By Will Gompertz
Published 29 June 2020
BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz asks whether museums will change their collections
When museums in the UK start to reopen next month it will be to a new world: not just one of social distancing and mask-wearing, but one possibly entering a different cultural epoch.
The death of the African-American George Floyd was followed by global protests for social justice and racial equality. Anger directed at statues memorialising controversial individuals from Britain’s colonial past has put a spotlight on museums and their collections, in what some are seeing as a generational shift in attitudes.
Many museums have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but what actions will follow the words for those institutions with links to Britain’s imperial past?
Professor Dan Hicks is a senior curator at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, a sprawling anthropological collection containing around 600,000 objects from just about every country on the planet.
It was shortlisted for the prestigious Museum of the Year award 12 months ago, an accolade bestowed, in part, for the revisionist work Hicks has been conducting on the Pitt Rivers collection for the past four years.
Hicks and his colleagues have been re-evaluating, re-contextualising and re-presenting many objects from the perspective of the culture from which they came, as opposed to that of the white, British, Victorian man whose ethnographic collection founded the museum.
Hicks is a leading voice among museum professionals calling for the return (restitution) of contested cultural objects that are currently held in the UK’s national and local municipal collections.
The most problematic artefacts, he says, are those stolen, looted or removed by the British from their place of origin where the local people had been subjugated.
The Pitt Rivers Museum contains around 600,000 objects
“In this country you’re never more than 150 miles away from a looted African object,” Hicks says.
The UK’s museums have received restitution requests from Australia, Asia and South America. But it is those from Africa that are coming under the greatest scrutiny, according to Hicks.
“We need to think very hard about objects [from Africa]. Where it is clear they were taken as trophies of war and however well you rewrite labels and re-tell history, you’re not going to be able to tell a story other than one about military victory. In those cases, we need to work towards a restitution process.”
Hicks says he is confronting the uncomfortable truths of colonial Britain and an empire built on slavery and the suppression of indigenous peoples across the globe.
There are some potential visitors within the catchment area of the Pitt Rivers, he reports, who have told him they will not set foot inside the museum because it is “too violent” – a reference to objects on display that were taken as spoils of war.
“This is very specifically about a period of time when our anthropology museums were used for purposes of institutional racism, race science, the display of white supremacy. At this moment in history, it could not be more urgent to remove such icons from our institutions.”
Of these, the so-called Benin Bronzes, or Benin treasures, are the most high-profile example of looted artefacts, taken by British soldiers following a punitive and murderous raid on the ancient Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) in 1897.
Benin Bronzes being looted in February 1897
There is no question in Hicks’s mind that the Benin Bronzes should be returned. It is a point of view shared by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who thinks those held by the British Museum should be 3D-printed and displayed in London, while the originals are returned to Nigeria.
“It is a matter of respect and being treated equally. If you steal people’s heritage you’re stealing their psychology, and you need to return it,” he says.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, does not agree. While he accepts that a request has been made by Nigeria for the return of the Bronzes, he doesn’t believe their ownership should be transferred back.
He thinks a better way forward is through a close collaboration between the British Museum and its counterparts in Nigeria, to whom he would loan the Benin Bronzes for long periods of time.
This is a conversation that is currently in progress and would include, he says, a broader exchange of ideas and knowledge.
The playwright Bonnie Greer was the deputy chair of the British Museum for four years and is familiar with the controversy surrounding the Benin Bronzes.
“I’m comfortable with them there [in the British
Museum],” she says. “What they do for me, as a descendant of enslaved people, is they give me comfort and a link.
“I look at them and I can see myself… What I find when I see African objects in a Western museum… I get solace.”