goods, the market that continues to illegally trade antiquities, and a pretty solid blueprint for revenge.
Museums: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 9 Episode 24
Aired on October 2, 2022

Main segment: Cultural repatriation of looted artifacts and the antiquities trade
Other segment: September 2022 United Kingdom mini-budget
Guest: Kumail Nanjiani as museum curator

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John: Welcome, I’m John Oliver thank you so much for joining us it has been hurricane Ian battered Florida, a busy week. Massive protests continued in Iran, and a far-right coalition took power in Italy. And the only good news there is that doing an over-the-top Italian accent is now. A noble strike against the rise of fascism. But we’re going to start in the UK, where brand-new prime minister Liz Truss has been facing a cost-of-living crisis due to high energy prices. She and her finance minister unveiled a new economic plan last Friday, accompanied, for some reason, by a video where stirring music almost managed to disguise an utter lack of content.

What this is about is about making sure that the united kingdom is a successful economy where we’re getting more jobs, more investment. This is a fantastic country with huge reserves of talent, energy, and enterprise. And what this is all about is unleashing those talents, that energy, for the betterment of our country.

John: First, choose a camera. [Laughter] You’ve got two there, and you’re looking at neither of them. Second, that music sounds like it’s from “generically inspiring violin for bullshit political ads and commercials for Hospitals, vol 2.” And finally, “unleashing talent and energy” is completely meaningless, unless you’re a youth track coach that’s finally decided to give the team steroids. Truss’ plan, controversially, entails massive tax cuts, mostly to the wealthy, on the assumption it’ll eventually boost the economy for everyone. It’s basically trickle-down economics bullshit yet again, and it’s something truss’ allies tried to justify, with one arguing that “a rising tide lifts all ships”, and saying this:

If you look at the proposals, according to the resolution foundation, if you’re 1,000,000 pounds, you’re getting a tax cut of 55,000 pounds. I mean, that is quite clearly tax cuts that are weighted at the top end of the scale.

Yeah. So if all you care about is the distributional impacts of the tax cuts in the next 24 weeks, you’re not going to like this package if you care more about the poor.

John: Wow. If you care more about the poor, then “you’re not going to like this package.” That sounds less like someone defending an economic plan and more like Jeff Bezos describing his penis. Because in general, it’s not great to describe your current government policy the same way you’d describe legacy college admissions or a Ronald Reagan duvet cover. Right after those tax cuts were announced, UK financial markets were plunged into chaos, the pound hit a record low against the dollar, and the Bank of England was forced to step in to prevent pension funds collapsing. Making matters worse, truss then disappeared from public view for days, to the point that one British newspaper ran with the front page, “Missing: have you seen this PM?” And all this was such a fiasco, members of her own party were complaining to journalists about her.

An awful lot of Tory MPs are going “round and using words like “reckless’ and “madness’ today.

Another back bench MP, I’m shell-shocked. Another senior Tory back-bencher, I thought Boris Johnson’s cabinet the worst in history, that one’s just beaten it.

This person is saying, “people — that’s conservative MPs — are now asking, “how do we get rid of her.”

Just received-I’ll have to be-have to tiptoe around this, but we’re just hearing from a former Tory minister and conservative MP saying, “Liz is…,” I can’t use the word. “She is…,” same word again.

John: Wow. And remember: she took office less than a month ago! The only people who experience a shorter honeymoon period than that are praying mantises. But I’m honestly intrigued by this anchor reading her texts aloud in the middle of a broadcast. I hope she does that all the time. “Just received a text here, it’s from my friend Danielle. “Do you want to go see Bullet Train tomorrow? Me and peter are going, we might invite Trish, even though she’s a bit of a — oop! Can’t use that word.” [Laughter] This has been a truly spectacular start to the Liz Truss era, as she’s somehow managed to throw the u-k market into turmoil, disappear, and enrage her own party, all in less than a month. It is genuinely hard to put the scale of what she just did into words — sadly, because all the ones that apply apparently, can’t be said on television. And now, this.

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And now, shopping networks recognize Queen Elizabeth’s death the only way they know how.

I know this is such a hard time because the beautiful queen Elizabeth just past but she and her sister were on a trip to Africa and this is elegant and timeless just like her.

What is so wonderful over the last few weeks because of the passing of the Queen how  we have kind of returned to the look of diamonds.

