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The making of colonial museums: in conversation with Dan Hicks
Thursday, September 23, 2021 | Olajide Salawu

Brass Queen Mother alterpiece with the figures of six attendants looted from Benin City by George LeClerc Egerton. Pitt Rivers Museum/Dumas-Egerton Trust (accession number 1991.13.25).



Dan Hicks is professor of contemporary archeology at the University of Oxford, Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a Fellow of St. Cross College. Hicks has been at the center of conversations on the violent history of colonial museums and on how cultural objects pillaged from the Benin Kingdom can be returned to their original homes. His recent scholarship has focused on the colonial histories of cultural objects, work which has intersected with recent global campaigns against racism, continued imperialism in the Middle East, and ongoing ecological disasters. His two most recent books, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (paperback 2021) and A Cultural History of Objects (2020) are both diligent interventions that investigate the underbelly of colonialism and the foundations of Western cultural institutions, with a particular focus on museums where artefacts and valuables that have been expropriated from other regions of the world are displayed for visitors. 

In our dialogue, we take an excursion through a range of topics including restitution, racism, and responses to calls for the repatriation of museum objects which inform the themes in his book The Brutish Museums. The book historically contextualizes the punitive campaign of 1897 in the Benin Kingdom, reading the event against the grain. In what is now known as southern Nigeria, the precolonial Kingdom of Benin was a flourishing space for the production of material culture, home to ingenious artists, sculptors, metal forgers, and carvers. In the British imperial project, Benin Kingdom became a site of interest and a territory to harness. Benin’s resistance to this colonial invasion led to the death of James Philips, a British delegate. The death was received as a symbolic riposte to British imperial power and led to the invasion of Benin Kingdom, the sacking of the palace, and cultural genocide. The Brutish Museums recounts the history of this invasion through what Hicks terms a “necrographical approach.” This methodology involves an assessment of losses and an inventory of cultural objects which were looted and transferred to various private individuals and institutionsincluding Pitt Rivers, the museum Hicks is employed by.  Many of these items are displayed at different museums across the world today, and calls for the artefacts to be returned have been increasing from a variety of communities. The book is a record of the tragedy which Hicks calls “World War Zero.” Throughout our conversation, Hicks and I discuss the book and attempt to address some of the questions it prompts. 



In these museums, colonialism is enacted in such a way that reveals how it is not over, but still with us. So it’s not about one institution spearheading anything, but about a devolved and decentered global shift in the information and ethical standards that audiences demand from their cultural institutions. 



Olajide Salawu: Thank you for having me, Hicks. Your new book, The Brutish Museums, has generated rave reviews and provoked anger in some zones of the English public, with people labeling it as an ideological work. The book was released in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when there was a global movement against racism. I consider this timely. Why did you choose Benin among other cases of colonial cultural thefts? 

Dan Hicks: It is a pleasure, Olajide. People do keep suggesting to me that The Brutish Museums is timely, but perhaps that’s just a sign that a stopped clock tells the right time once or twice every century. Certainly, museums like the Pitt Rivers Museum, as I argue in the book, have sought to intervene with the passage of time. The book emerged out of my longstanding interest in the relationships between museums, colonialism, and material culture in circum-Atlantic perspective over more than two decades; but in the event, it was written very quickly during the second half of 2019. It was when I represented the University of Oxford at meetings of the Benin Dialogue Group in Benin City in July 2019 that I realized that this book was necessary. The case of Benin 1897 is such an iconic and compelling case for African cultural restitution, but nowhere had the case been phrased clearly. So, I wrote the book in part for the basic curatorial duty of transparencysharing the facts of the matter so that public debate can proceed in an evidence-based manner.

So, you consider The Brutish Museums to be the most successful book you have ever written? 

It’s very different from other books I have written or edited. I have wanted to write for a general audience for a long time, and with each text I have worked on I have tried harder to make that work. But then again, The Brutish Museums is not the kind of book that is just about expanding my own body of writingI have described it as a tool, something that can be used to move matters forward. The book talks about the 2020s as a decade of returns, and it makes clear that the curators’ role is only to share facts, to listen, and to be open to returns on a case-by-case basis as claims are madethe work of restitution is the work of museums’ claimants, communities, stakeholders, audiences of all kinds. 

