The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution

The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution
Dan Hicks
London: Pluto Press, 2020.
Cloth $27.00
ISBN 9780745341767

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another
—Walter Benjamin

Dan Hicks’s book is true to the period of its subject for he has written a Victorian melodrama. Indeed, the author might be channeling the elatedly distressed young woman in William Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting The Awakening Conscience (Tate). Rather than playing the role of a young mistress rising from her lover’s lap, Hicks assumes that of an anthropology museum curator—at the Pitt Rivers Museum in the University of Oxford—who, prompted by the campaign to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of an Oxford college, has suddenly realized—and desperately needs to confess—the enormity of the continuing colonial sins of his institution.

Those sins concern the presence in the museum of 145 items traceable to the kingdom of Benin (45 of them on loan). These are among the several thousand items looted—looted is the appropriate term—from Benin City by a British invasion force in 1897. Best known are the bronze relief plaques that once adorned the palace of the ruler of Benin. Many remain in private hands, but Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch has traced no fewer than 849 to museums, the vast majority in the global North.1 Hicks offers a provisional list of 161 museums worldwide that may currently hold objects looted from Benin City in 1897. (He lists the World Museum in Liverpool, UK, twice but omits the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which holds two Benin items, so the number remains steady for now.)

Literary theorist Daniel Cottom would call Hicks’s book an “angry text.”2 Like most angry texts and many melodramas, it relies on moral outrage. It makes no difference to Hicks how the items looted in 1897 are now displayed in museums and with what explanatory texts because to him, their very presence constitutes a prolongation and perpetuation of what he describes as the originating act of violence—the British pillaging and destruction of Benin City—that led to their entry, albeit indirectly, into museums. “Let us be clear on this point,” he writes, “the arrival of loot into the hands of western curators, its continued display in our museums and its hiding-away in private collections, is not some art-historical incident of ‘reception,’ but an enduring brutality that is refreshed every day that an anthropology museum like the Pitt Rivers opens its doors” (137).

Hicks also expresses moral concern about other related factors. He rightly points to the odious ideology of “race science” in late Victorian Britain (and elsewhere in the Minority World3) according to which the Black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa are inherently inferior to those of European origin. And he rightly sees British (and other Minority World) anthropology museums in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “weapons”—his term—used to justify and disseminate this obnoxious doctrine. In his opinion, only by purging themselves of ill-gotten loot can museums hope to redeem themselves and become socially useful, equitable institutions.

There is much to be said for this view of museums. Those who see museums of any kind as morally neutral—let alone exclusively benign—places delude themselves. Museums of all kinds, like all institutions of scholarship, are part of the fabric of the societies that founded and sustain them and, as such, are implicated in the values of those societies, for good and ill. Hicks justifiably excoriates the continuing self-interest of the Minority World in preserving allegedly “encyclopedic museums” as defended by the so-called Bizot Group of Minority World museum directors. They assert that their own collections in the global North should not be diminished by the repatriation of items claimed by others. To accede to such requests would, in their opinion, imperil the “world’s cultural heritage” (194–95).4 However, matters are not quite so simple as Hicks would have us believe.

Hicks’s blind spots are a consequence, in part, of his own prejudices. The first among these is “sedentism”: the belief, common among settled peoples, that urbanism confers superiority on those who dwell in settled places in contradistinction to peripatetic peoples or nomads. Those who argue for the equality of sub-Saharan Africans with others elsewhere have long pointed to Black African urbanism—exemplified by Benin City, among other sites—as evidence of Black civilizational equivalence with whites, betraying a widely shared bias toward urbanization and a disdain for peripatetic peoples.5

Second, on the evidence of this book, Hicks—like many of his compatriots—is in thrall to a myth of royalty. “The Kingdom of Benin has been ruled by an unbroken line of Obas (Kings) that began with Euware I who reigned from 1440 CE—a century before Queen Elizabeth I came to the English throne—and had its origins in the late Iron Age urban societies of the 10th or 11th century CE onwards: when he was crowned in 2016, the current Oba, Euware II, became the fortieth Oba in an unbroken line across eight centuries” (7–8). Note the deference implied both by the comparison, to her disadvantage, with a sixteenth-century English queen and by the unnecessary use of the upper case for “Kingdom,” “Kings,” and Benin’s “Royal Court.”6 Furthermore, the fact that many of the items looted in 1897 were from the royal enclosure and pertained to the Benin cult of royalty seems to lend them special status in Hicks’s eyes beyond what they may have enjoyed as elements of a regime of power assertion within the society that made and first used them.

