It’s a monster mash! How the V&A is facing a transatlantic battle over a 7ft Frankenstein figure

<span>Photograph: Getty</span>
Photograph: Getty

Name: Frankenstein’s monster.

Age: 87.

Appearance: Scars, stitches, bolts, metal plates, torn clothes. Seven feet (2.1m) tall, with a massive forehead. Not traditionally handsome. Oh, and it’s made of wood.

Frankenstein’s monster was made of wood? Well, in this case we’re talking about a giant wooden dummy prop based on Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in a string of horror films in the 1930s. The torn clothes are the actual rags that Karloff wore in the 1935 movie The Bride of Frankenstein.

The scariest Boris since … Anyway, it sounds like an important piece of movie memorabilia. Iconic, even – that’s the problem.

There’s a problem? One of ownership.

Who owns it? It is held by the V&A in London, which says it does. The museum acquired it after the closure of the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image, which bought the mannequin at auction in 1988.

Frankenstein’s monster
The wooden prop, complete with Karloff’s clothes. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum/PA

And who else thinks they own it? The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).

Is it natural history, though? Was the monster real? Not the point.

What is the point? That the NHM was given the monster, and the costume, by Universal Studios in 1935. It in turn lent it to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where it was reported as being destroyed in 1967. So the NHM was a bit surprised when it showed up in the V&A in London.

It wants it back? Too right. It is demanding repatriation to California, “where it belongs”.

Basically the Elgin marbles, then, only more gothic. See also the Benin bronzes. The other day, the Horniman Museum in London announced that it would return 72 artifacts, including its collection of Benin bronzes, to Nigeria.

Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, then? Not if the V&A can help it. It says it got the dummy legally and that UK law doesn’t allow its return. It is planning to display it at the Young V&A (the revamped Museum of Childhood).

Museum of Scary Childhood! To be fair, the V&A has said it welcomes further discussion and has proposed partnership opportunities with the NHM.

And what does the NHM say? That it seeks “dialogue with the V&A to see if a cultural exchange that benefits both our visitors can be achieved”.

Kind of like a prisoner exchange? Maybe cross-cultural cooperation and diplomacy is a better way of looking at it.

Do say: “Yet another example of arrogant booty-hoarding by a self-righteous country still living its own dubious colonial past.”

Don’t say: “It’s a 1+1 monster deal: you can have the dummy back, but you also have to take back Piers Morgan.”