The Age of the Museum is over

A decade ago, I spent more months than originally desired living in the bush of Sudan’s remote and war-torn Blue Nile state with SPLA-N rebels from the Uduk tribe, whose 20,000 odd members had found themselves stranded, by an accident of British imperial cartography, within an Arab Muslim state they despised. It was a strange and formative experience for a young journalist who had only recently left graduate studies at Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology — an institution whose ethos, as a result of the apostolic succession unique to the discipline, derived from the foundational texts on Sudan’s tribal culture and political order written by British Social Anthropology’s 20th century giants.

After weeks of growing intimacy, the most bookish of the rebel commanders confided in me that only one westerner, more than a century previously, had ever learned the Uduk language and mastered their ancient belief system, since hidden beneath a light veil of Christianity. That long-dead westerner had written a book on the Uduk, which was now their prize possession, he told me. Retrieving it, wrapped in a cloth like a sacred text from within a thatched tukul hut, he showed me the well-thumbed work, now devoid of covers and binding: it transpired to be an ethnographic text published in 1979 by the very-much-alive Oxford anthropologist Wendy James, whose seminars on Sudan I had eagerly attended just a few years previously.

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There is revealed the great ambiguity at the heart of anthropology, a discipline now threatened by the wave of postcolonial fervour crashing on our shores. As Perry Anderson remarked in 1968, Britain’s “brilliant and flourishing” tradition of Social Anthropology” — a discipline until recently distinguished from its American cousin, Cultural Anthropology, by its empirical focus on political and social order — was the nation’s sole significant contribution to 20th century intellectual theory. Yet the foundational texts were written within the context of imperial rule, by academics who either moonlighted as colonial administrators or depended on the pacification of newly-conquered natives to comfortably undertake their research, casting the discipline under a shadow of suspicion from which it has never fully emerged.

In her 1973 essay “The Anthropologist as Reluctant Imperialist“, Wendy James mounted a cautious defence of the discipline within the imperial context. Struggling, in the first flush of postcolonial enthusiasm, to reject the claim of Third World activists that anthropology was a reactionary handmaiden of colonialism, which functioned to preserve oppressive native hierarchies in aspic at the point of contact, James made the case for anthropologists as liberal critics of colonial administration, defenders of small-scale societies as coherent and sophisticated polities whose customs and social order were worthy of respect by a dismissive imperial centre.

Yet while James struggled to reject accusations of reactionary sentiment in recasting anthropologists as liberal critics of colonialism, from the perspective of today’s all-pervading culture war, an alternative argument could be made: it was precisely the reactionary desire to record and then to preserve pre-modern cultures from the corrosive effects of modernity that motivated the discipline at its height, and which was its greatest moral strength. For the 21st-century reactionary, who rejects the homogenising effects of liberal modernity, each individual human culture is precious and unique, a universe in itself.

For the Uduk, James’ careful work of ethnography preserved an orally-transmitted cosmology they are even now in the process of discarding. Just as British anthropologists in Sudan either moonlighted as colonial administrators or worked within the stable regime colonial order provided, British colonial administrators governed what is today South Sudan almost as a real-world ethnographic museum, banning Arabs from what is now Sudan from entry and preserving a complex constellation of tribal societies from the enforced Arabisation which, following Britain’s departure, they only shook off through a long and bloody conflict. The Uduks’ greatest lament is not that Britain kept South Sudan in tribal stasis, but that their tribe was unfairly disbarred from colonialism’s curatorial care.

Yet this ambiguous record of cultural engagement and preservation is threatened by today’s moralising postcolonial discourse, and it is anthropology’s outward-facing showpiece, the ethnographic museum, that is its fiercest contemporary battleground. Consider the sad case of Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, until recently a museum of museums whose lovingly-preserved Victorian layout functioned as a visual expression of the discipline’s early theoretical worldview. Its great crowd pleaser, the South American shrunken heads that have delighted generations of shrieking children, have now been removed from view, their display case literally shrouded in an expression of the fearful new taboos now governing our society. For curators like the archetypal Twitter don Dan Hicks, the Pitt Rivers is barely distinguishable from a serial killer’s collection of trophies: “brutish museums like the Pitt Rivers where I work have compounded killings, cultural destructions and thefts with the propaganda of race science, with the normalisation of the display of human cultures in material form. An act of dehumanisation in the face of dispossession lies at the heart of the operation of the brutish museums.”

