The British Museum has defended its decision to accept a donation of more than 500 “exquisite” Chinese ivory figures, saying it did not mean it condoned the ivory trade.
The museum revealed on Wednesday that it had accepted the gift of 556 ivory items acquired in the early 20th century by Sir Victor Sassoon, a Shanghai-based businessman and hotelier.
The intricately carved figures of gods and goddesses, and desk items such as brush-washers and water-droppers, are mostly from the 18th or 19th centuries.
Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, said the figures were “exquisite”. “They are of the greatest significance, they are documents of a vast culture and are therefore of the highest cultural value,” he said.
The government is steering through parliament a ban on ivory sales that it says will be the strictest in the world. Exemptions in the legislation will allow museums to acquire historic ivory objects that have a cultural value.
Asked whether accepting the Sassoon ivory sent the wrong message, Fischer said the museum “fully and unreservedly” supported banning the ivory trade worldwide. He pointed out that the collection was historic: “They exist… and they do not save any elephant’s life today.”
The figures have been in the UK since the 1950s and looked after by a trust, whose members were keen to wind down the operation.
Fischer said the museum would never collect modern ivory objects and believed there was a consensus that historic ivory objects needed to be preserved, not destroyed.
The British Museum has one of the largest collections of ivory in the world, including the Lewis Chessmen and the Nimrud Ivories, artefacts excavated in the Middle East that are nearly 3,000 years old.
Jane Portal, head of the museum’s Asia department, said the gift meant the institution could become “a global centre for the study of ivories”.
The museum has not revealed the value of the collection. “They may be priceless or almost worthless in the future … who knows,” Portal said.
The gift was announced in the British Museum’s annual review, which revealed it was visited by 5.8 million people in 2017-18, making it the UK’s leading visitor attraction for the 11th year running.
The figure was down on the previous year’s 6.2 million visitors, but in line with a similar decline at London’s other big museums. This has been blamed on rail problems, fear of terrorism and the expense of London travel and restaurants.
Fischer said the museum was working on “offers that will help bring these figures up again”.
He said the museum lent a record 2,200 objects to 81 venues outside the UK last year and currently had eight touring shows, including in Australia, Canada and Hong Kong.
Strengthening links and activities in Africa would become a priority, Fischer said, as would improving the museum’s Bloomsbury home. “This fantastic building needs some tender loving care so this year we are developing a project to consider how to improve the building for our visitors and our staff and of course our collections.”