“There is no more important question for western museums today than restitution,” Dan Hicks writes in his new book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Simultaneously historical and urgent, the book centers on the Benin Bronzes, a collection of thousands of royal and sacred objects that British troops stole when they sacked Benin City in present-day Nigeria in 1897. This stolen cultural property can be found in the collections of over 150 museums and galleries today, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, where Hicks is the world archaeology curator.
Fastidiously chronicling and contextualizing the plundering of the Benin Bronzes as well as their subsequent dispersal, The Brutish Museums considers the histories of ultraviolence that anthropological and ethnological collections perpetuate when they do not endeavor to return the colonially looted cultural property in their holdings. I spoke with Hicks about contemporary archaeology, the call to dismantle the white infrastructure of world culture museums, and imagining a museum where nothing is stolen.
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Hyperallergic: What led you to write this book?
Dan Hicks: People keep telling me that The Brutish Museums is a “timely” book. I prefer to think of it more as evidence that a stopped clock will tell the right time at least once every 130 years or so. The idea for The Brutish Museums was in incubation for almost two decades. But it was in my role representing the Pitt Rivers Museum in the Benin Dialogue Group, and when hearing the new calls that have been added to longstanding demands for the return of the Benin Bronzes, that I realized it was important to produce a book that sets out the facts of the matter, to inform public debate and to make the urgent case for returns.
Across Europe, we’re seeing a new reckoning with the ongoing colonial past of the late 19th and early 20th century, and cultural restitution to Africa is a central task in that process. There’s a lot of talk about “decolonizing” museums these days, but my own commitment is to explicitly anti-colonial approaches. We need to start to dismantle those elements of world culture museums that constitute the survival of an old infrastructure of racist ideologies. I wanted to write a book that can be used as a tool in that process of dismantling, of excavation.
H: And what drew you to the Benin Bronzes specifically?
DH: The Pitt Rivers currently cares for one of the largest collections of objects violently looted from Benin City in the British attack of February 1897 — 145 objects in total. The display is one of the most upsetting for some of the visitors to our museum, because as the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement first pointed out back in 2015-16, it serves to make the violence of corporate extractivist colonialism endure into the present, preserved behind glass and duly labeled with an account of the military victory. African-led movements for returns of stolen cultural heritage include many other collections, nations, and claimants, but the iconic nature of the Benin Bronzes in the struggle for returns meant that I felt this story deserved to be told from the perspective of Oxford University’s collections.
H: In addition to being a curator of World Archaeology at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, you’re a professor of contemporary archaeology at the university. I’m curious about the import of the “contemporary” modifier. The notion that the violence tied up with the ownership and display of looted art is ongoing — not only then and there, but also here and now — seems central to your thesis.
DH: Yes, I’m the world’s first professor of “contemporary archaeology.” It’s a slightly counterintuitive term, I guess, but it’s one that sums up the idea of applying the archaeological lens to the most recent layers of the human past, and to the present. For me, archaeology always begins in the here and now. History-writing may require us to think ourselves back to a particular point in time and to tell the story going forward from that point. But the methods and practices of archaeological research operate in the very opposite direction. We start with the most recent layer and dig down, from the known into the unknown, or the forgotten, or even the hidden.
In the study of colonialism, contemporary archaeology is an important tool because it can turn an imperial tool — the discipline of archaeology — against empire itself, revealing how it persists in the present. Displays of looted royal and sacred artworks, assembled to support anthropological theories of cultural evolution and white supremacy, are prime examples of such endurances, in which the colonial past is still in the here and now. Just re-writing the label, seeking to tell the history more honestly, more fully, “better,” is not going to change this. Such collections require us to physically dismantle them.
H: You do a great job of laying out what happened in the lead-up to the Benin Punitive Expedition in 1897, making it clear that the looting of so many royal and sacred cultural objects was part of a coherent corporate-militarist campaign in the region. This is so often glossed over in retellings, as seen in your excerpts of wall text from major museums. Tell us a bit about the sorts of objects that were taken.
DH: There’s so much misunderstanding and misinformation about what was taken. The scale and sheer chaos of the looting have been widely underestimated. The story that objects were taken through some official process and sold off to defray the costs of the expedition, has been repeated for years — but in reality, no such formal procedure existed. Instead, hundreds of sailors, soldiers, and colonial administrators enriched themselves by taking what they could.
There were more than 1,200 brass relief plaques depicting court life. Thousands more brass and bronze sculptures — heads of Obas (kings), figures of horn-blowers or soldiers, animals like leopards and chickens, bells, and so on — were taken. And thousands more ivory objects — carved tusks, delicate hip-ornament masks, even the ivory locks of the palace doors — of wood, of ceramic, of iron, of intricate coral-work. The carved ivories were unique records of the history of court life over centuries — a kind of sacred royal historical archive; all the products of an artistic tradition that reached back to the 14th century CE, under an unbroken royal line that predated Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland. As the book documents, more than ten thousand objects taken in February 1897 are now held in more than 160 museums worldwide, as well as countless private collections, including the families of men who served in the Benin expedition.
