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The Brutish Museums

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 5 June 2024, 18:35

The book 'The Brutish Museums' by Dan Hicks is briefly mentioned in the 'Optional' materials in week 27 'The art of Benin: 1897 to present day'. Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which houses a number of objects taken from the Kingdom of Benin.

I've made a number of notes below, chiefly on points that I want to keep in mind from the book and some onward links.

Overall, I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more than I did. I'm broadly in sympathy with Hicks's view that museums and galleries need to take a more active role in repatriation of illegally looted objects in their collections. I'd also agree that they should be actively raising difficult conversations about the awful reality of the British Empire and its ongoing legacy and consider how they can engage in a process of meaningful restitution. In fact there wasn't much about any of the arguments he makes that I'd disagree with, the difficulty I had was really with the writing style. The book is a polemic, which is often invigorating and a necessary part of study - I just found the repeated 'short-cut' language of 'disaster-extraction-capitalism', 'ultraviolence', 'corporate-militarist colonialism', 'white fragility' etc. became wearing and clichéd in the end and detracted from the message for me. 

That said there are lots of points that I want to keep hold of!

An early reference was made to 'Workers investigating their own workplace' and the movement 'Dig where you stand' promoted by Sven Lindqvist. I've subsequently discovered this was a Swedish 'History from Below' movement that encouraged examination of the history of employers and companies by their workers. Hicks makes this link because as a 'museum worker' he is critically examining and exposing the history of his workplace.

Hicks takes the following as a key motto in the book: 'as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire' - I take this to mean that whilst borders divide humanity into so-called 'nations', museums use time to make distinctions between different types of human. 

There is a chapter on the 'Theory of Taking' - which I think really boils down to the argument that material theft should be similarly considered as has land theft in studies of colonisation. That these forms of dispossession are just as important and damaging to survivor populations.

Hicks talks about 'Necrography' - not just the 'life histories' of objects in museums, but also death histories - documenting loss - and the loss of life in particular - associated with objects.

He takes issue with:

  • cultural biography - i.e. the idea of what is added to object through reuse/passage
  • entanglement - a reciprocity of reaction between cultures which come into contact, Hicks seems to argue that this obscures the enormous asymmetry in the damage accruing from these contacts with colonisers.

The idea of necrography seems to be a response to this.

Another term coined was, 'White projection' - essentially projecting colonisers faults onto others - it was Benin's 'fault', they were the savages - even though it was the colonisers who exhibited the savagery.

Hicks makes (to my mind) a good case that the 'Punitive raid' was part of a pre-planned expansion of colonial control for profit. He also promotes the idea of 'World War Zero' for the period of colonial violence worldwide from the Berlin Conference to the start of WWI. Whilst this may have some merit in highlighting the geographic scale, the continuous (if sequential) nature and the horror of these 'Small Wars', I think it potentially underplays their asymmetry - the later WW's were much more 'equal'. However interesting to think about whether this whole period will in fact in time be seen as one of extended (chiefly European) imperial conflict.

There was lots of discussion about museums, objects and 'duration' and archaeology as being involved in 'duration'. I assume that is perhaps about 'what lasts'? Hick argues that museums, (and perhaps display in particular?) cause ongoing violence - extend the duration of the original assaults, he also sees the violence as increased over time. I did wonder if it is really possible to establish who are (and who are not?) the victims of such violence, is this a process of self-identification?

The following points were taken from a number of academics that Hicks draws on - it will be valuable to follow some of these up.

Interesting ideas on what museums do to objects from the work of Achille Mbeme in his book 'Necropolitics' he describes a process of  'mummification, statuefication and fetishization' 

The language of Aimé Césaire was 'chosification', colonisers make colonised into 'things' in his 'Discourse on Colonialism'. Another point linked with this academic was the basic 'equation (Christianity=Civilization Paganism=Savagery)

'Chronopolitics' is a term used by Johannes Fabian in 'Time and the Other' - basically putting individuals who live at the same time in different times - so people in Benin were 'living in the past' - Hicks argues that museums collude, perhaps even exist, on the back of this idea. I gather there was also a geographic component to this idea - the further away from the 'centre' communities are the further 'back in time' they are considered to be.

Finally just a few direct quotes from Hicks to think about....

'Understand artefacts[...] not as frozen moments of time, but ongoing durations' p.13

'Museums are devices for extending events across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the violence' p.15


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