Saturday, 7 March 2020

Brutish Grabby Museums Need to be Rethought

Brutish grabby museums
"Times are changing for Europe’s “world culture” museums. How can they participate in this global present, rather than just representing some old colonial vision?" (Dan Hicks 'Will Europe’s museums rise to the challenge of decolonisation?' Guardian March 2020). Dan Hicks is professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford and author of the forthcoming The Brutish Museums The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, a call for western museums to wash their hands of colonial blood.
Anthropology and archaeology were among the most important of the colonial disciplines. They derived their power from the trick of collapsing time and space. In his classic 1983 book Time and the Other, Amsterdam-based anthropologist Johannes Fabian described how this illusion operated. It was as if the further the colonial explorer travelled from the metropolis, the further back in time they went – until they found themselves, whether in Africa, Tasmania, or Tierra del Fuego, no longer in the present, but in the Stone Age. Anthropology museums – which hold “world culture” collections – first developed in Europe, especially Germany and Britain, in the late 19th century. They were designed to realise these exoticising time-warps. In these places, the racist ideologies that sought to justify and naturalise European imperialism were institutionalised, helping create the idea of a distinction between “primitive art” and “civilisation”. Today the colonial mindset of European anthropology museums is being questioned and rethought – and we should all be paying attention. [...] Far from just places for retelling the history of empire through world culture collections, in the old contemplative mode, museums are unfinished projects, and crucial resources to be rethought and repurposed for the wider, urgent European task of understanding and facing up to the violence and loss wrought by colonialism.

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