I keep wondering about how, since the restitution debates have recently become more tense, there have been shouts from right wingers who claim that the agitations are a fake culture war and the project of radical restitutionists and woke academics. How can we facilitate justice and truth outside denialism?

The themes of truth, accountability and justice, as they have been raised by the Black Lives Matter movement since 2015, and by global anti-racist and anti-colonial movements for decades before that, are central to the present, urgent tasks around restitution, repair, return and reparations. Here, the words of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, on 20 April 2021 when he was speaking about the George Floyd verdict, are pertinent I think, he said: “I would not call today’s verdict justice, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability. Which is the first step towards justice.” When it comes to collections from the very different historical circumstances of Holocaust spoliation and Indigenous human remains, the work of restitution has been a normal part of curatorial practice for more than three decades. Now as you rightly say, as the question of African cultural restitution is being addressed, a few on the extreme right are trying to dismiss this mainstream evolution of ethical curatorial practice as ‘woke.’ As I explain in the new preface to the paperback edition of The Brutish Museums, similar pushback has also come from very close to home, from a few senior figures in museums and universities who have tried the old trick of branding restitution as extremism, as some kind of attack on museums. In reality the reverse is true: those working towards returning sacred royal-looted objects when asked, on a case-by-case basis, are in fact seeking to make the institutions they work in, fit for the 21st century. But as we learn from the Attorney General, while accountability is crucial, it’s only the first step towards justice. Returns are an urgent, crucial, essential, necessary part of anti-racist museums, but they are also only a beginning.

If the sacking of Benin in 1897 becomes an archetypal event to illustrate the need for restitution, in what ways can we account and take inventory of violence and cultural objects looted in Old Calabar and Soudan?

There is a genuine risk that the question of African cultural restitution, or of decolonizing museums more generally, becomes reduced to the issue of the Benin Bronzes. As the new work I am doing with my colleagues Bénédicte Savoy, Yann LeGall and Mary-Ann Middelkoop is showing, the Benin 1897 attack was only one among scores of other military expeditions in which African art and culture was takenin what The Brutish Museums called “World War Zero.” There were many more in what is today Nigeria, as well as across the continent of Africa. And then there are the many other incidents of takingarchaeological excavations, missionary confiscations, administrator and ethnographic collecting, and even purchase or barter for items that were inalienable, things that couldn’t be sold. Transparency in our museums means opening up the knowledge of the nature and vast scale of these collections, so many of which languish in storerooms, not even entered onto databases. In many other incidents we won’t have the same level of archival evidence, photographic records, primary and secondary testimony, museum documentation, and so onso we may have to lower our standards of evidence in the processes of claiming and returns. Because knowledge was part of what was taken, lost and destroyed, as well as culture.

Who should be involved in the restitution conversation and why?

I’m very clear in The Brutish Museums that curators’ roles are important but quite delimitedwe need to excavate and share knowledge of collections, and to approach claims for returns in an open-minded and open-ended manner. But restitution is a question for all stakeholders and communities involved, including both local and global audiences of museums and the full range of groups, individuals and national and non-national actors in countries from which claims may be made. National states have an important role to play, and we should not underestimate the symbolic significance of the relationship between formerly colonized nations and formerly colonizing nations in cultural restitution. But there are non-state actors on both sides of these transactions and histories toothe Royal Court of Benin, for example, or the Pitt Rivers Museum. The majority of African material culture in UK museums taken under colonialism is not in our national museumsit’s in the regional collections, from Bristol to Edinburgh, from Norwich to Exeter, from Oxford to Liverpool. Curators of public collections have an urgent duty to demystify the question of provenance around African objects—or what I call in The Brutish Museums the ‘necrographies’ of objects, their histories of loss and deathand to make the facts of the matter clear for all who wish to join the conversation.

In your book, it was clearly stated that most of the major heists that occurred happened in the palace. The Oba remained a central custodian of the artefacts pillaged. Historically, the Nigerian state was not politically constituted as a nation; it was a pre-Lugardian amalgamation. Given this history, who has the role in accepting these objects today?