H: You frame the idea of the “universal museum” as a 21st-century charter myth. Can you talk about that invention and how it has been wielded in arguments against restitution?
DH: Yes, the book traces how the ideology of the “universal museum” was created surprisingly recently, making a claim to a tradition of Enlightenment thinking as a justification for retention in the face of claims for returns of looted in 2002. Crucially, it connects the attempt to instrumentalize “world culture” for the purposes of a post-9/11 Bush-Blair “melting pot” model of multiculturalism with the re-emergence of corporate-colonial-militarist extractivism seen in the War in Iraq from 2003.
The unfinished nature of colonial collections, made possible through the museum as a technology for intervening with time itself, meant that art and culture came to be of vital importance in ongoing cultural inequality and sustained dispossession. Restitution is an African-led anti-colonial movement that has developed since the 1930s. Resistance to these demands by some of the richest and most powerful Euro-American institutions is a prime example of how colonial structures endure. Therefore, in the 2020s, museums find themselves at the center of processes of taking apart these structures, which are so hurtful to so many of the audiences and communities that we claim to serve and to represent.
H: Some critics of restitution have expressed a fear that fulfilling restitution claims would “empty” museums and leave “gaps” in the collection — which seems particularly silly when one considers how little of museums’ collections are actually on view. I loved your proposition that museums develop programs that commission an artist from the dispossessed community to contribute a piece to fill that “gap” upon the return of an object.
DH: The Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by President Macron made the important observation that over 90% of African heritage is currently located outside of the continent. But for the UK’s museums, we can add a second shocking statistic: less than 1% of the objects taken under colonialism are currently on display. The question of stolen culture is mostly not about displays — it’s about millions of objects languishing in storerooms, many not even on databases, without a dedicated curator, some in boxes unopened for more than a century.
Even at the British Museum, perhaps a hundred of more than 900 objects stolen from Benin City in 1897 are on display. But a central argument of the book is that we must decenter the British Museum in these dialogues — there are scores of other museums at stake here. This throws a rather different light on the specter of empty galleries. Certainly, however, returns represent an opportunity for gaps and absences, loss and dispossession, to come into view in museum spaces.
Suppose the museum has operated as a weapon, as The Brutish Museums argues it has. In that case, these public spaces are sites of conflict — warzones — and so hold the potential to evolve into some kind of monument, sites of conscience, and perhaps even reconciliation for the ultraviolence of European colonialism. But this is impossible until the process of physically dismantling the white infrastructure of world culture museums — largely installed during a relatively narrow period in the 1880s to 1930s when our museums were co-opted for the purposes of “race science” — through permanent, unconditional returns of what was taken.
Contemporary art has a crucial role to play here. The book explores what I call the “chronopolitics” of museum anthropology — how Africa and the Global South have been presented as in the past, not the present. Why should Nigerian art of the past be presented, but not contemporary art?
H: Beyond educating ourselves, what can we do to facilitate the return of looted objects?
DH: Restitution requires a case-by-case approach, and it surprises some to learn that the work starts with the very conventional, often quite tedious work of the curator — researching, understanding, re-discovering long-neglected collections. We urgently need investment in documenting collections, adding to databases, making the facts public. As this knowledge is developed, it’s crucial and urgent that it is shared widely with potential claimants. And as demands develop, it is crucial for all involved in museums to amplify, listen to, and take action on them.
Like any field seeking to make itself fit for the 21st century, we must root out structural racism — dismantle, reimagine, repurpose. I’d encourage everyone reading this to ask themselves how far they are, right now, from a stolen African object. If you’re in the UK, it will be less than 150 miles. Most major cities in Europe have anthropology collections, whether displayed or in storage. For the Benin objects, there’s a provisional list in an appendix to the book.
Each museum must make its own progress towards returns and the importance of interventions by stakeholders, visitors, audiences, communities, trustee bodies, local politicians, grassroots organizations, cannot be overemphasized. Museums are public spaces. We must educate ourselves about these collections and begin dozens of local, community-driven conversations that move the restitution debate away from just a few national museums. What’s at stake is the social legitimacy of the world culture museum. Time’s up.
H: What does the anthropological or ethnological museum of the future look like?
DH: We’ve never needed something like the world culture museum more than we do today — public spaces in which to encounter and celebrate art beyond the old Eurocentric lens. But as things stand, the world culture museum has failed. Let’s imagine museums where nothing is stolen.
The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution by Dan Hicks, published by Pluto Press, is now available on Bookshop.