In Conversation with Professor Dan Hicks: Academic, Museum Curator and Author of ‘The Brutish Museums’
Dania Kamal Aryf
I learnt to love History through my frequent trips to the museum with my late grandmother as a naïve, but enthusiastic five-year-old. The national museum in Kuala Lumpur, where I grew up in, did not boast an array of artefacts or displays as grandiose as most museums did in Europe, but as a child, it was an introduction to what I would later discover as ‘material culture’.
As a teenager, I eventually had the privilege to travel and witness different parts of the world, yet, on each flight back home I was always bogged down by the unanswered question on why most museums in ‘the West’ were a lot more ‘interesting’ than the ones in Malaysia. At the time, words like ‘restitution’, ‘colonialism’, and ‘Empire,’ were arguably, not yet part of my vocabulary – but have now become words that are integral to answering these questions asked by my younger self.
“As the border is to the nation state, so the museum is to the Empire… Like the border uses space to classify, making distinctions between different kinds of human, so the museum uses time,”writes Professor Dan Hicks, in his first chapter of ‘The Brutish Museums.’
Time. Time: a lifeline to each of our unresolved pasts and intertwined histories – a powerful binding force, yet equally a cause of constant friction. Yet, I am grateful for the time that Professor Hicks has offered me to have this conversation on the important work he does within this field.
Prior to his journey in academia, Professor Hicks informs me that “growing up in Birmingham in the 80s, a very multicultural city, and learning about anti-racism in my daily life was incredibly important.” His involvement within the field of Archaeology and Anthropology, in which he cites “the relationships between objects and humans as the heart of my interests”, eventually shaped the trajectory of how he came to view museums, art, heritage and culture.
“As an archaeologist, anthropologist and art historian I am more interested in people than in objects. And among those of us who work in galleries and museums today, increasing numbers would say they care for people more than they care for objects. So when you find yourself working in a university museum where people are protesting in the streets outside about how the museum is causing harm (whether through action or inaction) it becomes important for those who think of a museum as a public space to listen, and to be open to change,” he says.
So I ask, “when did you realise that Western museum practice was inherently flawed and needed to change? Was there a defining moment to this?”
Professor Hicks responds by first addressing the controversial history of Anthropology as a field of study, which had been initially fixated on the ideas of a Victorian ‘racial science’. “Anthropology was incredibly important in the development of ideologies of ‘race’ across Europe and North America,” he says. In the mid-20th century, and especially after the defeat of fascism in World War Two, significant changes took place in some parts of the discipline, especially physical anthropology — but these colonial legacies persisted in the study of culture and material culture.
“In the 1950s the discipline tried to break from its Victorian past, through a kind of sociological self-reinvention. Here in Oxford the department physically moved out of the museums and to the Banbury Road, to suburban North Oxford. But it was never enough just to try to forget about the colonial past, or just to shut away spaces like the Pitt Rivers — because they endured, as ideas, as frameworks, and as part of the physical environment of the city and the university.”
‘As the border is to the nation state, so the museum is to the Empire… Like the border uses space to classify, making distinctions between different kinds of human, so the museum uses time,’ writes Professor Dan Hicks, in his first chapter of The Brutish Museums.
The Pitt Rivers Museum, like scores of similar university museums across the Global North with archaeological and ethnographic collections from colonial conquest, endured. “It can be a surprise, a shock even, that Victorian anthropology with all its prejudices and visions of cultural supremacy is still here. But it is also not a surprise, once you recognise how white supremacy actively co-opted art, culture and knowledge between the 1880s and the 1920s not just to naturalise its worldviews and to broadcast them — but to make that vision endure in the places we live, work, and study.”
Professor Hicks points out that while the British were famous for burning archives during decolonial moments at the end of Empire, they did not burn their objects. Instead, they left these objects and the documentation that went with them in the museums.
“So one part of what ‘world culture’ collections represent today is that they are a kind of index of imperial history — primary documents of dispossession. The historical circumstances of how these museums were formed — the colonial history of the 19th and early 20th centuries — is something that we hardly even teach in our schools here in Britain,” he adds.
I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain’s national narrative as a pretty curio with no substance – or worse, for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another great British accomplishment. – Sumaya Kassim
We continue to talk about the museum as a public space, and Professor Hicks argues, “Whether it’s a stone statue memorialising an enslaver or mass-murdering coloniser on a high street in Britain, or a bronze sculpture of a confederate soldier installed across from the courthouse in a town in the American South, or a glass vitrine in an anthropology museum that commemorates the dispossession of an African kingdom by violence, in all these cases it’s increasingly clear that these represented cultural technologies deployed to make an image of supremacy last.”