Look at how rich that purple is. Isn’t that rich?

We are thinking about the Queen right now and England, what is so gorgeous you look at this royal purple, there is an elegance to this.

The thing about Queen Elizabeth, she had someone who wore their shoes before she wore them and broke them in, she never had an uncomfortable shoe in her entire life. You do not need someone to break these shoes in.

Her favorite flower, lily of the valley for our late Queen.

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John: Our main story tonight concerns antiquities. Relics from bygone times that can tell us stories about people from the past. Nana, but less overtly racist. Specifically, our story concerns what happens when those relics go missing. I’ll start by giving you just one example: if you go to Greece, you might go to the Acropolis Museum. And while you’re marveling at sculptures that are over two millennia old, you might notice some odd details, like this sculpture, which appears to have a white foot, or this one, where someone’s whole upper half seems to be suddenly and overwhelmingly white. It’s what’s known in the art world as “Season 2 of The Wire.” Well, there’s an explanation for where those missing pieces are. And as a British person, I’m a little bit implicated.

So the darker stone is the original whereas the white plaster, that represents what’s in the British Museum.

Yes. Exactly.

And here it is in the British Museum. The missing marble head and chest floating in a display space.

John: Yeah! We took it. Honestly, if you’re ever looking for a missing artifact? Nine times out of ten it’s in the British Museum. It’s basically the world’s largest “lost & found”, with both “lost” and “found” in the heaviest possible quotation marks. Specifically, those marbles — long known in England as “The Elgin Marbles” — were taken by lord Elgin, a 19th-century British lord who hacked them off the Parthenon. It’s something the Greeks are understandably furious about. Because they weren’t lost, they were taken. Which is worse. It’s like being unable to find the last puzzle piece, and learning that you didn’t actually misplace it — a British earl snuck into your house, stole it, and then sold it to a museum over a thousand miles away. Greece has been demanding the return of the “Elgin Marbles” for decades now, but the response from some of the British Museum’s defenders has been — even by British standards — unbelievably patronizing.

One can’t even think about returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens until the Greeks start caring for what they already have. I’m sure they’d take great care of the Parthenon sculptures if they were returned. But if you knew a woman was abusing her child, you wouldn’t let her adopt another. And that’s what the Greeks are asking for.

John: What? That’s not a great comparison, especially because it omits the fact that the “woman’s child” in this example was basically kidnapped. So it’s less a woman asking to adopt another child than it is her demanding the return of her first one. And look: the Elgin Marbles should absolutely be returned to Greece. Evan that woman you just saw, now says she thinks they should go back. But those marbles are just the tip of the iceberg. The fact is, antiquities, largely from the global south, which includes Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Mideast, have been taken and enshrined in European and American museums on a larger scale than you may realize. In 2018, a report commissioned by the French president found that over ninety percent of all Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. But as the voices arguing for antiquities to be returned are getting louder, others are resisting any change. In 2010, when asked whether the UK would ever return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India, prime minister David Cameron refused, saying, “if you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.” Which is incredibly frustrating. It’s frankly no wonder that some are now taking matters into their own hands.

In June, a Congolese activist removed a 19th century Chadian funeral pole from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris as part of a protest campaign against plundering during the colonial era.”

John: Yeah! Obviously that man was unaware of the museum’s very clear policy, “no stealing African antiquities, starting ‘now.'” So given just how many antiquities in some of the world’s most prestigious museums are essentially stolen goods, tonight, let’s talk about museums. This is going to be a larger story than normal, and we’re going to do it in two main parts — first, concerning how antiquities ended up in museums in the past. And then, about the thriving modern market that keeps them supplied with objects to this day. And look — we don’t have time to recap the entire history of colonialism and the plunder of antiquities. There are so many stolen artifacts we could talk about — from the treasures of Tipu Sultan, to the Zodiac of Dendera. But in order to say a lot in a little, let’s stay with the British Museum. In its own promotional materials, it makes a feature of just how important and influential its founding was.

In January 1759, the British Museum opened its doors, the first national public museum of the world. Initially, the objects were based on the founding collection of sir Hans Sloane. And this is Hans Sloane, scholar, entrepreneur, physician, who was connected with the best minds of his time. In fact, our collection has always been about connecting people.