Hicks sees the restitution of the looted items as a moral imperative. Although I am deeply sympathetic to, and have acted myself to support, the assertions of Indigenous peoples to items they rightfully claim, the case of the Benin items is complex.7 Hicks correctly draws a distinction between, on the one hand, processes of restitution within settler colonial societies and the claims of their Indigenous inhabitants and, on the other, the state of affairs in former imperial possessions that were never subject to extensive European colonial settlement, as in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This means that those who today might claim items such as those looted from Benin arguably do so on grounds that differ from those of, for instance, the 574 federally recognized Native nations in the United States, which can—and do—claim human remains and things in certain categories from institutions in receipt of federal funds. The impulse behind the U.S. Native American Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was the sustenance of Native religious practice. This reasoning would not necessarily apply to claims for the transfer of the Benin materials. Yet outsiders should be circumspect about adjudicating between the claim on the grounds of national or other communal pride, on the one hand, and religious adherence, on the other. Certain Benin items may well have sacred status independent of a cult of royalty in a current as well as in a past sense. If direct descendants of looters decide to consign to the royal court of Benin items that they have inherited, as Mark Walker, grandson of looter Herbert Walker, did when he donated two items in 2014 (162), then that is their right, and arguably, such action is praiseworthy. But a skeptic might wonder whether such moves right a wrong, enable the resuscitation of threatened religious practices, or largely serve to bolster the prestige of the current Oba, Ewuare II, a former Nigerian ambassador who holds an equivocal position in the governance of the Edo State. Hicks does not explore the status and uses of things once they come into the possession of the royal court of Benin. This vital matter seems to be of no concern to him. Will they be publicly available? Perhaps they are bound for a new royal museum in Benin City. Hicks offers no comment; though to be fair, the architects, Adjaye Associates, only released their concept for such a museum, to be called the Edo Museum of West African Art, in November 2020.8

Clearly, in considering the responsibilities of what Hicks somewhat jejunely calls “brutish museums,” relations between the past and the present are at issue. This is the concern of history. Yet Hicks’s account, as a moral vision promoting what he considers to be a moral imperative, is not so much ahistorical as anti-historical. This is the most serious flaw in Hicks’s book.

“Colonial violence and restitution are not two separate questions divided by time, one of the past, one of the present,” Hicks asserts, continuing, “This is one question, archaeological and anthropological before it is historical” (218). He goes further, claiming: “The historicisation of questions of colonial violence is again what holds back restitution” (222). However, in seeking to banish history from having any serious role in establishing understanding on the grounds that it impedes his agenda, Hicks cannot help but rely on the historical labor of others in his attempt to establish the righteousness of his moral case. Yet he has to confine history to a subservient, instrumental role, for a proper use of history in this case would fatally undermine his project. This is because one of the principal responsibilities of historians is to be circumspect, not prejudicial, when offering moral judgment. Things are almost invariably far more complicated than acknowledged by those who favor swift moral assessments. This is not to say that one cannot condemn the actions of people in the past through the composition of history, especially as those actions might continue to affect the present, but the slow burn is infinitely more persuasive than melodramatic, ahistorical assertions of moral righteousness. An assumption of being morally correct at the outset all too readily tips over into self-righteousness. One of the main duties of historians is to try to ensure than no one is too comfortable in the exercise of ethical judgment. This is why history is an inconvenience for Hicks, other than to provide a selective justificatory narrative.

How is the historical component of Hicks’s polemical narrative selective? Admittedly, every historical narrative is selective, crafted to support the argument a historian proposes. The bare outlines of Hicks’s account of the British invasion of Benin—the defeat of the Oba’s forces, the capture and deliberate destruction of the city, all within a context of British imperial expansion in West Africa for extractive commercial ends—certainly ring true. Hicks is right to point out that to term such campaigns “small wars” is to deny the enormity of their effects, individually and collectively, in the conquest and subjugation of entire peoples. Yet the simplistic reductionism of his account to one of “militarist corporate extractivist disaster-capitalist colonialism” (134) achieved through “ultraviolence” (novelist Anthony Burgess’s term that Hicks uses repeatedly9) begs any number of questions inconvenient to his moral agenda.

Peoples’ motives are invariably more complicated and equivocal than the simple explanations Hicks offers would admit. There is every reason to believe that at the time, some British, at least, were genuinely shocked by the Benin system of governance that relied on force to maintain the power of its royal establishment. Although some scholars today may find the practice of human sacrifice unexceptionable, regarding it (mistakenly) as akin to capital punishment as practiced by Europeans and their diaspora, late Victorian British imperialists generally regarded it with revulsion and forcibly ended it wherever they came to hold sway. Historian Robin Law long ago established that the prestige and power of the Benin monarchy was sustained by the practice of human sacrifice, even if European accounts in the nineteenth century were not always wholly accurate.10 No one should discount the motivation of robust Christian belief, as well as commercial gain, for nineteenth-century British imperialists. In their eyes, the moral delinquency of the Benin regime, epitomized by human sacrifice, robbed its royalty of any legitimacy, let alone aura, so to depose and exile the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, entailed no perturbation on their part.