The conversation inevitably shifts to discussing the infamous statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College – where I currently study History as an undergraduate.
“Personally I don’t see much point in re-displaying the statue somewhere else,”he says. He addresses how the removal of statues has never been about the destruction of history, but about what we choose to commemorate.
“It’s crucial for us to remember that such images and displays are about memory not about history. A statue is not a human being. It is a representation of a human being. So any decision to remove a statue is a judgement about the continued relevance and desirability of the erection of that monument or commemoration — not some moral judgement about the life of the (usually) dead white man who is depicted.”
So too in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Professor Hicks argues, our current reckoning with the ongoing, unfinished nature of the colonial past and its ideologies of cultural supremacy is “fundamentally about knowledge,” and the institutional structures in which certain forms of knowledge have been possessed, and propagated. But in understanding these structures we might also excavate them, and thus start to dismantle what Hicks calls the ‘white infrastructure’ that was built into parts of our museums and heritage. “In The Brutish Museums I suggest that each object in a museum, and each statue on display, in an unfinished event. The same is true for the disciplines of art, archaeology, anthropology, architecture (and that’s just the letter A!). We don’t know how this ends — for objects, for images, or for knowledge.”
“If we continue simply to re-write the labels, only ever to ‘retain and explain’ as the government put it, then our cities and cultures will become impossibly stuck in nostalgic past where nothing can ever change. Instead we need to keep our institutions and our knowledge and understanding of the past in step with our times. The Brutish Museums argues that when things fail they become visible to us. You’re late for a meeting and your bike has a flat tyre or the chain snaps. Suddenly you see the bike like you never did any other morning. That’s what’s happening with the failed project of the colonial museum. That’s what’s happened with Cecil Rhodes. If you fix your bike – dispose of the split inner tube, replace it with another one – it doesn’t mean you hate bikes, and cycling, and all other cyclists. It means you need to move forward and you’re willing to replace what’s past its sell-by date, what’s broken, what’s no longer working. It’s the same with museums. It’s the same with Cecil Rhodes. It’s surely time to take down all seven dead white men that adorn the 20th-century facade of Oriel College, and replace them with newly-commissioned public art that reflects our collective vision for the next one hundred years of Oxford?”
Professor Hicks argues that colonialism is not over, and that it is still here, and how ‘across Europe, communities and nations are finally starting to come to terms with racism’s central relationship with Empire.’
In his book, Professor Hicks discusses Sumaya Kassim’s important comments, based on her experiences working with Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, where she says: “I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain’s national narrative as a pretty curio with no substance – or worse, for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another great British accomplishment.”
I took the opportunity to question Professor Hicks on what he thinks of recent discussions on ‘decolonisation.’ “Do you think that the Western cannon and our conventional syllabus, especially at a place like Oxford, can inherently be ‘decolonised’?” I ask.
He responds by arguing that it is important to remember that anti-colonial work has a long history, and the necessity of addressing the institutional racism within our infrastructures of knowledge.
“Whether it is the objectification of the Global South, or the elevations of notions of cultural whiteness, universities have had a role in these histories, and they continue to have a role in the present.” Professor Hicks emphasises how works by thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter and W. E. Du Bois offer many insights around questions of the ‘decolonisaton’ of museums or of the curriculum — which he says he prefers to see as the unfinished work of anti-colonialism and anti-racism.
Hicks continues to explain that the risk of ‘decolonisation’, especially if it is ‘artwashed’, is when it is “simply ticking a box without being followed by meaningful action”, and that this will lead to “thinking that Empire is something you can undo, rather than something you can remember.” Professor Hicks argues that colonialism is not over, and that it is still here, and how “across Europe, communities and nations are finally starting to come to terms with racism’s central relationship with Empire.”
I am struck by the profoundness of his words and my mind wanders back to the national museum of my childhood in Kuala Lumpur. In this city, remnants of Empire remain undone not within the walls of the museum, but is all-encompassing throughout daily life. Traffic is held at a standstill upon prominent roads named after British colonial officers, integral to the everyday urban commute. The multiracial communities shaped by centuries of immigration, speak through a language built by borrowed words from different continents and times bygone. I think of the colonial architecture of government offices, set against the backdrop of constant political turmoil, economic upheaval and racial tension.
The paperback book launch for ‘The Brutish Museums’ and a panel discussion on the decolonisation of museums will be held at Blackwell’s on Broad Street, Oxford, Wednesday, 27 October 2021. More details about the event can be foundhere.
NB: This article was originally published in print stating the wrong author. The correct author is Dania Kamal Aryf