John: Okay, first, I’m going to say what we’re all thinking: that guy’s definitely googled “could night at the museum actually happen.” Not because he’s scared of a big bony dinosaur chasing him, but because when no one’s around, he “definitely” fucks the art and doesn’t want any of it talking. But that notion of museums as a place for people to connect with our shared history, and with cultures all over the world, clearly isn’t fundamentally bad. But it’s also not wholly representative of the actual history of how many museums came to be. For instance: Hans Sloane — who on his best day, looked like that — had some interesting “connections” of his own. Specifically, the fact he was married to an heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica, worked by enslaved people, and bought many objects in his collection with that wealth. Meaning the museum’s very foundations are inextricably tied up in slavery and colonialism, with the same being true of many of its most prized holdings. Take the Benin Bronzes, a term that refers to a huge range of objects produced in the “kingdom” of Benin, which is currently part of modern-day Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were looted from the palace of the king of Benin, or the “Oba”, in 1897, after the British military invaded and violently toppled him. That mission was vindictive and destructive — but also extremely targeted.

The British soldiers, armed with machine guns, conquered the city and burned it to the ground. But not before carefully taking thousands of artifacts. They piled them up neatly, photographed them, and even labeled them “loot.” This photo, taken at the Benin palace after the raid, shows soldiers with the dismantled plaques that were brought to the British Museum, and sold all over the world.

John: Okay, first, that’s awful. But second: it’s pretty remarkable that a British soldier went to the trouble of carefully labelling each of those photos, and the captions he used were “loot” and “more loot.” At the very least, he could’ve chosen something descriptive, like, “Dan, Terry, and I after doing cultural genocide.” But the looting of the Benin Bronzes wasn’t just a physical loss — it was a cultural and historical one. Take these plaques. They’re not just pieces of art. They’re something much more important, as this member of the Benin royal family explained.

Those things are like our own diaries. Whatever was significant, the Oba would tell the guild of bronzecasters to cast it in bronze. To keep a record. So taking them away was like yanking off pages of our history.

John: Right — for the people of Benin, these were their memories made physical. And these plaques were laid out in a very specific order, which was then lost when the British tore them from the palace walls. Meaning the British in effect stole and scrambled a nation’s memories, a crime so fucked up, even Black Mirror hasn’t thought of it yet. Now, the British Museum still holds more bronzes than anywhere else, but they’re all scattered among 161 museums and institutions around the world, with only nine such institutions located in Nigeria. And understandably, there’ve been calls for the return of the bronzes for decades now — and a handful of museums have complied — but the British Museum has repeatedly refused, consistently pointing to the British Museum act of 1963, which explicitly forbids it from giving an item in its collection away, with very limited exceptions. And the thing is, that law does exist. But laws can also be changed if you want to. And the more you hear British officials talk, the clearer it becomes that that’s not what they want at all.

Well, I think that they properly reside in the British Museum. The collections of our great national institutions have been developed over many, many centuries, in many times, in questionable circumstances. I think the question now is about what we do with these. I love the Benin Bronzes. I’ve seen them many times throughout my life, and I think them being in the British Museum, which is a world repository of heritage, allows people to see it.

John: Yeah, that offensively English man “loves” the Benin Bronzes. And while I’m so glad that Oliver James Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, has seen them “many times throughout his life,” the fact is, not everyone gets to do that, as this Nigerian artist and art historian will attest.

1995. In London. That was my first time of seeing an original, uh, ancient Benin artwork, was, yes, at a British Museum. To see, for the first time, these objects it was a mixture of pride in the achievement of these ancient artists, and anger mixed with a sense of loss. Most Nigerians will never see them.

John: Exactly. The generations of British children who’ve grown up “loving” the Benin Bronzes come at the expense of generations of Nigerians who haven’t. And, again: this is just one example, of so so many. And whenever the question of returning stolen objects comes up, there are usually a few stock responses, which are worth quickly addressing. The first is, basically, these were “acquired” in a different time, and you can’t judge the present by the standards of the past. When France was recently roiled by a debate over whether to return African art, this catastrophically French art historian basically made that exact case.

These artifacts, who do they belong to?

They belong to the museums where they are now. Because there are laws, you know, and if-even for the artifacts which were looted in the 19th century, in the 19th century of the war, there was laws, and the looting of war was legal. Maybe it’s not moral, but it’s legal. And if you want to come back on this, why don’t you come back, 19th century, 17th century, 16th century? You cannot stop. You don’t know where to stop.

