Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Whenever a mundane object in our surroundings stops working the way it should be, we start to look at it from a totally new perspective. For example, we take a different view of our car when it unexpectedly breaks down and loses its essential capacity to drive us anywhere. In the same sense, Dan Hicks argues in his book “The Brutish Museum” that ethnographic museums are broken, and now we all see them in their true, defective form. During the talk titled “A Dead White Man: Excavating Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt- Rivers”, he shared his thoughts and arguments on the issue of “broken” ethnographic museums and ways they can be repaired.
Displays of cultural ethnography in museums make specific statements by presenting objects that were stolen oftentimes in violent encounters. These objects are loaded with meanings because they operate in a certain sense as photographs capturing a moment of violence and injustice. Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that the act of taking pictures enables “time freezing” of the moments. This was recently highlighted by the lawsuit between the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Tamara Lanier, who alleged that pictures of her enslaved ancestors were taken without consent, and the museum should not be profiting from their display. In the same way, these artefacts were ripped of their cultural context and placed into showcases, in which museum workers attempted to create an illusion of unchanging fixity. Objects preserved and presented in this manner are conserving the violence that accompanied their collection and still preserve the worldviews of their collectors from the Victorian era.
According to Dan Hicks, the foremost necessity in ethnographic museums is to dismantle the structure of the white colonial man. In the case of Benin Bronze artefacts, the Pitt Rivers museum showed accountability by listing them and showing the real scope of their possession. Accountability is the first step to justice, but to properly repair the purpose of the anthropological museums, Hick argues that we need to go further. He calls for “necrography” of objects as Benin Bronzes – a form of museal excavation that will result not only in sum up of the crimes done and dead people involved but also in real actions taken in the present. This way, museums as spaces of representation should be transformed into transparent places. Their artefacts and expert knowledge of collections should be opened and accessible to the world. Of course, none of this would erase the violence, dispossession and loss linked to the objects, but these aspects would be at least partially cancelled out.
Recently, it was announced that Germany is to become the first country to return Benin Bronzes. Pitt Rivers Museum has now an ideal opportunity to prove that it distinguished itself from its colonial past by following the suit. It would be precisely this kind of real action taken at present, which would help significantly repair the purpose of the ethnographic museum in the 21st century.