6 April 2021

Are museums racist?


Who can possibly object to the restitution of objects to their lawful owners? No one doubts that after the Second World War Germany was right to restore stolen property to Jewish families or compensate them for its loss. In those circumstances, the identities of the Jewish wronged and the Nazi wrongdoers, and the relationships between original victims and surviving family members, were clear enough. The taking of property was manifestly an instance of theft – according to natural justice, if not according to Nazi law. And the harm done was definite and quantifiable. In that case, restitution made good sense.

The passage of time, however, muddies the waters. As Onora O’Neill, emeritus professor of philosophy at Cambridge, has written: “Claims to compensation have to show that continuing loss or harm resulted from past injury. This is all too often impossible where harms have been caused by ancient or distant wrongs. Is everybody who descends from those who were once enslaved or colonised still being harmed by those now ancient and distant misdeeds? Can we offer a clear enough account of the causation of current harms to tell where compensation is owed? Can we show who ought to do the compensating?”. The riotous jungle of history often overgrows and obscures the path to straightforward solutions.

The ‘decolonising’ proposal to have Western museums surrender objects taken by European colonialists centuries ago raises some awkward questions. First, to what extent are today’s claimants really the heirs of yesterday’s victims? What, exactly, do contemporary Greeks have in common with ancient Athenians, such that the former can claim to be the rightful owners of the Elgin marbles? And while some native Americans and Australian aboriginals clamour for the return of traditional objects, many others – perhaps most – have become fully assimilated into modern, Western culture. Who, then, do the claimants represent?

Further, there arises the question of whether or not oppressors had a right to property that they used to oppress, and whether their descendants have a moral claim to have it restored to them. For example, the plaques taken from Benin City by the British in 1897, known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, were fashioned from brass ‘manillas’ originally acquired from Europeans by selling slaves to them. Do the descendants of slave-traders deserve to have the fruits of their commerce back?

In addition to raising questions that are not easily answered, the clamour for the ‘decolonising’ of our museums and institutions rests on a false assumption, namely, that European and especially – British – colonialism was nothing but a litany of racism, exploitation, and atrocity. This is encapsulated in the present fashion for talking of ‘colonialism and slavery’ in the same breath, as if they were one and the same thing. The basic assumption provides the rationale for the return of ‘colonial’ objects: since the continuing possession of them by British and other Western institutions amounts to a perpetuation of colonial oppression, their restitution of would amount to an act of repentance.

This logic and the falsity of its basic assumption is made clear in the recent book by Dan Hicks, a curator at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. The thesis of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Cultural Violence and Cultural Restitution is that museums – in Britain and, more broadly, the West – are expressions of white supremacy through their unembarrassed display of colonial loot. The repudiation of racism, therefore, demands the return of stolen property. To substantiate his thesis, Hicks constructs a story about the events that led to the British seizure of the famous Bronzes.

The undisputed bare bones of what happened are these. In February 1897, a British naval expedition, led by Admiral Harry Rawson, launched an attack on Benin City, the capital of the Edo people in west Africa. The British prevailed, most of the city was burned to the ground, and at least two thousand objets d’art were taken away, including the Bronzes. In the aftermath, the kingdom of Benin was incorporated into the British Niger Coast Protectorate (NCP).

The prevalent Victorian explanation was that the military operation was a ‘punitive’ expedition, launched in retaliation for the massacre the previous month of a diplomatic mission, whose nine white members, led by Acting Consul James Phillips, had been deliberately unarmed, apart from revolvers. Once Benin City had been taken, regime-change was justified, partly because the old regime had been bound up with religious practices that included human sacrifice, as well as with slavery.

Against this, Dan Hicks launches his ‘woke’ counter-narrative. First of all, the ‘punitive’ expedition in February was not in fact retaliatory. “[S]ince the 1960s,” he tells us, “historians have increasingly understood the expedition to depose [the] Oba …, not as a retaliation, but to have been dictated by policy for a long time”. Of the four sources he cites in support, I have read two of them. Neither argues that pre-existing colonial policy ‘dictated’  the military assault on Benin.

Hicks goes on to argue that by the autumn of 1896 preparations for an attack by the NCP on Benin were already well under way, invoking as evidence the arrival of military officers participating in a Royal Niger Company (RNC) expedition against a target on the Niger River in November 1896. The two operations, he claims, were a joint action of the Company and the Protectorate. How do we know this? Because both the NCP’s Consul-General, Ralph Moor, and the RNC’s Governor, Sir George Goldie, met in London at the end of 1896. Yet Robert Home, whom Hicks cites in support, makes it clear that Moor regarded Goldie as a rival not a partner.

Hicks’ next argument is that the members of Phillips’ January expedition were armed. Yet first-hand testimony is unanimously against him. Captain Boisragon, one of two survivors of the massacre, wrote that “we were not carrying revolvers”, which were all “locked up in our boxes”. This was confirmed by three Edo witnesses for the prosecution of those suspected of responsibility for the attack on Phillips, who “all acknowledged that they knew beforehand that all the white men were unarmed”.

Hicks’ third main line of argument is that the British ‘sacked’ Benin and looted the famous ‘Bronzes’. The fire of 21 February, which the British claimed as accidental, was “in fact probably just one that got out of control… in a mounting frenzy of demolition”. Here again he flies in the face of the only first-hand testimony we have, which tells of targeted demolition by the British for the purpose of military defence, of care taken not to start an accidental conflagration, and of the surprise with which the fire of 21 February struck. Benin did burn, but it was not sacked.

As for the Bronzes, these were removed as ‘spoils of war’, as permitted by international law at the time. This was not ‘looting’, understood as the unauthorised seizure of items for private purposes by troops running amok. At Benin Admiral Rawson took care to reserve all the major items as Government property. Removed to London, some items were distributed as ‘prizes’ among the naval officers, but most were auctioned by the Admiralty. There is reason to suppose that the proceeds were used to defray the expedition’s costs, including pensions for the wounded and bereaved.

Contra Hicks, a scrupulous reading of the data supports the following narrative. Both European and African traders were frustrated by the Oba of Benin’s unpredictable closing of markets, and they pressed the British authorities to intervene. Yet commercial interests were not simply commercial, since the promotion of ‘legitimate’ commerce was widely viewed as a means of displacing the slave-trade. When diplomacy failed, some officials on the ground began to contemplate the need for military action. Yet the London Government remained cautious and prevaricated. The slaughter of Phillips’ unarmed mission in January 1897, however, forced their hand to authorise a punitive expedition. So, when they went to war in February 1897, the British intended primarily to retaliate for the massacre. The enabling of free trade and the ending of the practices of slavery and human sacrifice were secondary intentions. But they were not insincere. By 1 April, the new British Resident had proclaimed that any slave who arrived in the deserted city before his master would become free, persuading many slaves to rush back. According to the Nigerian historian Philip Igbafe, “a general emancipation of slaves followed in the wake of British occupation of Benin”.

There may well be instances where an historic object sitting in a museum, college, or private home was obtained illegally, where it was not itself implicated in gross inhumanity, and where the descendants of the original owner can be clearly identified. Where that is so, the case for restitution would be a strong one. But the rationale for giving back what was taken should not rely on the false assumptions that British or other European colonialists were always oppressive and that those from whom they took things were always innocent.

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Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX