The WAKCHAKUNA/ we who share everything and nothing exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary. A pile of sand and rocks with sculptures.
The WAKCHAKUNA exhibition in the Nottigham Contemporary draws attention to looted cultural artefacts in the possession of British museums. Credit: Autumn Milburn

A new exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is drawing attention to the controversy of stolen and looted international artefacts in British museums.

WAKCHAKUNA / We Who Share Everything and Nothing by Claudia Martínez Garay explores debates around how historic cultural objects were looted from natives’ burials in her homeland of Peru and are still held by western museums.

A half buried statue of a face in a pile of sand as part of the exhibition.
Martínez Garay describes the South American funerary artefacts in the possession of The British Museum as “orphaned” and “suspended between life and death.” Credit: Autumn Milburn

The exhibition is a mountain of sand and rocks intended to resemble an excavated grave.

Studded with half-buried statues and pottery fragments, Martínez Garay created replicas of artefacts recovered from Peruvian burials and taken to the UK.

The pottery pieces Martínez Garay recreated were made based on The British Museum’s inventory of South American items, most of which were in the archives and not on public display.

She also shows large aluminium sculptures of indigenous creatures including a cojinova fish and wild jaguarundi cat overlooking the mountain.

A clay leg on a pile of sand and rocks
Many of the artefacts Martínez Garay recreated from The British Museum’s inventory were archived, with little information about their origins recorded. Credit: Autumn Milburn

Many of the pottery pieces were categorised without specific details of their original state or location, losing their context and intended meaning, even to their own culture.

She says, “offerings and artefacts were stolen and stashed away in Europe, lost and robbed of their purpose.”

In plaques accompanying the exhibition, Martínez Garay describes these items as, “orphaned,” with their removal from their homeland to Britain without identity “suspending them between life and death.”

“Imagine how the ancient Peruvians would feel seeing our world today,” she says. “Modernity has shamelessly disregarded their traditions and beliefs.

“But, just as the ancient cultures couldn’t foresee our present, Europe can’t conceive a future deprived of these artefacts.”

The exhibition runs at Nottingham Contemporary until Sunday September 8.

Analysis: Why do British museums still have looted colonial pieces?

UK museum collections have been criticised in recent years for declining to return objects taken from other countries back to their original settings – a process known as ‘restitution’.

The British Museum alone is home to more than 8m items, 99% of which are archived and not on display. The majority are from other countries and obtained through either direct or indirect colonial exploitation.

Museum professional Jessica Young believes that while it might seem morally obvious, there isn’t a simple answer to whether looted objects should be given back.

“In an ideal world you would return them. You get taught at a very young age ‘if you steal something you have to hand it back’ but this issue isn’t quite so black and white,” says Young, 25, who works in Lancashire.

The primary issue preventing artefacts being returned to their home countries is The British Museum Act, 1963.

‘You get taught at a very young age ‘if you steal something you have to give it back’

The legislation rules that the museum can only remove an object from its collection if it’s a duplicate, damaged or unneeded and no longer holding any public interest.

“Usually if a country wants something back it would naturally be a big-ticket item, which under this law just wouldn’t be possible,” she adds.

One way around this is for museums to loan objects back to their country of origin, such as the Benin bronzes currently on loan to Nigeria by European museums.

Artefacts on display in Derby Museum and Art Gallery
The British Museum Act, 1963, prevents any unique, undamaged international artefacts being returned. Photo credit: Autumn Milburn

This isn’t always practical however; Young explains moving some artefacts is a massive technical undertaking, requiring meticulous control of temperature, humidity and light exposure.

“Items are also more vulnerable to being stolen or lost in transport,” she adds.

It means insurance prices are extremely high, and many museums would struggle to cover the costs for sending priceless artefacts back to their homeland.

Rather than having a permanent ownership of the items she sees British museums as custodians, ensuring the safe and accessible conservation of global culture and histories.

“For example, in Syria, there have been reports of monuments and museums being purposely destroyed in the conflict,” she says, “but the Syrian pieces in European museums are protected from that, ensuring the countries heritage is safe for generations to come.”

‘an object has a LIFE, its history is continuous’

She believes however that museums have a duty to recognise how items in their collections came to the UK, especially when it’s contentious.

“An object has a life. They don’t die, for them history is continuous,” she says.

“Just because an item’s currently in a museum doesn’t mean its story has ended, it’s a new chapter and may be an important part of their future history.”

Case study: How Derby Museum addresses the looted items controversy

A Derby Museum and Art Gallery display of different international items and how they made their way to the UK.
This display in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery acknowledges the varied, and sometimes ethically murky roots of their world collection. Credit: Autumn Milburn

A display within the Derby Museum and Art Gallery is dedicated to recognising the different origins of items in its world collection.

Objects which were bought, traded, gifted, looted and stolen are on show, encouraging visitors to share their thoughts via #DMWorldCulture.

The display acknowledges the colonial history of the museum’s collection, with these items coming to Britain, “occasionally through consent, but largely through violence, subjugation and exploitation.”

Rather than stowing these ethically murky items in their archives, they decided to cast a light on the pieces and what their journey to the UK symbolises.

A pair of wooden African figures listed as 'looted' within the Derby Museum and Art Gallery display.
This pair of wooden figures from Sudan, Africa are believed to have been looted and cut from the tops of staff. Their exact age and meaning has been lost. Credit: Autumn Milburn

“We want to dignify these objects by uncovering their lost, hidden or implied stories,” says the exhibition labelling, acknowledging that the colonial acquisition of these items is now also part of their story.

“we want to dignify these objects by uncovering their lost stories”

For example, a pair of wooden figures from Sudan which are believed to have been looted, cut from the top of staffs.

The details of their exact meaning and age are lost, but they are believed to be from the late 19th-mid 20th century.


Garay's exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary in the style of an excavated grave
Martínez Garay intends for the exhibition to address the lost identities of looted artefacts. Credit: Autumn Milburn