On and on Hicks writes in 2020’s The Brutish Museums, roping in Trump and Brexit in increasingly overwrought prose future historians will surely cherish as a perfect distillation of our contemporary moment. “As the border is to the nation state, so the museum is to empire,” Hicks insists: “two devices for the classification of humans into types.” Well, yes, the reader is compelled to respond: the idea that human societies differ from each other in meaningful ways is not only true, but is the basis of anthropology. All cultures are bounded, by their nature: a borderless world is in practice merely a new form of cultural imperialism, now spread by progressivism’s zealous missionaries, like Hicks.

In his recent book The Museum of Other People, the anthropologist Adam Kuper— an ethnographer of anthropology, whose classic Anthropology and Anthropologists is a set text for British undergraduates — wearily documents how the intrusion of the new American ideology erodes the very foundations of the ethnographic museum. As Kuper notes laconically, with the empirical distance that once marked the discipline, in North America “a romantic conception of identity was revived in the 1960s” in “a development that greatly surprised many social scientists: far from melting away, ethnic identities were reasserted, and they were now viewed positively. Identity had become a political issue again.” This essentialised identity discourse, the sea in which our current progressive museum curators swim, is no more natural or unworthy of objective study than 19th-century nationalism, yet it is now so embedded within our institutions as to pass unremarked. Even to notice it casts the observer in the unwanted role of culture warrior, fighting vainly against the march of progress like 19th-century tribesmen against the approaching gunboats.

The result, the “vapid New Age platitudes” that dominate Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian or the mythicising narratives of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (which “does not mention that those slaves were captured by soldiers of African kingdoms who then marched them to the ports to be sold”) have drifted over from the imperial metropole to us in the periphery, with the consequence that “it was soon widely accepted in the growing field of post­colonial studies that only the native can understand the native. Foreign ‘experts’ (always referenced in scare quotes) are suspect, scholarship discounted.”

Indeed, Kuper notes sadly, “this is apparently now the official view at the Pitt Rivers Museum”, whose director, Laura Van Broeckhoeven, communes with tribal elders in rituals to determine which artefacts she may display and which must be returned. As for the shrunken heads, whose photographic representation Kuper was refused permission to reproduce in an email noting ‘‘the image you suggest is of the display which was removed last summer out of respect for the people involved”, he remarks with disbelief: “The people involved! Who were they, who consulted them, what in fact did ‘they’ believe, and why were they (whoever they were) given the right to determine the policy of a famous and long-­established university museum?” Whether the stakeholders consulted were the tribe who shrank the heads, or the neighbouring tribe whose heads were unwillingly shrunk, remains a mystery.

Though no conservative cultural warrior, Kuper nevertheless sounds like any Telegraph or Spectator columnist in bemoaning the submission to the new ideology that has rapidly overtaken our ethnographic museums. Of the Benin Bronzes held by both the Pitt Rivers and our troubled national institution, the British Museum, Kuper observes that the case for restitution is not as simple as either Hicks or the more temperate writer Barnaby Phillips asserts. Looted by conquering British troops in 1897 as part of the bloody punitive expedition to unseat the recalcitrant Edo oba, or king, the moral case for the return of the bronzes (in fact a collection of brass and ivory sculptures of extraordinary grace and workmanship) is, at least superficially, strong. Yet like Phillips, and unlike Hicks, Kuper observes that Nigeria’s record of custodianship is not impeccable: “three of the bronze plaques sent to Lagos in 1950 by the British Museum had somehow ended up in Ameri­can collections. In 1980, during a brief oil boom, the Nigerian government bought some brass heads at auction. Several soon turned up again on the international market.”

Yet while Kuper makes the incontrovertible point that “given the poor performance of the national museum service in conserving and displaying Nigeria’s own antiquities, there is ample room for scepticism” over the country’s demands for restitution, his argument would be more compelling were the British Museum not itself now embroiled in a scandal deriving from the magpie tendencies of one of its curators, and the inexplicable lack of cataloguing the case has revealed. Though the artefacts apparently sold on Ebay by their errant custodian do not include any of the Museum’s African collections, the Nigerian government has nevertheless used the scandal to revive its claims for the bronzes.