Speaking personally, I have been very glad to see the development of Nigerian-led initiatives to bring together all interested parties, including the office of the Governor of Edo State, the Royal Court, and the Federal Government, in dialogues that are not controlled, framed or led by Europeans and Americans. Most of the objects taken in the Benin 1897 Expedition were from the Royal Court, but not all werelike the wooden ceremonial paddles taken from Itsekiri communities for example. A case-by-case approach will probably be necessary, since any single object may potentially be subject to more than one claim to rightful ownership. But some of the richest and most powerful Euro-American institutionsI mean, those which wish actively to resist and to complicate and to derail the process of restitutionwill undoubtedly try to use the question of competing claims to hold back returns. Personally, I think it is neocolonialism at its most egregious and its most clear to claim that these matters cannot be worked out among Nigerian colleagues, through the Nigerian legal system or through the ethical practice of Nigerian cultural policy, and so has to be arbitrated by the British or the Americans. Restitution takes time, years rather than days, but it cannot be held up forever. In this decade of returns, my hope and expectation, especially through the multilateral work of both the Royal Court and the Legacy Restoration Trust, is that there will be no risk of restitution being held up by disagreements between Nigerian actors. Such disagreements, where they exist, are best resolved after we Euro-American curators have removed ourselves from any position of power, in my view. 



Cover of The Brutish Museum, Published by Pluto Press, 2020.



The extreme violence of the Benin expedition meant that objects were looted en masse rather than individually. Given this context, what other approaches can work other than case by case basis advanced by restitutionists?

In a European context, we are at the beginning of a new reckoning with the forgotten history of ultraviolence that accompanied naval attacks framed as anti-slavery activities in West and Southern Africa, from the 1820s through to ‘World War Zero’ after the Berlin Congress of 1884 and up to World War One. Each European nation involved in that corporate-militarist-colonialism is at the start of a period of truth-telling, and museums have a central role as sites of conscience here. One of the main arguments of The Brutish Museums is that we’d be wrong to dismiss the taking of royal sacred art as some side-effect or side-show to the violencelooting was a coherent and powerful military strategy designed to cease sovereignty, to destroy traditional religion, and to undertake cultural dispossession. Museums were put to work to make that violence last, and to rekindle it each day that we open our doors anew. This European process isn’t happening in a vacuumit’s a direct result of a century of scholarship, anti-colonial movements and cultural diplomacy from across the continent of Africa. Today African colleagues are at the cutting edge of reimagining the purpose and potential of museums, art and culture in the 21st century. Central here, as my colleague Ciraj Rassool at the University of the Western Cape has noted, is the idea that the museum need not be an end-point, a purely carceral space, some time warp of a colonial worldview. Museums can be places where we care more about people than about things. Places for the living, despite these “necrologies” of death and loss.

In the Brutish Museums you maintain that “The suffering of the Continent of Africa at the hands of extractive militarist corporate colonialism throws up different circumstances from those of settler colonialism in the Pacific or the Americas.” Why do you make this distinction given that the colonization of the Pacific was also a violent process?

One of the lessons we learn from settler colonial studies, and especially the comparative work of Patrick Wolfe, is that colonialism came in different forms. As I discuss in the Brutish Museums, I find that how Wolfe maps different modalities of ‘race’ onto different, albeit often overlapping, regimes of colonialism, from extraction and settlement, highly relevant to understanding the processes of cultural dispossession and restitution. The historical circumstances that led to the possibility of Indigenous claims for returns in North America or the Pacific have important differences from the historical circumstances of extraction — of enslaved people, of resources like rubber or oil, of art and culturein West Africa. To understand colonialism, we need geographical and historical nuance, so that the actions of the 1890s in what is now Nigeria don’t become conflated with every other colonial act. This is not to diminish the violence and loss that attended all aspects of European colonialism. But as The Brutish Museums argues, the particular forms of extractivist corporate-colonial ultra-violence seen in 1897 may have more in common with the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2001 than they do with the Pilgrim Fathers, or Captain Cook (or for that matter the Roman Empire). 

Museums across the world thrive on patronage of local visitors or tourists. We can’t isolate commercialism from institutions which were established as reliquaries of public memories and objects. Based on the pervasive capitalism that fueled colonialism and the cultural theft that led to the cultural genocide in the Benin Kingdom, how and in what ways can we revise the economy of reparation so that the gain accrued in the exhibition of these artefacts and visitors' charges can be included in the conversation of restitution?