John: So. How do I explain this so that man will understand? “Yes, there may not have been lows explicitly making looting illegal, but the idea that gives you carte blanche is, “ow you say, “orseshit.” And setting aside that “Didier Rykner, the looting-apologist art historian” seems less like a real person and more like a character in Tintin: “how we saved the Egyptians from themselves,” the fact is, looting wasn’t just an acceptable, unavoidable byproduct of war “under ze low.” It was sometimes baked into the plan from the outset. In fact, during one notorious British raid in northern Ethiopia in 1868, the army even brought along an expert from the British Museum to bid for some of the choicest items. And importantly, people knew the practice was wrong even back then. After that raid on Ethiopia, the British prime minister said he “deeply lamented, for the sake of the country and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles were thought fit to be brought away by a British army.” And urged that they “be held only until they could be restored.” He was saying that in 1868! We didn’t even know how to fix a uti without leeches back then, but knew that raiding other countries for their shit was “deeply lamentable’ which is British for “super fucked up.” Now, the second common argument is that objects are actually safer under the care of western institutions than they would be in their home country. Here’s that case being made by an art dealer, regarding pre-Colombian art from Peru.

According to the law, which I think like to think of as Solomon’s law, the one who loves the baby best gets the baby, the one who will pay the most for the baby gets the baby. If Peru cannot properly take care of its national treasures, the rest of the world will take care of it for the Peruvians, as it should be.

John: He seems great. But he’s right — it’s exactly as King Solomon famously declared: “the real mother is whoever agrees to offer 200 thousand over the asking price all cash, inspection waived.” And the argument, “you can’t be trusted with your own property, you’ll just damage it” is hard to land, even before you learn that the caretaking record of some museums is mixed at best. Remember that woman insisting the Greeks couldn’t possibly take care of the Parthenon marbles? Here’s a fun fact: multiple leaks have been reported in the British Museum’s Greek galleries, and in the 1930s, in what museum officials later admitted was a “heavy handed” attempt to clean the sculptures, they actively damaged them by scrubbing them with wire brushes and a harsh cleaning agent. And look — even under Solomon’s law, “whoever loves the baby gets the baby, but if you scrub the baby with wire brushes, we take the f*cking baby away.” And the final argument you hear is that these museums are an open repository of the world’s treasures, and can actually increase the number of people who can enjoy them. But you’ve already seen someone point out, that’s only true if you can get to the museum in question. Also it’s worth noting that most display only a tiny fraction of their collections. The British Museum, for instance, has a collection of eight million objects, though only around eighty thousand of them — one percent — are on public display at any one time. And it can be pretty galling for people to find that their heritage — which is often part of a vibrant present-day culture — is sitting in storage in the British Museum’s underground loot prison. Here in the US, we’ve stashed away many native American artifacts. Just watch as members of the eastern Shoshone and northern Arapahoe tribes are allowed to visit artifacts in storage at Chicago’s Field Museum.

So just beyond here is the storeroom where we’ll be looking at some of the artifacts. ♪ ♪ When I think about objects that belong to tribal members that are just sitting there in the dark, I felt angry. And I felt sad. You just walk in and there is just like rows and rows and rows of all these objects. They’ve been boxed away since they were collected. Nobody can see them, touch them, be around them.

John: That’s devastating. And it gets a lot harder to pretend these objects are fulfilling a mission of educating and connecting people, when they’re in a basement in a box labeled with a f*cking sharpie. And at this point, you may be thinking, “well, obviously, we shouldn’t have taken those objects in the past. But now we know better.” But you should know: this practice is still very much going on. Which brings us to the second big part of our story: the modern antiquities market. Because items are still being bought, sold and donated all the time between private individuals, museums, dealers and auction houses. And when it comes to those items, the key word to understand is “provenance.” Basically, the full history of an object and the path it took to end up here. Because not every piece is like those famous Benin Bronzes, where it’s clear from our history books who took them. For most items, research into provenance is critical — it’s not just how you know whether an item is real or fake, but also whether or not it got to you legally. The auction house Sotheby’s even has a whole video on its website, bragging about how much it loves researching provenance — even though it seems to view it less as an ethical imperative and more as a sweet marketing perk.

So provenance-

That’s my favorite part.

Provenance is the history of ownership for a work.

Since it was brought to life-

Who that work of art had been made for-

Whose walls it’s been hanging on.

