Museums as Monuments to White Supremacy


We have reached a new phase in the public debate over whether to repatriate objects stolen from former colonies and now displayed in European and worldwide museums: individuals, on film and in real life, are quite literally taking matters into their own hands. One of the most powerful and intriguing scenes of the award-winning motion picture Black Panther (2018), for example, features Killmonger in a European gallery that could well be in the British Museum. The supervillain interrogates the white woman museum director about the provenance of one of the objects on display. When she informs him that the item came from Benin, he responds that in fact, the item was fabricated in Wakanda and taken from the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers. Confronting the director by reminding her that her ancestors stole that artifact and many other similar items, Killmonger and his accomplices break the glass display case, withdraw the object, and remove it from the museum.

Amid the popular protests led by Black Lives Matter that emerged in Europe and the Americas, a scene similar to Black Panther’s was performed in a real museum. On June 13, 2020, Congolese-born activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, along with protestors from the group Unité, dignité et courage (Unity, Dignity, and Courage), led a demonstration at the African art section of Quai Branly Museum in Paris. After a speech denouncing European crimes committed during colonial rule in Africa and the plunder of material heritage, the group removed a Chad funerary pole from its display and carried it around the museum before they were arrested.

Although in the United States, England, France, Belgium, and Portugal, concerned citizens have protested and sometimes taken down public statues representing proslavery and pro-colonial individuals, there have been very few cases in which activists have removed looted cultural objects from the museums where they have come to reside. Yet viewed together, Black Panther’s scene and the Quay Branly action illustrate widespread pain and anger over the legacies of European conquest and colonial rule in Africa, as well as current demands for restitution of objects plundered by European troops during the invasion and partition of the African continent at the end of the 19th century.

In The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution, Dan Hicks brings his expertise as an archaeologist, professor, and curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford to tackle this problem. Hicks recasts the discussion about the restitution of African cultural heritage by telling the story of the Benin Bronzes and other cultural and sacred artifacts stolen by the British from the ancient Edo Kingdom of Benin in 1897, in present-day Nigeria.

The book dismantles the common view that these artifacts were lawfully removed from Benin City and should belong to Western museums. Hicks therefore supports claims that they should be repatriated to Nigeria. In defending the return of looted heritage, he argues that museums choosing to continue holding looted sacred and royal objects plundered during colonial rule will remain monuments to European supremacy over African civilizations.

Demands to restitute cultural property looted during wars and the establishment of European colonial rule in Africa have been in the public sphere since the early period of colonization. These demands acquired more visibility during the anticolonial struggle in Africa and even more at the turn of the 21st century, but were always met with great resistance by European political authorities and museum officials.

This political landscape is gradually changing. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron created a committee to study the repatriation of African cultural heritage housed in French museums. The initiative resulted in a published report in which scholars Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr recommended that looted heritage be permanently returned to the countries of origin upon their governments’ request. After two years of debates, in December 2020, the French National Assembly held a final vote for the return of 26 artifacts looted from the Kingdom of Dahomey during the Second Franco-Dahomean War (189294) that transformed the powerful kingdom into a French colony.

Still, this is a small achievement, as millions of items looted from Africa during the colonial era remain in private collections as well as public and private museums around the world. Taking up the 1897 theft from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, Hicks’s The Brutish Museums explains in detail how thousands of objects were stolen, sold, and incorporated into dozens of museum holdings and private collections, mainly in Britain but also in many other countries, including Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. Showing that plundering African heritage was central to the British colonial project, the book also exposes in detail the wide transnational network connecting looters and collectors to museum and government officials. This narrative allows readers to understand how British invaders knew the value of royal sacred objects and stole them in a massive and systematic campaign.

Hicks shows how the creation of Western museums is rooted in violence perpetrated against African peoples. The Kingdom of Benin was one of the first African societies to come into contact with the Portuguese and to develop a rich trade in ivory, palm oil, and pepper. Its rulers also engaged in the Atlantic slave trade with the Portuguese, the French, and the British. The book establishes a clear link between the rise and fall of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonial rule in Africa. Evidently, Britain’s efforts to end the slave trade and slavery in the region through the promotion of legitimate commerce opened the path for British colonialism in West Africa and the delta of the Niger River.

Although anthropology museums can be places that decenter European culture, they were built on the backs of populations historically designated as inferior.

