Chile seeks return of artifacts from London museums

Chile is the latest country to seek repatriation for significant items taken away by the British.

Natural History Museum
London's Natural History Museum houses specimens from around the world [Stefan Wemuth/Reuters]

Chile will ask the Natural History Museum in London to return the remains of an extinct animal that lived in Patagonia about 10,000 years ago.

The specimens belong to a ground-dwelling mammal known as a mylodon and were taken to the United Kingdom in 1897 for research but were never returned to Chile, according to officials.

Chilean Minister of National Assets Felipe Ward will travel to London this month for talks over the remains of the animal that once roamed the regions of what is now Chile and Argentina.

“We hope to have talks with the museum authorities … and seek to repatriate the mylodon’s remains; these are bones and skin that are in storage, not even being exhibited,” Ward told reporters on Sunday.

A Natural History Museum spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the museum is “currently in communications with the relevant authorities in Chile”.


The mylodon was an ancestor of the sloth that measured about 2.5 metres and weighed about three tonnes.

German settlers discovered the remains of the mammal in 1896 in a cave now known as the Mylodon cave in Magallanes, one of the southernmost regions of Chile. 

During the trip to London, Ward will also be joined by a delegation seeking the return of a statue from the British Museum, which was taken from Easter Island – part of Chile – in 1868 and brought to London as a gift for Queen Victoria. 

They want to sculpt a replacement of the large stone head and torso, known as a moai, which is currently prominently displayed in the museum.

Chile also plans to ask the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway to return a large collection of historical pieces from Easter Island. 

The moai are an iconic symbol of Easter Island [Carlos Barria/Reuters]
The moai are an iconic symbol of Easter Island [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Looted treasures

Chile is not the only country seeking the return of prized objected housed in London museums. 

Greece and the UK are engaged in a prolonged standoff over the Elgin Marbles, carvings – also known as the Parthenon Marbles – that were removed from Athens in the 1800s and are one of the British Museum’s main attractions.


Lord Elgin, a British diplomat who removed the statues, claimed he received permission to do so from authorities of the Ottoman Empire, who occupied Greece at the time. However, this claim has been disputed and many in Greece do not consider an occupying power to have the legitimacy to hand over national treasures.

In August, the Greek government renewed attempts to secure the marbles’ return by inviting the UK to begin negotiations over the return of the sculptures. 

The UK government have so far resolutely refused several requests by Greece, initially over concerns that Greece did not have a suitable site to display them.


It is likely the government and museums are also concerned about setting a precedent that may lead to the return of many star attractions and affect tourism.

However, in recent years some UK museums have returned a number of items to their countries of origin. 

In August, the British Museum repatriated a trove of 5,000-year old objects looted from an ancient site in Iraq shortly after the United States’ invasion in 2003.

In 2013, a Guernsey museum returned the tattooed, mummified head of a Maori warrior to New Zealand as part of a repatriation programme run by the National Museum of New Zealand. 

Additional reporting by Charlotte Mitchell: @charbrowmitch

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies