Decolonise the museum!

Mike Phipps reviews The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, by Dan Hicks, published by Pluto

The Brutish Museums

Dan Hicks is curator of ‘world archaeology’ at the University of Oxford’s Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology. He wrote this book to bring about a wider acknowledgement of “the scale and horror of British corporate–militarist colonialism.” Its focus is the violent sacking by British troops of the city of Benin in 1897, a pivotal moment in the formation of Nigeria as a British colony.

Although presented as a series of ‘punitive expeditions’, the razing of Benin was not an act of retaliation, as museum information boards often maintain, but a well-planned piece of organised looting. Hicks describes it as “an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and on sovereignty… a crime against humanity.” Its indiscriminate killing, purposeful destruction of a cultural and religious site and looting of artworks were violations that would be written into the Hague Convention two years later.

No official figures of casualties were kept, aside from the eight members of the expeditionary force who died, but millions of bullets were used and a contemporary account reported that “the slaughter was enormous” with rocket bombardment massacring civilians on a large scale. Villages were burned to the ground and there are no reports of prisoners of war or medical treatment for Africans.

The destruction of the ancient site was methodically carried out for days after the city was taken, all undertaken in the name of Christianity against pagan worship. The British built a golf course on the remains.

Up to 10,000 bronzes, ivories and other objects were looted from the city. This was not a coherent exercise in collecting and safeguarding, but a far more haphazard process. The first comprehensive cataloguing of the loot did not occur for a further 20 years. Even today, most museums don’t know what they hold and curators are even more unwilling to share their ignorance than their knowledge in this regard.

One academic noted, ”It is telling that Hicks, with all the resources of Oxford behind him, had to take to Twitter to find Bronzes, asking his followers to tag collections with ‘#BeninDisplays.’”

In fact, Benin’s royal artworks and sacred objects are now dispersed across 161 art museums in Europe and North America. More are hidden away in private collections. None of the major collections describe their acquisition of these treasures in a fully accurate way.  The purpose of the book is to redefine these museums as “sites of conscience, in which to face up to the ultraviolence of Britain’s colonial past in Africa, and its enduring nature, and in which to begin practical steps towards African cultural restitution.”

Yet even as recently as 2016, one highly distinguished Oxford professor of archaeology could still proclaim, “With the Benin bronzes, the rape proved to be a rescue.” The idea of seizing other nations’ art to preserve it is an old one, with a dubious political pedigree.

It’s a deeply flawed argument and paternalistic in the extreme. It assumes that museums in poorer countries cannot look after their heritage – they do – and that museums in richer countries will do a better job –they don’t. Fewer than one percent of African objects in UK museums are on public display.

“Nigerian museums have cared for returned artworks for decades, wrote Hicks recently in the Daily Telegraph, “while many objects supposedly safe in British museums were sold to private buyers.” This includes 267 objects of Benin art, held by Augustus Pitt-Rivers in his second collection on his private estate in Dorset, which were auctioned off between the 1950s and the 1970s. Sales of Benin art continue in prestigious auction houses, and have been the subject of sometimes successful African-led campaigns to prevent this.

Nowadays, to escape the colonial taint of their collections, more savvy curators reframe their displays as ‘universal museums’, exhibiting works for all to see. They just happen to be located primarily in imperialist countries. So if someone from the African continent wants to see their cultural heritage, they have to buy a plane ticket.

Restoring such artworks to their place of origin would not only allow these nations to celebrate and integrate their cultural heritage. It would also force Britain, and other western countries, to face up to their own colonial past, the plunder of which is still displayed in their flagship museums.

What happened to Benin is not confined to a distant past. Cultural appropriation and destruction are a central ingredient of conflict and colonialism today. When Israeli forces make their incursions into Gaza, they frequently target Palestinian libraries. Erasing a culture is an important element of dispossession and denial of identity.

When western forces occupied Iraq in 2003, a military base was built on the ancient site of Babylon, museums and cultural sites were looted and the National Library in Baghdad was torched on two occasions. It was ironic then that an oil company, in whose interests the invasion of Iraq was in part arguably undertaken, should be a “corporate partner” of the British Museum at this time.

Perhaps feeling the pressure, the British Museum recently announced plans to help “investigate the history of the Kingdom of Benin”, with a grand archaeology mission and new museum. “The organisation will work with Nigerian teams on the creation of a new Edo Museum of West African Art,” reported the BBC. “The plan represents one of largest physical projects the British Museum has ever undertaken outside the UK.”

Of course, the initiative falls short of returning all the stolen artefacts to the city of Benin. But the Museum’s announcement did concede that the new museum “will house a permanent display of Benin works of art, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums.”

If Dan Hicks’ book sparks similar initiatives elsewhere, it will have been well worth the effort.

Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central CLP and editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at

Image:  Benin Bronzes – British Museum. Source: Joyofmuseums, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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