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The Museum Shoots Twice

The display of looted heritage is increasingly moribund

Ryan Coogler wanted to film a key scene of Black Panther in the British Museum, but they turned him down. It didn’t spare their reputation. When Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) informs a posh, patronizing curator at the “Museum of Great Britain” that a seventh-century war hammer may have been taken by British soldiers in Benin but was made in Wakanda—right before the curator, poisoned, collapses to the floor and he takes the hammer right back—it’s clear that the issue of restitution won’t be going back into storage.

Meanwhile, in real life, Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza has, since last June, been performatively liberating stolen African objects from French and Dutch museums. After each of his inevitable arrests, he pleads the anti-colonial case in the colonizers’ courts. So far, he has mostly received fines so small the judges almost seem guilty. This chain of symbolic restitution, a campaign of psychic return, has contributed to the growing sense that—as Dan Hicks writes in The Brutish Museums—the display of looted heritage, long justified through “the logic of Kunstschutz (the fascist idea of seizing art to keep it safe),” is increasingly moribund.

But did you know—I didn’t, before I read Hicks’s book—that Black Panther has an African precedent? The Mask, a 1979 Nigerian action film directed by and starring Eddie Ugbomah, features the righteous heist of an ivory mask of Queen Mother Idia from the British Museum. A loan of this very object had been requested by Nigeria just two years before on the occasion of a 1977 African arts and culture festival—alas, the British Museum turned them down too. According to Hicks, the earliest formal demand for restitution of Benin objects came in 1936 from Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Akenzua II, then Oba of Benin. “Within two years,” writes Hicks, “two coral crowns and a coral bead garment, which had been on loan to the British Museum, were returned to him on the instruction of their owner G.M. Miller—apparently the son of a member of the Benin Expedition.” And yet the looting drags on—by design. In 2007, the ignoble record for the highest price paid at public auction for a Benin object was set at Sotheby’s New York, when the seventeenth-century bronze head of an Oba de-accessioned from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo, New York, fetched $4,744,000. As Hicks puts it, “This is the brutish museum: a prolongation of violence in the name of sovereignty.” The ten thousand or so bloodstained treasures plundered from Benin City in 1897 by a British “punitive expedition”—many of them still unaccounted for—are “ten thousand unfinished events.”

Hicks, a white curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, is an outspoken advocate of returning looted artifacts to their cultures of origin, including the hundreds under his care. The Brutish Museums argues, persuasively, that the corporate-militaristic pillage behind Europe’s “encyclopedic” collections is not a simple matter of possession, but a systematic extension of warfare across time.

Ethnographic museums are technologies for sustaining colonial violence.

Asymmetric warfare in the nineteenth century—and perhaps still—was itself not just the collision of mismatched armies but temporalities. Early on, Hicks describes how “natives” were astounded by the British field guns that exploded once at the barrel, then again when the shell detonated a magical distance away. Museums work this way, too, although we think of them—and they frame themselves—as timeless. They shoot once at the moment of conquest, then again each time the works are seen. Ethnographic museums like the Pitt Rivers, in other words, are technologies for sustaining colonial violence. And they rose to prominence during the same era as the Maxim gun and other temporal advances made imperial “expeditions” more slaughter than battle. This march of technological progress inspired the paternalistic British style of racism: British forces in Africa tallied up their use of ammunition with greater precision than they did the enemy dead. So it was, Hicks notes, that the collection he now oversees of General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers began in earnest in the 1850s as a private hoard of weapons, arranged so as to emphasize the superiority of western arms over “primitive” ones. Ironically, the Maxim machine gun, the revolutionary recoil-operated weapon with which British troops swept the West African jungle, would be used to bury millions of white men in the trenches of World War I.

