We’ve all had moments in our lives when we have been forced to confront things that we are not comfortable with. In the world of museum practice, many museum staff have already experienced this reckoning, an uncomfortable moment where they have realised that the institutions they serve are spaces of pain and suffering, as well as education and inspiration.
But while museum staff are slowly beginning to get their heads around the violent histories that their institutions can be homes to, the venues themselves have rarely changed in response. And that is the aim of Dan Hicks’s latest book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution – to confront head-on the legacy of pain that museums continue to perpetuate, and present a compelling case for change.
Over the course of 242 pages, Hicks paints a picture, in excruciating detail, of the violent slaughter and brutal sacking of the people and city of Benin in Nigeria in 1897 at the hands of the British empire. This reconstruction of a violent massacre forms the basis of the argument for museums to acknowledge the violence of their colonial legacies and begin the process of restitution.
The Brutish Museums is the latest case to be made for the return of cultural objects to the countries and people they were violently taken from, and highlights the absurdity of the mental gymnastics that some museum professionals will go through to suggest that these objects are better off remaining in Britain.
The book frames museums as an extension of the colonial violence that took place during the time of empire, a way for British people to cling on to some semblance of superiority over previously colonised nations, while masquerading it as a cultural endeavour and public service.
Many museums in Britain are attempting to challenge this notion, but Hicks suggests that institutions cannot truly get away from this narrative while they continue to cling on to the objects that are central to these histories.
I would love to know what Hicks had in his morning coffee while writing this book, as he does not hold back. Naming and shaming the people involved in the violent sacking of Benin city is a core part of it, as well as not being afraid to call those figures what they were: racists and eugenicists.
Even the title of the book is a clear move to point out one of the largest organisations involved in this legacy of colonialism, the British Museum in London, and going so far as to use the same font and style as the museum is a bold and satisfying stylistic choice.
While I would say the case for restitution is obvious to a lot of people (and Hicks does a good job outlining this case), the language he uses is not so clear. This is very much an academic text – which is immediately apparent when you see it has 103 pages of appendices, notes, references and index. While the core message of the text paints a clear need to return certain items found in museum collections, the language might be inaccessible for a casual reader.
Regardless, the book remains an excellent resource for anyone who wants to champion restitution in museums and push for further racial equality in society. The Brutish Museums makes a vivid case for restitution and for British museums to understand the violence that can be felt when displaying or withholding items obtained by some of the most vile atrocities in history.
This book should be on every museum professional’s shelf to serve as a reminder of the trauma that museums can represent, and an impetus to do better.
Liam Wiseman is a senior relationship manager, south-east, at Arts Council England. He is also a member of the Museums Association’s Decolonisation Guidance Working Group