How many different hands has it passed through.

Who else has looked at it, in some cases, who else has loved it.

Who wore it, when did she wear it, how did she wear it, how often did she wear it? For me, this is what we kind of live for, is to get the great stories to tell.

And often the story of its ownership can be just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the artist.

Provenance is something that, in a way, doesn’t matter. And yet, and yet.

John: and yet, in another way, it really does. And sidenote: never in my life has there been such an intimidatingly bougie collection of people. You can almost hear them saying, “actually, it’s pronounced cwoissant.” And while I don’t doubt Sotheby’s loves backstories that add luster and, crucially, value to the objects they auction, they, and many others, seem much less interested when those stories uncover something seamier. One gallery owner who recently pled guilty for her part in trafficking looted antiquities said that buying and selling objects with vague or even no provenance was so much the norm in the art market, it was a “conspiracy of the willing.” And to see exactly what that conspiracy can look like, just look at one attempted sale where Sotheby’s ignored some pretty glaring warning signs.

Three years ago, Cambodia learned that Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan was attempting to sell a thousand-year-old masterpiece for $3 million, the feet of which were still at the temple in Cambodia. Sotheby’s was warned by the very expert they hired to appraise the statute that it was, quote, “definitely stolen.” They knew the feet were still there. Despite what their expert told them, they decided to put the statue on the front of one of their more prominent auction catalogs of the year.

John: Holy shit. How did that conversation go? The expert said, “this is definitely stolen.” And Sotheby’s said, “yeah, but it might not be, right?” And the expert said, “no, it’s stolen.” And Sotheby’s said, “you’re so funny.” And the expert said, “what?” And Sotheby’s said. ‘Seriously, Jamie, you’re too much!” And the expert said, “thanks. But, again, it is stolen.” And Sotheby’s said, “tell your mom I said hi.” And the expert said, “my mom is dead.” And then they printed it on the cover. Now, legally, I have to tell you: Sotheby’s insists they did nothing wrong and that they conduct extensive due diligence before offering items up for auction. But you should know: in the case of that statue, federal prosecutors eventually intervened, forcing Sotheby’s to hand it over to Cambodia, where it was eventually happily reunited with its feet. It’s a real Cinderella story, if Cinderella had been amputated at the ankle. And interestingly, it’s not uncommon to see statues missing feet or hands. And while you might assume it’s damage due to time, it’s often a sign it’s been stolen, with looters or thieves sawing off heads to sell separately, or hacking a sculpture out from a temple wall so rapidly, they leave the feet behind. And if I know this, and you now know this, then Sotheby’s “definitely” fucking did. And, again, this is why provenance research is so vitally important. But many buyers fail to do even the bare minimum — meaning the demand for stolen goods will always be met by a steady supply. Just watch as a dealer in Nepalese artifacts Deepak Shakya, basically walks someone through just how easy it can be to get paperwork to justify removing an object from the country.

By law, the country’s department of archeology cannot issue export papers on items more than 100 years old. But Deepak says he has a tried and proven way.

So government, no problem getting these out?

No. I mean, we have to give some money under the table, but otherwise no problem.


I mean, it’s not legal-


But still, I mean, we can get it done, it’s no problem.

John: Okay, that’s way too easy. I don’t know how hard it should be to illegally export a culture’s treasured antiquities, but it should at least be harder than “find a guy who has a guy.” That man was later arrested and charged, presumably alarming museums with large collections from Nepal. Just look what happened when those documentary makers sat down with a representative from the Rubin Museum, here in New York, to ask a pretty basic question.

In Nepal, authorities recently arrested a number of antique dealers. Has the Rubin Museum done any dealings with Deepak Shakya or his family, the Shakyas?

I don’t think we should answer that. I mean-

The museum’s PR person intervenes.

I don’t-I mean, we would obviously look into our-you know, we’d have to do a lot of research to know that.

Do you want to say that?

Do you want us to like, get back to you about it?

That would be, yeah, that’d be good.

