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Notes on The Brutish Museum

The Brutish Museum:

The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution

Dan Hicks

I have chosen selections from this scholarly yet eminently practical book that I thought might be relevant in the context of the discussions about the Black Boy Clock and Statue in Stroud at the moment.

1. Dan Hicks writes of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford (but obviously with implications for any museum): ‘In the artificial, darkened secondary landscapes of this museum, let us understand this place not as some dazzling gathering of the flotsam and jetsam of the colonial past, but, following the lead of Laurent Olivier, understand the fragments of cultural history as forms of human memory. As the visionary archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes once put it, archaeologists are “Instruments of consciousness who are engaged in reawakening the memory of the world.”’

2. Neologisms aid Dan Hicks’ analysis and our understanding: ‘” necropolitics” – the politics of who lives and who dies’; “World War Zero” for the late nineteenth century carve-up of Africa by the European powers and the destruction of African life; “necrography” – the analysis of looted art and artefacts; “necrological” as opposed to ethnological museum-knowledge, and “chronopolitics” – ‘through which museums were weaponised in the name of ‘race science”’.’

3. The book ‘has been written with this motto in mind: as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire. Like the border uses space to classify, making distinctions between different kinds of human, so the museum uses time … Like the camera, the museum does not freeze time but controls exposure, measures out duration. A time of taking is giving way to a time of return…’

4. Hicks quotes Sumaya Kassim at length ‘in the context of the landmark The Past Is Now exhibition at Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery’: “Decolonising is deeper than just being represented. When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money and time, otherwise it risks becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’. As interest in decolonial thought grows, we must beware of museums’ and other institutions’ propensity to collect and exhibit because there is a danger (some say an inevitability) that the museum will exhibit decoloniality in much the same way they display/ed black and brown bodies as part of “Empire’s” collection.’ I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain’s national narrative as a pretty curio with no substance – or worse, for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another great British accomplishment: the railways, two world wars, one world cup, and decolonisation.”

5. ‘Democidal’: ‘The British atrocity at Benin City was a crime against humanity’, involving ‘the three principal elements of the 1899 Hague Convention: the indiscriminate attack on human life in which tens of thousands died; the purposeful and proactive destruction of an ancient, cultural, religious and royal site; and the looting of sacred artworks’. ‘A democidal campaign.’

6. The Benin campaign had its provenance in the ‘Dark Continent’ trope, ‘But there was more to it: Benin in 1897 was a foundational moment … a foreshadowing of twentieth century horror, the beginning of the colour line, and of the borderwork of the modern nation state … the borderwork of empire … in the museum, transformed from the ethnological project into a temporal technology for the classification of humans in cultural forms, always an intervention and a redaction before it was a representation. At the heart of this is always “race science.” This necrology represented a forgotten history of Europeans in Africa, a prefiguration of the industrialised destruction of the First World War, and a prehistory of twentieth century militarist racism.’

7. Hicks quotes Achille Mbembe at length: ‘Since the modern age the museum has been a powerful device of separation. The exhibition of subjugated or humiliated humanities … these humanities have never had the same right in the museum to the same treatment, status or dignity as the conquering humanities. They have always been subjected to other rules of classification and other logics of presentation.’

8. Hicks, towards the end of his chapter, Looting, writes of how, ‘A previous generation of western scholars used the Benin looting to critique the role of colonial heritage in the support of the nation state, based on the idea that imperialism was mobilised towards “promoting national unity”.’ He says that he, instead, will ‘be guided by the motto: as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire’. He goes on to say that the new critique should go beyond ‘Whitehall’ to some ‘far more dangerous zone: that of corporate colonialism, extractive militarism, a harbinger of the disaster capitalism, the ultraviolence, and the racist dispossessions and even exhibitionary regimes that the twentieth century would bring … a foundational moment for a new kind of race science during the 1890s, one that was driven by what Max Weber called “booty capitalism” – a concept that connected British early slave-trading and piracy with late Victorian militarist colonialism …’

9. Question: What does all this mean for Stroud scarlet and the Black Boy statue and clock? Question: Hicks also talks of ‘cultural restitution’ – and what that might mean. What might that mean re the Black Boy statue and clock? ‘One first step is to understand not the “life-history” but the loss’. What might that mean re the Black Boy statue and clock? Should we contact the Door of No Return? To ask what they might write about the Black Boy statue?

10. Necrology: ‘Let us call the knowledge made through death and loss in the anthropology museum necrology and the writing of such loss necrography.’

11. ‘A Negative Moment’: ‘Archaeology is not the study of past fragments, but the science of human duration.’ Question: again, what are the implications for the text around the Black Boy statue and clock? ‘Anthropology museums can be sites of conscience, for the present as well as the past, not frozen end-points but ongoing processes. But without acts of return this means nothing.’

12. Hicks concludes: ‘from the museum as end-point to the museum as process: ‘The existence of museums of world culture … where other ways of living, seeing, thinking and relating can be understood has never been more vital. The museums need new commissioning programmes … filled by new work by artists, designers, writers and others … to help museums remember and to bear witness to colonialism today … The museum as process not an end-product.’

My personal conclusion;

Having read Las Casas on the Spanish atrocities in the Americas; then reflecting on the development of racist ideologies in the Enlightenment (Kant, Hume etc) and the prevalence and persistence of European slave trading; then reflecting on the development of racist/imperialist ideologies of late Victorian Social-Darwinism, together with the Dark Continent trope, then Hitler’s Fascist ‘Master Race’/Untermenschen ideology seems less of the usually posited deviation from European values and civilised culture … but more a culmination.

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