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Can Museums Survive Colonial Guilt?

Books published by Pluto Press—a self-described anti-capitalist publisher “making timely interventions in contemporary struggles”—do not usually break into the mainstream. Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums is an exception: it has been described as “a real game changer” in The Economist, “an essential text” in London’s Sunday Times, and been selected by the New York Times as one of the “Best Art Books” of 2020. Rapper MC Hammer says the book has “brought tears to my eyes” and Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri says it is a “startling act of conscience. . . . Give[s] one hope that a new future is possible.”

High praise indeed, but it does not mean that The Brutish Museums is any good. The tract calls for “the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and ‘world culture’ museum”—perhaps surprising as its author Dan Hicks is Curator of just such a museum, as well as being Professor of Contemporary Archeology at Oxford. The museum in question is Pitt Rivers, Oxford University’s ethnographic collection of over 500,000 objects and photographs. Since its founding in 1884, the galleries—its central hall reminiscent of a Victorian railway station—have been a popular destination, especially for children keen to see its tsantsa, or shrunken human heads, from Ecuador. Contemporary sensitivities mean that these were removed from view in 2020.

Benin, 1897

At the book’s core is an account of how the Benin Bronzes and other artefacts from the Kingdom of Benin—confusingly its former territory is now part of Nigeria, not the modern-day Republic of Benin—ended up in Western museums and private collections. In January 1897 James Phillips, Acting Consul General of the British territory of the Niger Coast Protectorate, led a party of eight other white colonial officials and 250 or so African porters to the Kingdom of Benin. They were ambushed—four of the colonists, including Phillips, were certainly killed on 6 January and a further three either died on that day or subsequent to being taken prisoner. Many African porters were also killed and others were taken prisoner.

The British subsequently launched a punitive expedition against the Kingdom of Benin, using this attack as its justification. British forces captured Benin City and the palace of the Oba—or King—of Benin on 18 February 1897 and with it, the territory of the Kingdom was incorporated into the British colony. The Oba’s palace and other ceremonial buildings were richly ordained with bronzes—in fact, made of brass—dating from the 16th century onwards and ornate ivory carvings. These were taken, along with a huge quantity of uncarved ivory and other items, by the British forces with the justification that the sale of these items would defray the costs of the expedition. In truth, many of the looted items ended in the private possession of the British officers leading the expedition. By September 1897, a selection of the bronzes was already on display in the British Museum. That items of such quality and refinement should have come out of what was perceived as a primitive society generated much comment.

Today items taken from the Kingdom of Benin are on display in over 160 Western museums, 38 of which are in the United States and include New York’s Metropolitan, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the collections of Harvard and Yale universities. Hicks’ own Pitt Rivers Museum has one of the larger collections with 145 items.

Hicks argues that the justification for the punitive raid as retaliation for the killing of seven British officials was pure artifice. In his view, the humanitarian arguments used to justify the overthrow of the Oba’s rule, namely that he held slaves and that the Kingdom of Benin practiced human sacrifice on a prodigious scale, were pure hokum. Both were a mere smokescreen for British expansionism and the conquest had been planned long before the January killings. Hicks may well be right on this front; there is no denying Britain’s expansionist drive in Africa in the late 19th century.

Nevertheless, there is also no denying that until its downfall the Kingdom of Benin did hold slaves and did practice human sacrifice. Hicks is indubitably a strong partisan for Benin and its Oba but himself acknowledges these shortcomings to our contemporary sensibilities, albeit in an oblique way. The book asks, “What then became. . . . Of the Oba’s harem, slaves and servants” after the British conquest? (I.e., there were slaves in 1897.) He goes on to state, “it is continually left vague how many deaths represented human sacrifice and how many were casualties of the British attack.” (I.e., human sacrifice was practiced: what is left for debate is how many of the 1897 dead were killed in human sacrifice and how many were casualties of the British raid.) One would not confuse the Kingdom of Benin with some sort of 1960s flower power, peacenik commune.