John: Okay, a pretty good rule, when you’re asked “do you work with art thieves?”, is that any answer that’s not an immediate “no” is instantly suspicious. And while the Rubin later claimed that, to their best knowledge, they didn’t have any connection to Deepak Shakya, or any objects from him, they did return these two objects from their collection just this year, that “were” stolen. And the Nepalese group that pressured them to do that, recently identified another object they say is stolen which — you’ll never guess — just happens to be in the Rubin right now. But don’t worry, they told us they’re looking into that one now, too. And I’m sure they’ll get back to us. It’s what they do. And the thing is, there are lots of dealers around, who use museums to launder their reputations. Take Subhash Kapoor. Who was once one of the leading sources of Asian art for museums and collectors. The Met currently has 86 objects from him in its collection, and even threw him a private reception in 2009 after he donated dozens of Indian drawings. Which was a real win-win. The Met got the drawings, and Kapoor got to tell people he had art in the Met, and it’s not like they would work with a disreputable dealer, right? But Kapoor was ultimately identified as a prolific trafficker of stolen goods. And he didn’t even bother coming up with good cover stories. The most common one he used was that objects had come from the family collection of his girlfriend. And you might be thinking, “that’s so stupid it would only work on a group of real ding dongs.” To which I’d say, “you’re right. It seems to have worked on the Met 86 times.” And buying art without doing proper provenance research can blow up in a museum’s face, in spectacular fashion. Take what happened a few years back at the Met gala. The year? 2018. Kim Kardashian made an appearance wearing head-to-toe atelier Versace, that was, notably, gold, just like this guy, Nedjemankh, or more specifically, his coffin, which the Met had recently acquired. Guys, a photo opp of the two of them had to happen! It did, the internet exploded. But then, this happened.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York receiving a tip after Kim’s photo from the Met gala went viral.

The Manhattan assistant district attorney was emailed the photo by an anonymous informant in the Middle East, saying he recognized the coffin and knew it had been looted. Museum officials saying they bought the sarcophagus for $4 million from an art dealer in Paris in 2017, but were fooled by fake papers saying it had been legitimately exported decades ago.

John: Wow. Say what you want about Kim Kardashian — the woman has a real knack for producing incredible images, just by standing next to men that look like they died a long time ago. It turns out, Nedjemankh’s coffin had been stolen during the Egyptian uprising in 2011. And as the story unraveled, it became clear the Met should’ve been a lot more suspicious when it was offered to them. Because the red flags included three conflicting ownership histories, the involvement of known traffickers, and a forged export license that bore the stamp “Arab Republic of Egypt” before the country used that name. And that’s too many red flags! It’d be like if Madame Tussaud’s bought and displayed a clearly alive James Spader. Your only job was to make sure this celebrity was wax, how’d you fuck this up so badly? Now, the Met’s since relinquished the coffin and apologized to Egypt. But a museum’s approach to provenance research can’t be “do nothing until Kim Kardashian takes a photograph in front of one of our objects and we’re humiliated on the international stage.” This can’t be her responsibility — she’s too busy revolutionizing shapewear! And it’s worth noting: in the last five years the Met has had no fewer than nine search warrants executed on it, resulting in 37 pieces being seized. And none of this is a victimless crime. Because the trafficking of looted antiquities has financed some of the world’s worst actors, from the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And the harm also extends to the personal level. Because, again, if I can impress one thing on you, it’s that when these objects end up in the west, we put them behind glass and call them art. But in their home contexts, they can be much more. For instance, this stolen, sacred statue was in a Dallas museum until March of last year, and when it was finally returned to Nepal, it was immediately put back into use for religious worship. There’s just a level of abject callousness on display here — which, to be fair, some institutions are finally coming to terms with. Take the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. It recently began reassessing objects in its collection, and facing the grim realities of what it had been holding onto, like this glass sphere. The story behind how it got to Aberdeen is both fascinating and horrifying.

This Hindu holy man had been challenged to hold the glass sphere for 12 years in order to obtain a beneficial afterlife. He only managed eight.

Subsequently, we discovered that in the anatomical collection of human skulls, we have his skull. >>Wow.

Is that his head?

That is, yeah.

Let’s have a look. Gosh.

That’s him.

Amazing and awful at the same time, isn’t it? They’re cremated, aren’t they, Hindus? And he hasn’t been cremated. That’s profoundly offensive, isn’t it? And here we are in the 21st century and we still haven’t put this person to rest.

No. No.

God, that’s terrible, isn’t it?