An even more serious, baneful consequence of Hicks’s dismissal of history is the result that his partial vision of the past as well as of the present leads him to be highly selective in his identification of loci of violence. If the Benin items in museums today constitute a prolongation and perpetuation of violence committed by the British when they sacked and looted Benin City, those acts did not originate the vectors of violence. That violence in respect of all these things long predated the arrival of the conquering British. The items’ origins lie in the violence their material forms instantiate through the slavery that directly and indirectly allowed the acquisition of the brass from which craftspeople fashioned the plaques and other items. Furthermore, when deployed in the royal enclosure, the plaques and other items instantiated the violence, actual and implicit, of the regime that commissioned them to enhance its own prestige and to ensure its perpetuation. British violence may have triumphed to the extent that, as far as these thousands of items are concerned, they are now dispersed among private owners and museums, but the British have never held a monopoly on violence during their existence. On Hicks’s own model of the prolongation of violence—violence as an event extending across time to the present—these items have perpetuated violence from their very inception.

Alternatively, should we consider the possibility that Hicks’s core model of violence as events extended over time is simply wrong? We may ask whether, if we set aside special pleading on behalf of one social group—admittedly a group disparaged and dispossessed by another—there exists any material item in any museums that is free from the taint of violence prolonged over time. And why confine this question to material items in museums? Violence taints nearly all human and nonhuman relationships that are embodied or evoked in objects or things. People make choices about which instances of violence instantiated in things to contest. Scholars and journalists have drawn attention, for example, to the violence implicit in “fast fashion.”11 There may be good reason to contest the cases of the thousands of items looted from Benin City in 1897; but, in part because so many have changed hands numbers of times, each case requires the individual examination of an entangled-object biography. The insertion of these items into what Hicks terms a “necrology”—“the knowledge made through death and loss in the anthropology museum,” as Hicks defines it (153)—is not enough. To dismiss the work of scholars who have pioneered “object biographies” and “entanglement,” especially in the discourteous manner that Hicks adopts, is counterproductive. The careful and nuanced analysis of relations between members of Minority and Majority World communities, especially in Oceania, by anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, which Hicks selects for particular disparagement, is far more helpful in promoting understanding—and action—than simplistic moral outrage.

Hicks may make some valid points along the way, but in the end, his lack of curiosity about the nature of the Benin society that the British overthrew—beyond bedazzlement by its royal lineage—and his dismissal of the proper role of history in favor of moral indignation on a priori grounds, leads to an irrecoverably compromised text. Hicks’s heart may well be in the right place, but on the evidence of this text, his mind is elsewhere.

Ivan Gaskell is a professor at Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

  1. 1 Kathryn W. Gunsch, The Benin Plaques: A 16th-Century Imperial Monument (London: Routledge, 2017), cited by Hicks.
  2. 2 Daniel Cottom, “The War of Tradition: Virginia Woolf and the Temper of Criticism,” in Politics and Aesthetics in the Arts, ed. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 174–203.
  3. 3 I use the terms “Majority World” for non-Western and “Minority World” for Western societies. See Marc Silver, “If You Shouldn’t Call It the Third World, What Should You Call It?” Goats and Soda: Stories of Life in a Changing World (radio broadcast, National Public Radio), January 4, 2015, (accessed March 2, 2021).
  4. 4 The most outspoken apologist for the retention of disputed items in so-called encyclopedic museums is the president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno. See his “Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6, (2014): 119–29, among other publications.
  5. 5 Ivan Gaskell, “Race, Aesthetics, and Shelter: Toward a Postcolonial Historical Taxonomy of Buildings,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 77, no. 4 (2019): 380.
  6. 6 I am aware that British English has of late increasingly come to use the upper case for certain nouns, but this display of deference can hardly evoke sympathy in citizens of republics. Oba is properly a dynastic name rather than a title.
  7. 7 I use the term items here and elsewhere in contradistinction to objects, on the one hand, and things, on the other. With the term object, I refer to an item that has been drained of its variously numinous or animate character by its incorporation within Minority World museums and institutions of commerce—or that has never had such a character in anyone’s usage. The term thing acknowledges the possible numinous or animate character of the item thus designated in the worldview of those who accept such status regardless of Minority World beliefs. I use item as an ostensibly neutral term when such considerations are not immediately at issue.
  8. 8 Adjaye Associates, “Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA),” (accessed March 12, 2021); Tom Ravenscroft, “Adjaye Associates Reveals Vision for Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria,” de zeen, November 17, 2020, (accessed March 12, 2021).
  9. 9 Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: William Heinemann‎, 1962).
  10. 10 Robin Law, “Human Sacrifice in Pre-Colonial West Africa,” African Affairs 84 (1985): 53–87.
  11. 11 Ivan Gaskell, “Fast Fashion: Die Schattenseiten der Mode,” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 26, no. 2 (2019): 340–42.

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