Benin and Britain

The Brutish Museums uses the backdrop of the looting of the Benin Bronzes as both an argument for their specific restitution and a basis for a wholehearted, generalised attack on ethnographic museums. Few would today want to argue that the Benin Bronzes and other Benin objects were initially legitimately acquired—those taken in 1897 were clearly taken without consent and the argument that war booty is legitimate is not, shall we say, a widely held position in 2021. Some of those in British collections—perhaps most notably 41 Benin objects on loan to the Pitt Rivers Museum from the Dumas-Egerton Trust, a charitable trust set up by descendants of George Le Clerc Egerton, chief of staff for the Benin Expedition—do have a direct link to the objects’ original taking. Many more Benin objects, however, including those in US museum collections, were subsequently purchased on the secondary market either by the institutions themselves or by their subsequent donors. This makes matters more defensible but cannot fully expunge the dubiousness of their initial acquisition.

The idea that items which have been illegitimately taken should be returned is an appealing one—and has become more difficult to argue against since the restitution over the last 20 years of many paintings and other works of art looted by the Nazis. If items stolen or subject to forced and unfair sales in the 1930s and 40s should be returned even if subsequently sold on, then why not objects taken 40 years previously? But the “return” of the Benin Bronzes raises other issues.

The National Trust is a unique British cultural institution—a UK not-for-profit with 5.6 million members that during the last century took over the ownership and management of 200 or so of Britain’s stately homes, alongside 620,000 acres of land, as their traditional aristocratic and gentry owners were hit with death duties and found the upkeep of their ancestral homes too onerous. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, the National Trust commissioned a report looking at the historic links their properties had to colonialism and slavery. Ninety-three of their properties were found to have some link, however tenuous, to colonialism and slavery. Whilst some properties had been built by families owning large pre-emancipation Caribbean sugar plantations (i.e., slave estates), many more had much slighter links. Even for most of those compensated in 1837 for the emancipation of their slaves after its abolition throughout the British empire, their slaveholdings were only a part of their total assets and by no means the source of the bulk of their wealth.

It is an odd aspect of Brutish Museums that the institutions that Hicks—a man of the radical, anti-capitalist left—abhors in the West are subject to zero criticism in the global South.

The Kingdom of Benin was a slaving state and grew rich, at least in part, on the back of the Atlantic slave trade. Its forces captured other Africans and sold them to European slave traders. Hicks himself acknowledges this: “The Kingdom grew in power and scope during its involvement in European and transatlantic trade from the 16th century, at first with Portuguese traders, and later British and French—central among which was the slave trade.” There is some debate as to the relative importance of the slave trade versus the trade in ivory (not exactly popular with today’s bien pensant opinion) and spices. What is clear, however, is that slaving was at least as important to the rise of Benin as it was to the rise of Britain, and very probably considerably more so. Yet those houses held by the National Trust with a tangential link to slavery should wear this as a permanent, inextinguishable stain, while the material culture of Benin, a product of slaving, should simply be celebrated?

Hicks acknowledges the Kingdom of Benin’s involvement in the slave trade, its practice of human sacrifice, and its maintenance of the institution of slavery until the very end of the 19th century—yet he directs no moral opprobrium at it. It is not that the book is light on moral judgement. On the contrary, it makes moral judgements on page after page, but they are exclusively directed at the colonialists, the British, and those that Hicks sees as their contemporary heirs: George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the oil companies, that all too familiar trinity in the Left’s pantheon of villainy.

It is an odd aspect of Brutish Museums that the institutions that Hicks—a man of the radical, anti-capitalist left—abhors in the West are subject to zero criticism in the global South. Curiously, Hicks makes much of the fact that the Benin artifacts are royal: “To throw royal treasures to the market,” “these royal and sacred objects,” or “the casting of royal and sacred objects to the open market.” It is hard to imagine that Hicks would treat European royal objects with equal reverence—our professor is that unusual beast, a Marxist Royalist, albeit his sovereign is the Oba of Benin, not our own contemporary Widow of Windsor.