John: Yes, it is for about a hundred reasons. Because a head in a box is less something you’d expect to find at an academic institution, and more in the basement of a serial killer. And that’s emblematic of so much here — the fact that, for so long, not only did no one see the significance of that object to that man, no one saw that man as significant, period. So. What can be done? Well, some institutions like the University of Aberdeen have been taking this reckoning seriously. They’re beginning discussions with a local Hindu temple about what to do with that man’s remains. They actually also had a Benin Bronze, which they repatriated late last year. Which is great. But too often, the reckoning only goes so far. A few years ago, the UK’s National Army Museum returned to Ethiopia a stolen lock of hair belonging to an Ethiopian emperor, but took pains to point out that it was “definitely not a precedent.” Look: the fact is, museums should be getting asked hard questions about every aspect of both their acquisition process and their collections, as part of a long-overdue conversation about where their items came from, and whether anyone wants them back. Some countries might even be willing to loan items out to museums around the world, but with a clear understanding of who actually owns them. The point is, that conversation should be led by the groups those items originally belonged to. Because while obviously, museums shouldn’t be violating the law, they shouldn’t be violating basic moral decency, either. There is so much we need to do to reckon with the harms, past and present, of colonialism. But this should be the easy part. And until such time as we genuinely engage in that reckoning, I’d like to present a potential plan b.

♪ ♪

Hi, I’m Kumail Nanjiani and I’m here to introduce you to the Payback Museum. The first public museum in the world devoted to providing recourse to nations who have been plundered of their greatest treasures throughout history by colonial dick heads. This is a collection all about disconnecting people, specifically disconnecting western countries from their shit the way everyone else — come on, I’ll show you around. Welcome to our Africa wing, this is where there should Benin Bronzes, the spectacular tablets that tell the comprehensive story of the glorious kingdom. But they were put in the back, shaken and dumped out over Europe look a bunch of scrabble letters so until we get them back, this room is home to… one of the Stonehenge arches! Yeah, Britain, you might have noticed your missing one, we took it because you were just leaving it out and getting it wet, and look, there’s grass and shit on it. We won’t think about returning it until you start caring about what you already have. Honestly, I don’t even like it, I think that Stonehenge sucks, they are just rocks, I don’t want to return them to spite you. Are you having fun? I am.
Let’s move on. In our Latin America wing we wanted to feature a collection of gorgeous ancient indigenous Peruvian textiles… but they are all at the museum in Philadelphia, so instead we have… the Liberty Bell! An early American example of a… f*cking bell. We didn’t stop there. We also have Mount Rushmore… to be more accurate just the tip… and to be more specific… of George Washington’s nose. [Laughter] You might be thinking “why are you depriving thousands of bored schoolchildren the sight of this oversized snoz and this fucked up dinger? Well, you know the rules, whoever loves the baby best… gets the baby… and your babies got got.
Now we have something really special, I’m thrilled to announce the grand opening of our brand new state-of-the-art Asia wing where we are beyond proud to display a number of priceless 10th century religious statues… or at least we were. Now we only have their feet. So instead we got a couple things from France. Oh, we got most of the Mona Lisa overrated bunch of shit from Versailles, Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” — which I swear we’re gonna frame at some point or at least get some poster putty tack it onto a wall like in a college dorm room, next to a picture of Bob Marley. You know what’s fun? The story of its ownership can be just as interesting as the art itself, who’s owned it, who loved it, who you’ll stop as we ran out of the museum with it — if that would happen, which it definitely didn’t because we have the papers saying it’s fine. See, don’t worry, we followed all the laws… Now, if you come with me, our last stop is where the real treasures are.
Here we are in the storeroom where we keep some of our most prized possessions, items so valuable we know it’s morally indefensible for us to have them… the good shit. Every one of these boxes here will blow your mind. We’ve got loot, more loot… oh, this one is very, very special. In this box lie three of Gerald Ford’s ribs. You wonder why do we have them? Because we cannot get four. You think he hasn’t been dead nearly long enough for that to be okay and I say oh, yeah? How long do you have to be dead for it to be okay? Give me a number how long after his death it’s okay to have part of his body sweating in a museums hot storage. If you hear from one of the countries who own this stuff, enjoy it. Our museum is a repository so you can visit your stuff anytime between 9:00 a.m. At 4:00 p.m. And not on Mondays. I know you might want some of this stuff back and we would love to give it back to you but if we give it to you everyone else is going to line up and suddenly this whole place is empty. So the answer is no. It’s all ours forever. Smells like payback. [Laughter] Or dust.

[Cheers and applause]

John: That’s our show, thank you so much for watching,


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