The suppression of the slave trade led to Benin’s economic decline, ultimately contributing to the British annexation of Lagos. British officers involved in this operation were not bringing salvation to Benin. They were very aware of all the natural resources of the region, including minerals, gum copal, and gum arabic. In the late 19th century, as part of the largest enterprise of European partition of the African continent, Britain invaded, conquered, and destroyed Benin City, the most important city of the Kingdom of Benin, making it a protectorate. After the end of British colonial rule in 1960, Benin eventually became part of independent Nigeria. Discussing the formation of anthropology museums, Hicks explains how Europeans took control of the land, burned down African royal palaces, assassinated and deported African rulers and commoners, and also looted the continent’s valuable cultural heritage.

Hicks has a unique perspective on this history as a curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, one of the largest repositories of objects plundered during British colonialism. Its collections derive from those of British officer, archaeologist, and ethnologist Augustus Pitt Rivers. Not only does Hicks know in detail the looted objects, but he also has had privileged access to the written and visual archives that offer crucial evidence about how these artifacts were stolen and incorporated into British collections. Although he emphasizes the importance of anthropology museums as places that decenter European culture, Hicks insists that these museums were built on the backs of populations historically designated as inferior.

Artworks and artifacts from Benin City were almost unknown to European nations before 1897. When they seized the city, British officers and soldiers looted 10,000 items, including artworks, sacred artifacts, and human remains. The booty also comprised uncarved ivory tusks, brass plaques, and a variety of other objects such as ornaments, masks, axes, and containers, as well as cloths, coral beads, wood carvings, and ironwork. Among the most well-known items are the cast-brass heads (commonly known as bronzes) depicting deceased obas (rulers). Displayed on top of these heads were richly carved ivory tusks that, like the 16th-century brass plaques, narrated events associated with the oba’s life and the history of the royal court. Installed in ancestral altars, these sacred sculptures are memorials that commemorate the deceased obas.

The museum’s colonial displays today continue to reenact and repeat the traumatic history of violence and looting by describing the destruction of Benin City and the massacre of its population as punitive expeditions. British officers documented this violence in detail not only in their own journals but also through photographs, today also housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The production of photographs of these artifacts added another layer to the original theft, transforming the images into instruments of colonial propaganda disseminated in British newspapers in the last decade of the 19th century. In that sense, the process of looting items from places like Benin City served a function beyond stocking European museums with new artifacts: it also contributed to marketing efforts that generated ongoing support for imperial expansion.

The Brutish Museums not only uncovers the histories behind objects held at the Pitt Rivers Museum; its focus on circulation also challenges the collective amnesia around some of Britain’s most storied museums. Hicks retraces the complicated trajectory of the looting as a number of pieces were sold to private collectors and institutions. Hundreds of brass plaques were sent to London; nearly one hundred of them were incorporated into the collections of the British Museum, and hundreds of others were sold and dispersed to several other museums and private collectors across Europe (especially in Britain) and the Americas. Three years before his death, Pitt Rivers formed a collection that included Benin City’s looted items acquired through several auctions. Today the Pitt Rivers Museum holds nearly 145 objects stolen during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897.

One century after the looting, the British government continued to affirm that the thousands of objects were legally taken, as Britain was the legitimate authority in the land at the time. In 1997, at the centennial of the 1897 expedition, Black British MP Bernie Grant, who also championed the movement for reparations for slavery, brought to light the existence of Benin City’s looted artifacts in several British museums. He also put pressure on the government to return these artifacts. Yet British authorities refused, claiming that restitution of African heritage would empty British museums, that the objects’ display in Britain gave global audiences access to them, and that African institutions would not be able to properly take care of the objects. Hicks masterfully dismantles these three arguments that remain alive today.

In the last two decades, with the rise of a global movement for Black lives, South African students led demonstrations against pro-colonial monuments such as the numerous statues honoring Cecil Rhodes spread around the country. In 2015, as British students protested racism in British universities, the movement reached Oxford University. Museums in Europe and the Americas had to respond to decolonization calls.

The Brutish Museums shows that colonial violence is unfinished, and as it persists in the present, it cannot be relativized. Several museums holding objects looted during the 1897 British invasion are now displaying labels and panels telling the story of the looting. Many, however, remain silent. Hicks does not conclude that anthropology museums can be decolonized, but his book challenges readers and curators to reimagine these institutions as places of thinking and doing, and especially as sites acknowledging how the long, violent history of colonialism reverberates in the present. But while he makes a persuasive case for repatriating stolen artifacts, how exactly to achieve such cultural restitution obviously remains contested. Killmonger, Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, and others would seem to favor renegade gestures of repossession, while certain curators and politicians oppose this approach. Even if the role of this book is not to offer a logistical plan for repatriation, The Brutish Museums powerfully calls museums to transform themselves and resist their racist legacy through cultural restitutions and reparations.

 

This essay is the fourth in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.

 

This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

Featured image: Benin Bronzes (detail) (2015). Photograph by Archie / Flickr



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