The British museum sectorwhere free entry has been important for two decades and the civic functions of museums is often foregroundedis still strongly resisting any suggestion that they financially profit from the display of the Benin Bronzes or other looted items. And yet as The Brutish Museums argues, the Blairite instrumentalization of global art and heritage for the tourist economy through the ideology of the “universal value” of “world culture” collections in 2002 made such benefits explicit, and were undertaken in the context of the last time we had a major shock to global tourism, after 9/11. Now in 2021 we find ourselves in another moment of crisis for the idea of mass global travel. After decades of increasingly aggressive visa restrictions for Africans visiting Europe and America, the old argument that to see one’s culture one simply had to get on a plane to London, Paris or New York City was already on pretty shaky ground. Now in a world of Covid, the hyper-concentration of “world culture” in a handful of locations in the northern hemisphere makes less sense than ever. Returns are the first step towards acknowledging there are outstanding debts from colonialism. But they are not repayments of those debts. Returns perhaps contribute to the urgent task of opening up cultural spaces for new action-oriented dialogues about reparations, rebalancing in terms of finance and resources. As long, of course, as we remain wary about those old pernicious arguments about “capacity building,” which continually kicks the restitution can down the street by claiming African museums are incapable of caring for African objects.  



pushback has also come from very close to home, from a few senior figures in museums and universities who have tried the old trick of branding restitution as extremism, as some kind of attack on museums.



In a recent article by John Lublock “British History’s Brutish Imperialism Has Become A Global Talking Point,” you were cited as follows: “The rest of the country/world will lead, and the UK’s national museums will eventually catch up.” Why did you make this claim? And why should the rest of the world spearhead the gesture of return?

The question most often asked about my book is: But when will the British Museum return their Benin Bronzes? In fact, The Brutish Museums seeks to de-center the British Museum from this dialogue. Only perhaps 900 or so of the more than 10,000 bronze, ivory, coral work, ceramic, iron and other objects that were looted in 1897 are in the British Museum. Say, about 9%. And of those perhaps fewer than a hundred are on displaymost are in the storerooms. The vast majority of Benin 1897 objects falls across more than 160 museums internationallyas the updated list in Appendix 5 of the new paperback edition shows. Commitments to return Benin material have already come from Aberdeen University, National Museum Ireland, the Church of England, the German federal museums, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and so on. Even the Met in New York has agreed to return two objects from its collection! Rather than hyper-focusing on one of the richest and most powerful institutions, which has a small minority of the Benin Bronzes, what is now happening is grassroots dialogues among audiences, workers, leadership teams, stakeholders of all kinds in each of those global institutions. There are so many university museums involvedincluding five Ivy League schools, as the list in the book showsthat student movements are also holding institutions to account. The recognition of these displays as enduring memorials to anti-Black violence is part of what is driving this. In these museums, colonialism is enacted in such a way that reveals how it is not over, but still with us. So it’s not about one institution spearheading anything, but about a devolved and decentered global shift in the information and ethical standards that audiences demand from their cultural institutions. 

You have said the summary of your daily tweets can be found in your book. To what extent do you think Twitter is impacting the conversation on decolonial movements and repatriation in popular discourse?

I couldn’t have written The Brutish Museums without Twitter. It’s a space I’ve learned so much in, and now across social media platforms we’re seeing those grassroots decolonial movements in museums and the arts joining the dots across the world. At its best these are more democratic spaces, where cultural institutions, as well as curators and academics like me, can be held to account. Social media has helped me understand and track the ten thousand Benin 1897 objects as, as I put it in the book, ten thousand unfinished events, and I am grateful to all those who contributed to the #BeninObjects hashtag during the writing process.  But, as I say in the preface to the paperback edition, we still don’t know how this ends. 

The new paperback edition of The Brutish Museums, with a new preface and updated lists of the locations of the Benin Bronzes around the world will be published by Pluto Press on 20 October 2021. 

Olajide Salawu is a Nigerian writer and PhD student based in Edmonton, AB. 

Thanks to Dan Hicks for sharing generously throughout this conversation. 

Editorial support by Emily Doucet.