Not least among these European technologies is the camera. (Indeed, it can hardly be a coincidence that the surnames Fox and Talbot belong to early collectors of Benin loot as well as the inventor of the calotype, an early photographic process.) Photographs also “shoot twice”: they are “taken” like booty, often by soldiers of the so-called small wars—dishonoring and disturbing the dead by re-presenting and glorifying their violent deaths. Photographs—whether individual or strung together as films—have duration; they represent seconds or fractions of seconds, and explode each time they’re viewed. Hicks points out that the late nineteenth century saw the shift from outright phrenology to typology, often aided by photos. White supremacy traded its calipers for cameras, and ethnographic museums cached their skulls.

The camera is a tool of what Hicks calls chronopolitics, the control of time rather than just territory. In North America, the camera served this purpose in the premortem eulogies of Edward S. Curtis: hundreds of wispy photogravures of indigenous Americans, the most famous being The Vanishing Race. In River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit chronicles how Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments with motion-capture photography (essentially an early trip-wire version of the multicamera technique used to produce “bullet time” in The Matrix) linked the dominance of first the railroad, then Hollywood cinema over the American frontier: his famous photos of a running horse, and the shutter he developed to make them, were funded by railroad magnate Leland Stanford and paved the way for motion pictures. Against this linear trajectory of white time, the Paiute Ghost Dance, a desperate ritual meant to expel European settlers and raise the thousands of recent native dead, took the form of a circle. Their song was no match for the gun, any more than the dancer could beat the ethnographic photographer. It was the same for the Beni. “In the Edo language,” writes Hicks, “the verb sa-e-y-ama means ‘to remember,’ but its literal translation is ‘to cast a motif in bronze.’” The Benin bronzes, their creation, theft, calls for and refusal of return, is nothing less than an ongoing contest between technologies of memory and time: the museum against the artwork.

It was plenty, then, to rob Benin of centuries of art, then head home to England: even if Nigeria won independence in 1960, the British still occupy its history. As Hicks writes, “The Kingdom of Benin was destroyed . . . in order to put it into the past.” The many euphemistic “small wars” of the nineteenth century were measured in duration rather than territory or casualties or ultraviolence. The “shortest war in history” took a matter of minutes: thirty-eight, to be exact, and consisted of the British Royal Navy bombarding the palace of Zanzibar’s sultan in 1896, a prelude to the “flying columns” that would annihilate thatch-roofed Beni villages from the river. The necropolitics of cultural destruction, Hicks argues, was no collateral perk of brutal wars, but the deliberate, systematic eradication of a people through severing its visual culture from the present, designating their art as dusty artifacts even as living generations scattered into the bush. Likewise, the hazy “provenance” of these stolen objects goes beyond the fog of war. The guilt has spread across time as surely as ivory tusks and coral beads have vanished across continents.

Any proposed return of art to its culture of origin meets a symbolic counterproposal: well, we can’t do that, but why don’t you make art about restitution?

It’s frightfully easy to turn living people into dead images. Reversing the process is much harder. The ongoing battles of colonialism are fought with the weapons of representation and erasure: from video of Diyabanza’s actions to The Mask and Black Panther to Chris Marker’s and Alain Resnais’s short documentary Statues Also Die (1953), shot with support from the British Museum, the Musée du Congo Belge, and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The documentary’s criticism of European colonialism—at that point, literally ongoing—was so caustic that French censors banned the film outright until 1963, and then only allowed the distribution of a truncated version. The suppressed portion discussed how sculptors in Nigeria and Congo who otherwise may have made royal artworks turn their skills towards “fetish objects” for the tourist market. (The unabridged version was finally released to the French public in 1968.) At best, this industrious form of image-making buffers the poverty that colonialism brings. At worst, it serializes the looting of African culture to Europe through a steady supply of degraded replicas.