Yet who the bronzes ought to be returned to is not immediately obvious: to today’s Edo oba, whose claim and vision for their custodianship is quite at odds with that of his local rival, the Benin City authorities? To the Nigerian central government, the very existence of which is a product of the same historical story of conquest and imposed political order that brought the bronzes (and latterly, some 200,000 British Nigerians) to Britain? Even some contemporary African-Americans now demand their possession, on the basis that the brass they were forged from was the European payment for their own ancestors’ subjection.

As an undergraduate, I had the privilege to handle the ornate sword and engraved pistol of the last sultan of Darfur, Ali Dinar, whose kingdom was conquered and annexed to Sudan by British troops in 1916, and whose weapons were taken as war booty, ultimately to Durham University’s Sudan Archive. Should they be returned, and if so, to whom? To the Fur people, living in refugee camps far from home? Or to the war-wracked Sudanese state whose militias oppress them? Far from a simple narrative of looting and restitution, these questions become more complex and ambiguous the more they are looked at: it is precisely to unearth these complexities, to ask questions that may not have satisfactory answers, that anthropology is for — or was for, anyway.

Indeed, a single-minded devotion to the British Empire as a unique evil whose blood-guilt is only to be expiated through the dispersal of museum collections is a manner of inverted narcissism, which instead of viewing other societies as objects of fascination and study in themselves, views them solely through the prism of colonial conquest. Hicks’ aim, “to redefine [ethnographic museums] as public spaces, sites of conscience, in which to face up to the ultraviolence of Britain’s colonial past in Africa, and its enduring nature” is, itself, a double form of cultural colonialism. First, by emphasising the Victorian conqueror as the prime agent of history, the prism through which all other societies must be understood as passive victims, and second, in a worldview made explicit by Hicks’ then-modish expressions of fealty to the Black Lives Matter movement, through suborning the complex and ambiguous record of European imperialism to the culturally-specific racial politics of the contemporary United States. Hicks condemns his Victorian antecedents for “the claim — to which archaeologists and anthropologists were called as witness, as judge and as jury… of scientific proof that there could be no civilisation outside of white Euro-America”, quite unaware that he is replicating the process, having only updated their civilising fervour for that of today’s dominant empire.

Even before his resignation last week, the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, struggled to reconcile the institution’s African collections with the mores of contemporary progressivism. Despite his genuflection to Black Lives Matter during the moral fervour of 2020, insisting the British Museum “has done a lot of work – accelerated and enlarged its work on its own history, the history of empire, the history of colonialism, and also of slavery” and is “aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere”, Fischer maintained that “‘the collections have to be preserved as a whole”. Yet at heart, the beliefs encoded within contemporary postcolonial discourse strike at the very essence of cross-cultural understanding at all:  the great age of the ethnographic museum is already past, struck dead by the racialised identity politics of our own imperial master.

Echoing these irreconcilable tensions, Kuper’s book ends on a desperate plea for “a Cosmopolitan Museum, one that tran­scends ethnic and national identities, makes comparisons, draws out connections, tracks exchanges across political frontiers, challenges boundaries: a museum set in the shifting sands of the past and the present but which is informed by rigorous, critical, independent scholarship”. It may be an attractive vision, but that world is already past, lost in the romantic, essentialising tide of ethnic self-regard that Americanised progressivism has bafflingly revived, whose historical course we are only beginning to chart. Kuper’s now-archaic cosmopolitanism, which appears conservative to contemporary mores, only highlights that conservatism is merely yesterday’s liberalism.

For all the British Museum stakes its claim to possession of the Benin Bronzes as artworks of shared humanity, it is the rightfulness of ethnic ownership that now strikes the contemporary observer as natural and just, perhaps correctly. The ethnographic museum is itself an artefact of a lost culture, like the Pitt Rivers’ occluded shrunken heads — an exotic curio of a society and worldview that no longer exists. “Are certain kinds of knowledge encoded in racial memory?” Kuper asks rhetorically, certain that any right-thinking person will disagree. Surveying the discourse of the moment, and the unstable definitions of indigeneity whose full consequences are yet to reveal themselves politically, the answer must be that that is indeed the spirit of the age. Now the chips must fall as they will, even if the results will surely not be those for which progressives dream.

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