‘Today’s fake culture war resurrects an old colonial trick’

Oxford University professor Dan Hicks on why Western museums must urgently return colonial-era objects.

Detail of the contentious Benin plaques exhibit (more commonly known as the Benin bronzes) at the British Museum in London [David Cliff/SOPA Images/Getty Images]

London, United Kingdom – Dan Hicks is a professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford who has worked at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum for 14 years.

Pitt Rivers, in Oxford, is an institution that says it is committed to a “decolonisation” process. In 2020, it removed more than 100 human remains from open display, including trophy heads from India, the mummy of an Egyptian child, and South American tsanta, or shrunken heads, objects which are considered sacred or secret by Indigenous peoples.

But it still holds many colonial-era objects in collections.

Hicks’ new book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press), makes a powerful argument for Western museums to repatriate looted artefacts and tackle the Eurocentric narratives they were historically created to promote.

Hicks’ new book calls for Western museums to repatriate looted artefacts [Dan Hicks/The Brutish Museums]

He focuses on the pillaging of the Benin Bronzes in the late 19th century, following an 1897 British naval attack on Benin City, located in modern-day Nigeria.

After the attack, thousands of artefacts were violently taken and ended up at some of the most prestigious museums in the world, including Pitt Rivers.

Al Jazeera spoke to Hicks about his work in the context of the global movement against racism and colonisation:

Al Jazeera: You have argued that the world around the museum has changed, and the museum itself must change with it. How do you view this change against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement or related struggles such as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign?

Dan Hicks: Over decades, the twin African-led movements of restitution and ‘fallism’ – joined by the Black Lives Matter movement as it has developed in America and Europe – have highlighted the role that art and culture play in colonial dispossession and institutional racism.

Whether it’s Confederacy or colonisers’ statues or displays of looted art, these movements have shown how they helped form a worldview based on cultural supremacy, and how institutions like museums were not only used to justify anti-Black colonial violence but to make it endure into the present.

Across Africa, we’re now seeing a dynamic moment of cooperation between nations and communities to make restitution happen in dialogue with European states. France’s returns of cultural objects to its former colonies and German returns of human remains from the Ovaherero and Nama genocide to Namibia show it’s working.

Brass figure of a leopard, 16th or 17th century [Dan Hicks/The Brutish Museums]

Al Jazeera: Where do you stand on the UK government’s recent legislation to protect statues from being taken down, in the context of the Colston episode and the so-called ‘culture war’?

Hicks: With the fake culture war that the hard right is projecting, we see a return of something I describe in the book as ‘white projection’.

The British sought to justify the violent military attacks launched against African kingdoms and communities with the false idea that some previous crime had been committed. In the case of February 1897, the explanation for the killing of thousands was the supposed killing of some white administrators.

The fake culture war resurrects this old colonial trick to derail progress towards restorative justice in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s an attempt to obscure tackling memorials of anti-Black violence by pretending it’s not human lives and bodies that are at risk, but stone statues.

‘Benin Court Art’ display on the Lower Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, February 2020 [Dan Hicks/The Brutish Museums]

Al Jazeera: What surprised you most while you were researching the book?

Hicks: I always believed what I’d been told about the Benin expedition until I started digging into the archives.

At the Pitt Rivers, we currently care for 150 of the more than 10,000 Benin artefacts that were violently seized; and the truth is that the hundreds of soldiers, sailors, colonial administrators just took what they could for personal gain. Some were sold within weeks and were displayed in museums from Berlin to London; others were passed down through families.

So, the ‘punitive expedition’ was an incredible act of destruction; both the sheer physical violence, with the Maxim machine guns and rocket launchers, and the cultural violence of the looting, still alive in 160 museums around the world and untold private collections.

Al Jazeera: What was the cultural significance of the Bronzes for the Edo region?

Hicks: It’s hard today to imagine the royal, sacred urban landscape of an unbroken line of Obas that reached back earlier than Elizabeth I.

The making of these beautiful artworks was central to both the religious and court life of the Kingdom of Benin. The carved elephant tusks, brass plaques, sculptures and bells, ornate ivory and coral-work body ornaments – all were intimately connected to that history. That was another reason they were taken; to promote British claims of sovereignty.

And museums … were a ‘unique type of weapon’ used to justify those claims.

Within weeks these artefacts were in display in anthropology museums which, in the 1890s, were new institutions designed to display white supremacist narratives.

We see that clearly in the displays of skulls that told the racist lie of different types of humans, but culture and art were also used to tell a similar story of late 19th-century Europe’s cultural superiority over Africa.

In the 1940s, our natural history museums removed the skulls, but those cultural displays remained in the anthropology museums next door.

The job for curators now is to not just address questions of ownership, but also to undo these narratives.

Bronze Benin head, mid-17th century, given to Queen Elizabeth II from the collections of the National Museum, Lagos by General Yakubu Gowon in June 1973 [Dan Hicks/The Brutish Museums]

Al Jazeera: The commitment of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government in returning African artefacts has been a key turning point within Europe. Last December, a bill was passed that mandated the return of 27 artefacts in 2021. Could something similar happen in Britain?

Hicks: The developments in France are incredibly welcome, but just the beginning.

The Macron report was only written two years ago and already we’re seeing a unanimous decision by the French assembly.

The situation in the UK is a bit different to the French one. Our national museums should not be the sole focus for restitution because only 8 percent of the objects seized in 1897 are in the British Museum; the rest are in 150 institutions, including 45 in the UK.

We need to focus on regional museum trusts and university and local authority museums. Less than one percent of the millions of objects taken from Africa under colonialism are on display in the UK.

These institutions are also not subject to the same legal constraints as national museums. And change is happening in the regions – for example with the decision by Jesus College, Cambridge, to return the one Benin Bronze they had.

Restitution is not something that happens overnight, but dialogue is now giving way to action. The Brutish Museums concludes by describing the 2020s as a decade of returns. Things are definitely changing. But it’s now time for UK museums to step up, and to be held accountable for their responses to repatriation.

Source: Al Jazeera