Contemporary Western artists continue to push this same issue. Matthew Angelo Harrison, a former employee of Ford, uses a sort of rapid-prototyping 3D printer to squirt out crude clay reproductions of African objects; for other works, he purchases wooden African statues online, encases them in resin, and saws them into polished slices. Such cultural etiolation follows the Fordist logic of the plantation, which continue producing palm oil, rubber, and art for the West at degrading prices. Back in Congo, Dutch artist Renzo Martens has made an ambivalent study of this dynamic. After attempting to involve workers at a Unilever palm kernel plantation in various therapeutic art projects and getting shut out by the corporation, Martens started a plantation of his own, where local Congolese artists make sculptures that are later cast in unsweetened chocolate and sold to art collectors back in Europe, with the profits split among the atelier.

To turn these chronoweapons against the recalcitrant institution of the museum, however, is often frustratingly symbolic. To what degree can an artist or curator intervene in a collection, even one they directly oversee, as Hicks does that of the Pitt Rivers? Any proposed return of art to its culture of origin meets a symbolic counterproposal: well, we can’t do that, but why don’t you make art about restitution? (Can’t? They won’t. Hicks notes how the laws and bylaws cited as impossible barriers to returning African and other colonial objects are suddenly overcome in special cases, namely art looted by the Nazis and human remains.) In the United States, the artist Gala Porras-Kim has made projects around Mesoamerican artifacts in collections at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the latter case, Porras-Kim produced two large drawings depicting the Proctor Stafford collection of Mesoamerican vessels (many simply categorized as “west Mexican”) arranged by size, in a kind of parody of the ethnographic typology. In the case of the former, her proposal to literally return illegally dredged-up objects to the Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá was axed by the museum; an idea to repatriate surrogates made of ice also proved impractical. Instead, she plans to reunite the objects with the god Chaac by casting copal mixed with dust from the museum’s storage into a slab the same volume as all of the objects in the collection.

On almost every occasion, artists call attention to the problem in a way that saves the “sponsoring” institution from putting their actual loot on display. It also sidesteps the refrain made by museums against the return of objects since a 1970 UNESCO convention against the trafficking of stolen antiquities: returning objects will deprive “the world” of the breadth and quality of “encyclopedic” or “universal” collections. The growing trend of digital repatriation, which includes efforts by the American Folk Life Center, begun in 1979, to return copies of ethnographic recordings of sacred songs to indigenous tribes, may seem laughably impotent. Worse, these symbolic gestures reprise the colonial violence that Hicks ascribes to photography. Institutions can return the objects and keep them at the same time by shedding duplicates.

The taking of the Benin loot was in no way legitimate—not by the standards of 1897, and certainly not by today’s.

Plus ça change—except, as Hicks argues, the museum is a failed technology; and its failure is why it is now perceptible as a technology to white curators like himself. A cracked, porous museum is an ineffective camera. Digital Benin, an international project with participants across Europe, the United States, and Nigeria, takes as its daunting initial goal the creation of a database of every object stolen by the British in 1897, including descriptions and current locations. If Digital Benin serves as a repercussing colonial weapon, it is at least one aimed in a way that the establishment might find uncomfortable.

It might even mark the point where the technology of restitution outstrips that of the hoard. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron declared: “I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France.” Towards that end, “Within five years I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.” After considerable delay, France promises a first batch of twenty-six artifacts will be returned to Benin by the end of this year. In 2014, the grandson of a British participant in the originary 1897 massacre returned the first two of the thousands of intricate bronzes pillaged from Benin City. Just this year, the University of Aberdeen became the first institution in the UK to commit to returning a Benin object.

“The museum will not be decolonized,” Hicks writes. Cameras cannot be melted into ploughshares. Maybe that’s cynical. But it’s more cynical to portray the illegal, unethical theft of art as so much complexity. The taking of the Benin loot was in no way legitimate—not by the standards of 1897, and certainly not by today’s. And that violence endures. “Standing here, in front of the triple vitrine that bears the title Benin Court Art,” writes Hicks, “that continuing loss lands heavy and hard and shattering, as if the brass shells from Captain Boisragon’s seven-pounder, the gun that shoots twice, impossibly transformed into brass heads and plaques and armbands, are now, thirteen decades on, four thousand five hundred miles away from Benin City, beginning, one by one, to explode.”