Museums: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Museums: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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.

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48 Responses


    Fun fact the word loot is a Hindi / Sanskrit (Indian language) word. So the British looted so much that they even took the word loot which the people cried when they were looting.

  2. the JaYoe Nation says:

    Why don’t they say, “We are going to return the everything to their rightful country of origin and maintain a collection of carefully crafted replicas to replace them, each paying homage to the original and the story of its return as part of the museum.”That would still allow the collection to inspire, and put them back in their rightful place. You could even document the replication as an art form of paying respect.

    • Alva Sanne says:

      Definitely. In high school art history we watched a super long documentary of people doing that same exact thing with Michelangelo’s David. It was to show how much work was put into every part of the process (including by what were essentially slaves cough cough), how much craftsmanship and ingenuity etc. Every artist involved seemed to practically worship Michelangelo, and this was a way of paying respect, like you said.

      I think the problem is that this amount of dedication to the artist and their craft is really not there when it comes to non-western art, in most museums anyway. There’s something else driving people in clinging to these stolen artifacts, some sort of pride or wish to remain in a culturally more powerful position in the world. It’s not about the object itself (the ART part of it all) but about the fact that they HAVE it. Especially since it would often be impossible to gain the full context needed for understanding the full meaning of the piece where it’s placed, like we are so often encouraged to do with western art (looking through historic lenses, finding deeper iconographic meaning and so forth.) In short: the problem might be that we (western art institutions) simply don’t respect these pieces, and so, we have none to pay. I don’t have a solid solution to this, but there are some fucked up cultural values at play here.

      I agree with some of the responses raising some technical issues with your proposal, or ways it could be improved, but I think it’s a very compelling idea which definitely raises a lot of interesting questions. This comment is way too long but this is truly a fascinating and infuriating subject. Might write an essay about it tbh

    • Dara Boyd says:

      @MightyRude why is that even a consideration?
      “I’m going to keep your dog but give you one that looks exactly like it.” 😑

    • skeekeedee says:

      @jerusareem do you hear how selfish your comment sounds?

    • Veganpotter Thevegan says:

      @Karma Per Diem it’s often very obvious that something is a replica. That doesn’t matter though. It’s the right thing to do

  3. Cris GD In Coffee Spoons says:

    Puerto Rico actually has a kind of payback museum. The art museum in Ponce is home to legitimately bought classic European art including a large chunk of the most important works from the Pre-Raphelaite movement. It always makes us incredibly happy when UK art museums have to beg us to use them. And its up to us if we want to lend them or if you know we don’t know if you can care for them properly and moving hem such a distance can be so dangerous for the work so maybe we don’tsend them. Anyways, generations of Puerto Rican children, including myself, have grown up with fond memories of their favorite paintings. Mine is The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones that is displayed along with several drafts and practice sketches among other of Burne-Jones works.

  4. Greg Hodges says:

    One thing John didn’t mention was how much more stolen art is hidden away in private collections. These people often have deeper pockets and less hesitation to acquiring art with a “dubious” ownership history.

  5. Wanax Digammes says:

    Fun fact about the Elgin Marbles: After the British Museum refused to return them on the grounds that Greece didn’t have a proper place to display them, they built the state of the art modern Acropolis Museum in Athens for the chief purpose of housing the Elgin Marbles. They still refuse to send them back. Also, when Lord Elgin was transporting the marbles to Britain, the ship they were on sank, and the marbles had to be salvaged from the ocean floor.

  6. spornge says:

    My grandmother found out her grand parents had managed to obtain an Eaglehead dress when she was going through our family storage, she contacted a bunch of people about where it should be probably donated, the museums wanted to not only claim it and planned to put in storage , but were going to fine her for owning it. Keep in mind she was not trying to sell just send it where it should be, thankfully a native American Heritage association got ahold of her and had the legal power to defend their claim on it so it did not end up in a box in a bottom of a basement. It was really gorgoues. I wish I knew where it ended up only that it ended up with a heritage organizaiton.

  7. Doreen Brandt says:

    I love that the whole point of the Solomon story is that when you truly love something you are willing to let it go to make sure it isn’t harmed in the conflict of ownership. Meanwhile the British museum was very literally willing to hack the “baby” in half to get to keep a part of it. Like this is the absolutely worst story to make your case!

  8. It's Just Me says:

    My grandfather left me a rather large trunk when he passed away in 1972. My grandmother held on to it until I was grown and let me tell you, it was a literal treasure trove. Included was a Japanese sword. Not really ornate as it was used and taken in WWII. In my 30’s I took photos of the sword and sent them to be kinda checked out as all swords had to be actually shipped to Japan to be identified and at the time, I didn’t have the $3k to do it. Fast forward 5 years: I loaned the sword to a museum for a Feudal Japan display event. Loaned, not given/donated/etc. There was a loan agreement where the sword HAD to be returned at the end of the event. Well, long story short, it took me two years, a lawsuit, one appeal, and a lot of money out of my pocket. Turns out the sword was identified as a ‘National Treasure’ by Japan and the museum director was caught out trying to sell it!!! I got it back, went through the US State Department, and happily returned the sword. The Japanese tried to pay me for it, but I refused. They, instead, reimbursed me for all my legal expenses. In the end, everyone was happy and the aforementioned museum director went to prison for 2 years.
    Now, I’m almost scared to check out all the other goodies in that trunk!!

    Edit: Seems I poorly worded part of this. I returned the sword, through the US State Department (I was active duty USAF at the time) two weeks after it was returned to me. The State Department ‘negotiated’ for compensation since the sword, under the laws at the time it was taken as a war trophy, made it ‘legally’ mine. I refused the offer made by the Japanese government and just wanted them to have it back. They insisted that I at least accept their offer of reimbursement of my legal expenses. So, after a liaison explained a bit of culture to me, I accepted that offer so that there was no loss of ‘face’. I returned their piece of history after two years of fighting to get it back and I didn’t want ANYTHING for it.
    There, did that fix it for everyone? LOL!
    p.s. I’m surprised that nobody has had the curiosity to ask what ELSE was in that trunk……..

    • Nicolas de Fontenay says:

      Dude what else was in that trunk???

    • SkylarMinx says:

      I think the confusion for me was when I read it it sounded like you loaned it to a museum in Japan. Wording was confusing but not intentional and it’s amazing that you not only returned it to where it belonged, you didn’t try to capitalize on the advantage you had with it in your possession. And you fought so hard to get it back for them. Really incredible. And adds something positive back into a history that has dark moments. Super cool dude

    • It's Just Me says:

      @Myriam Ickx Lol! Ok, let me simplify: I got sword from grandfather. I loaned sword to museum for exhibit. Museum tried to steal sword. I sued to get it back. I got it back. Found out it was treasure to Japan. State department helped me return it to Japan. Japan wanted to give me lots of money. I didn’t want money. Just wanted to give sword back. Japan insulted I didn’t want big money for sword. I took little money cuz someone at State told me would be insult to refuse money. I give sword back. I get legal money back. Everyone happy.

    • Collin by choice says:

      Taking the money for legel fees was the best thing to do. Taking nothing more was the right thing to do.
      I am not Japanese so I’m not going into the meaning this has to that Culture, but you did fight for the right thing and being made whole just gets everyone back to good. No profits, no loss.

      Good job, human.

    • It's Just Me says:

      @TheYuleTube Hope you enjoyed today’s interaction, lol!!

  9. Elli Dourou says:

    Greek person here: our conservation methods are actually very advanced. I attended a seminar a few years ago where a specialist actually went into detail about the methods they use to conserve and preserve the marbles. A lot of time and effort is put into researching the best ways to care for our artefacts, something that can’t be said for the British museum.

    • A Bee says:

      @Tustin2121 By the same excuse, I could take your family heirooms because you are using them instead of putting them in a bank vault. The rightful owner can treat his stuff however they want.

    • A Bee says:

      You don’t have to justify yourself to a thief. That’s just a red herring. The fact of the matter is, Lord Elgin took the marbles without permission and without payment. They belong to Greece and as rightful owner, Greece may choose to do with them whatever they want.

    • Ioannis B says:

      @Swiss Roll Cake you know nothing

    • purplewine says:

      @Swiss Roll Cake r/confidentlyincorrect

    • Lena Annis says:

      @Illlium Let me tell you the sad story regarding the items Elgin stole from the Parthenon. The time that he took them Greece was under the Ottoman Emprire, so we had no saying about the subject. in the present the British demanded yes demanded that we here in Athens build a more modern museum, so we did. If you ever have a chance to go there you will see what pieces are in the UK, France and the Vatican yes the Vatican.

  10. Adultish Gambino says:

    “We can’t return your art and culture because otherwise we wouldn’t have our own” is the most depressingly hilarious line I’ve ever heard.

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