The Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology invites the Bryn Mawr College community to join in a conversation with Dan Hicks
, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology and Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. The event has been rescheduled for December 4 at 12pm.
Professor Hicks will speak about his new book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution
(Pluto Press), released on November 5, 2020. The Bryn Mawr community has access to an e-copy of the book through Tripod
Registration here: registration
Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums
is an honest critique of modern museum practice, calling for European and American archaeological and anthropological museums to confront their own legacies and to return objects acquired through acts of state sponsored corporate colonial violence. Hicks takes these museums to task in underscoring the injustice of retaining, and displaying, cultural objects that were acquired during the colonial wars of the modern era. His argument is framed through the lens of the “Benin Bronzes,” an assemblage of metal and ivory art objects that are part of the ancestral and ceremonial heritage of the Benin royal family – a royal lineage that has existed unbroken since the 14th century. These objects were removed from the Kingdom of Benin (modern Nigeria) in 1897 by British forces as part of a punitive expedition and now are on display in over 160 museums and collections worldwide. The Brutish Museums
makes a moral case for the return of these and similar objects extracted by colonial violence to still living communities. On November 13, Professor Hicks will talk about issues related to artifact restitution and the future of the anthropological museum in his conversation with the Bryn Mawr community.
The Brutish Museums is as much a political philosophy of museum practice as it is a roadmap for a new museum ethics. Hicks begins with highlighting the problems of colonialist narratives that emerged from the removal of the Benin Bronzes – narratives that still populate the public didactics of the museums displaying these objects. These narratives provide a tempered and incomplete version of events that de-emphasize or ignore the burning of Benin City and the massacre of city residents that accompanied the removal of ancestral objects. Hicks critiques the validity of popular colonial narratives in museum didactics, but also the ethics of museums in perpetuating these narratives while presenting objects as examples of an objective human past.
Despite the claims of popular narratives of the 1897 Benin City massacre, the author notes that there is hardly ever an interrogation of the moral justification for Queen Victoria’s military presence in Benin in the display contexts of the Benin Bronzes. Hicks explains that it was during the 1890’s that the British government sought to negotiate the annexation of Benin as a British protectorate in exchange for the corporate extraction of the region’s natural resources – an annexation wholly resisted by the Oba (king) of the Benin royal family. In the lead up to the 1897 massacre, six British officers entered Benin city during a religious festival they were expressly prohibited from witnessing as foreigners. The deaths of four officers was seized upon as an opportunity for the crown to depose the Oba and then exploit Benin’s natural resources. It was under this pretext that British forces burned Benin City in 1897 and removed the objects that frame The Brutish Museums
Hicks argues for the unmitigated return of the Benin Bronzes from every collection that has benefited from the 1897 punitive expedition, including the Pitt Rivers Museum. For the author, the restitution of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria is to serve as an exemplar for the tens of thousands of other cultural objects seized by force from societies across the globe in acts of state sanctioned colonial violence. When museums enlist illicit objects to illustrate the past, Hicks argues, they become complicit in the dehumanizing effects of the theft of cultural objects. As beneficiaries and shields for colonial violence, the author refers to museums as “weapons.” The point identifies precisely why restitution is not an academic, philosophical curio for institutional actors to debate under the guise of “decolonizing” disciplines. Hicks urges museums and collections that hold Benin Bronzes, and objects similarly extracted by colonial violence, to immediately repatriate these objects to their rightful owners: the living communities that continue to suffer the loss of objects of their own cultural heritage. The Brutish Museums
argues that it is only then that a new ethical museum can emerge.
Join our conversation with Dan Hicks on these issues and many more!
* Registered participants who cannot access the e-book through Tripod will gain access to chapters from Dan Hicks’ new book prior to the event.