The Fate of Museums

The Brutish Museums is not just a critique of how the Benin bronzes were acquired. It also argues that contemporary ethnographic museums are somehow enablers of “the militarist-corporate-colonialist model.” Hicks argues that every day an ethnographic museum opens its doors, the violence of colonial wars is revisited and that these museums must actively dismantle themselves to be purged of the crime of their creation. In Hicks’ worldview, they are not places where young people discover different and remote cultures but rather engines of white supremacy. The Benin Bronzes may have been looted, but their very creation was also made possible due to wealth—and indeed raw materials—obtained in what we would now regard as profoundly immoral ways. And to whom should such objects be returned? The successors of those who carried out those actions—as is being proposed by Hicks—or the, surely untraceable, descendants of their victims, as Hicks would certainly propose if these slavers were European?

The additional problem with returning the Benin Bronzes is that it will surely open a floodgate of other demands which will be difficult to resist. Hicks proposes a typology of seven forms of taking, ranging from “looting with violence” via “‘scientific’ collecting of natural history specimens” (who might these be returned to, the King of the Beetles, Queen of the Bees?) to “Instances of barter, purchase and commissioning.” He states that all should at least be considered for return, and that “this is not intended as a list of diminishing violence.” In other words, if Hicks and his ilk get their way, no non-Western exhibit will remain secure in a Western museum.

What will happen to the Benin Bronzes? In Benin City, there are plans for a new $100 million Edo Museum of West African Art designed by noted British-Ghanaian architect Sir Davis Adjaye. This is partly planned as a repository of returned Benin objects. The German government has indicated its wish that the bronzes and other objects held in their public museums—25 have Benin holdings including the Ethnological Museum of Berlin with its 225 Benin plaques from the royal palace itself—should go back. Smaller private institutions, including Jesus College, Cambridge which has a bronze cockerel, have indicated their wish to return items.

In 2007 Sotheby’s sold a Benin Bronze in New York for $4.7 million. In 2011 Sotheby’s in London announced that it would sell a Benin ivory mask with an estimate of £3.5m-£4.5m but then swiftly reversed the decision and withdrew the lot under pressure from the Nigerian government. The London item had a more problematic provenance than the New York offering: the ivory mask was offered for sale by the descendants of one of the British officers involved in the 1897 expedition, whilst the New York item was being deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York. When the Albright-Knox bronze was offered at auction it was challenged in the courts, but solely on the grounds of the museum deaccessioning its antiquities and pre-Modern works, not on the basis of its provenance. This would now almost certainly be different. It is difficult to see a major auction house ever selling a significant Benin object again.

In June 2021 the Met announced it would be returning two of its Benin plaques to Nigeria, although this announcement had as much to do with these items’ later history than their initial 1897 taking. They had been in the collection of the British Museum and were then transferred as duplicates to the National Museum of Nigeria in the 1950s. Sometime thereafter in unclear circumstances, without being formally deaccessioned, they left the Nigerian museum and reentered the market. The position on deaccessioning for the British Museum—legislation permits it only to dispose of duplicates—means that its Benin collection is likely to remain in place for longer and more securely than many others in Europe and the United States.

The direction of travel for the Benin Bronzes is becoming clear. Many if not most will be heading south over the coming years. A strong moral case for it can certainly be made—the Benin Bronzes were looted—but the case is much more ambiguous than its advocates would suggest. More importantly, Hicks’ fellow curators must strongly resist the wider arguments of The Brutish Museums if ethnographic museums are to survive. And surely their survival is an unequivocally good thing. If artefacts in Western museums have to be returned en masse to their countries of origin, Western understanding of and interest in other cultures will inevitably diminish. We will be living in a more monocultural world; this is surely not Hicks’ intention, but it will be the consequence of what he proposes.