Dan Hicks: The Brutish Museums

George Vasey on the argument that museums must care for people more than objects

British expedition to Benin City in 1897 from <em>The Brutish Museums</em>

British expedition to Benin City in 1897 from The Brutish Museums

Over three million bullets; around 10,000 looted objects; 2,400 stolen artefacts in 300 museum collections globally. The numbers change, often remaining ungraspable – but their purpose doesn’t. The Brutish Museums, by anthropologist and curator Dan Hicks, focuses on the British expedition to Benin in the late 19th century. It forcefully exposes the legacies of colonial violence by the British and the looting of artefacts from the Benin court. Many of these objects have been subsequently scattered globally, ending up in museums and private collections. Some occasionally appear at auction, selling for vast sums.

Numbers, like stories, can tell histories and erase them, direct us to what is documented and what remains undocumentable. Counting, for Hicks, holds British violence to account and counters colonialist amnesia. Writing from the context of his curatorial role at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – which holds ‘at least 145’ objects stolen from Benin – The Brutish Museums is an urgent clarion call for the restitution of Benin artefacts as a correction to continued colonial violence.

The Benin Punitive Expedition took place in 1897 in what is now Nigeria and involved ‘retaliation’ for an attack on a British legation. Hicks argues that the military campaign was in fact planned with the purpose of removing ‘uncooperative’ Benin sovereignty and replacing it with colonial governance. Hicks views the incident as a watershed moment that foreshadows 20th-century corporate colonialism and militarism. Britain’s activities in 1897 would now be viewed as a war crime, as outlined in the first Hague Convention drawn up only two years later.

Hicks starkly narrates the brutal asymmetry of the warfare. The British guns could shoot hundreds of rounds per second with bullets modified to cause maximum damage on impact. There is significant historical detail in archives on costs and the quantity of the arsenal the British had at their disposal, yet the Benin dead were left unaccounted for. As much as The Brutish Museums is a book about numbers – about what is valued or not – it is also a book about the weaponisation of time. Here, the museum becomes an extension of military action. If the bullet and the camera are tools of colonial governance that aim to kill and capture at speed, the museum vitrine decelerates time, enacting a slower aggression.

The museum is a device of ‘colonial remembering’ that naturalises white supremacy by creating difference between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’ – the museum is a tool of empire. As Hicks so vividly demonstrates, the gun, the camera and the museum connect the violence of democide and dispossession to the aggression of containment and classification. This chrono-politics renders the war zone temporal as much as territorial. Every time the museum opens its doors and asserts a narrative of white supremacy, the violence of occupation is restated.

Hicks’s frank tone counters the prevalence of euphemism and abstraction that has pervaded restitution debates for many years and the book lays out the terms clearly. These aren’t ‘problematic’ histories, they are wrong and the display of looted artefacts is an open wound that needs correcting as a prerequisite to healing.

So how do we start the restoration process? The publication of the book could not have come at a better time. The toppling of slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol (Artnotes AM438) and the renewed visibility of Black Lives Matter (Editorial AM438) have raised public consciousness and amplified decolonial debates. The pandemic has heightened structural racism and forced a reckoning with cultural institutions as places of historical memory (and loss).

This renewed focus has been met with typical bafflement by the British government and resistance in the right-wing press. The recent attacks on the ‘woke’ National Trust in the media in response to necessary – and overdue – efforts to bring to light the history of the slave trade and the Trust’s properties are a case in point.

There is, as Hicks argues, much work still to do. Restitution claims, of course, aren’t new. The first formal claim for looted Benin artefacts came in 1936 from Akenzua II, which resulted in the return of a handful of items. Museums have been forced to adjust their display and acquisition policies – including a shift to remove human remains from display. President Emmanual Macron, speaking in 2017, stated that France would return a number of artefacts to source communities, including Benin, within five years – a modest but much-needed shift. Last year, the French National Assembly voted to restore 26 Benin statues (Artnotes AM441). Formed in 2007, the Benin Dialogue Group has opened an exchange between international museums with artefacts in their collections and the government of Edo State in southern Nigeria where the Benin Royal Museum is scheduled to open in the state capital, Benin City, in 2021 for the permanent display of artefacts.

Despite the forensic detail, The Brutish Museums makes a simple argument: the museum is a work in progress, not a full stop. In Hicks’s vision there is still a place for the anthropology museum, as long as we are happy to ‘invert, reverse, flip, repurpose and dismantle most of it’. Galleries will be ‘full of objects that haven’t been stolen’, curatorial authority will be ‘decentred’ and collections ‘opened up’.

Hicks suggests that knowledge formed through the museum is a type of necrology, or death history (riffing on Achille Mbembe’s concept of ‘necropolitics’). In this sense, objects become ‘unfinished events’ and the necrographer (curator) must trace how objects came into collections. In other words, we need to care for people more than objects, and excavate the histories of death and destruction that accompany the acquisition of these artefacts.

Giving back requires more than just returning objects, but also sharing resources, knowledge and connections. Hicks proposes that, where gaps emerge, museums commission artists and communities to help museums bear witness to colonialism today. The Brutish Museums reminds us that museums have an important role to play as a space for healing open wounds. This work never stops. As Hicks states in the book, the conclusion is written by the action of its readers. Dialogue must give way to action.

Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violences and Cultural Restitution, Pluto Press, 2020, hb, 320pp, £20, 978 0 745341 76 7.

George Vasey is a curator and writer.

First published in Art Monthly 443: February 2021.

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