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The Brutish Museums

The Brutish Museums

The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution

Dan Hicks

The book that changed the conversation on the contemporary museum

Walk into any European museum today and you will see the curated spoils of Empire. They sit behind plate glass: dignified, tastefully lit. Accompanying pieces of card offer a name, date and place of origin. They do not mention that the objects are all stolen.

Few artefacts embody this history of rapacious and extractive colonialism better than the Benin Bronzes - a collection of thousands of brass plaques and carved ivory tusks depicting the history of the Royal Court of the Obas of Benin City, Nigeria. Pillaged during a British naval attack in 1897, the loot was passed on to Queen Victoria, the British Museum and countless private collections.

The story of the Benin Bronzes sits at the heart of a heated debate about cultural restitution, repatriation and the decolonisation of museums. In The Brutish Museums, Dan Hicks makes a powerful case for the urgent return of such objects, as part of a wider project of addressing the outstanding debt of colonialism.

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His award-winning research focuses on the restitution of African cultural heritage from Euro-American collections.

'A real game-changer'

- The Economist

'If you care about museums and the world, read this book'

- New York Times 'Best Art Books' 2020

'Hicks’s urgent, lucid, and brilliantly enraged book feels like a long-awaited treatise on justice'

- Coco Fusco, New York Review of Books

'Unsparing ... especially timely ... his book invites readers to help break the impasse by joining the movement for restitution.'


'The book is a vital call to action: part historical investigation, part manifesto, demanding the reader do away with the existing “brutish museums” of the title and find a new way for them to exist'

- Charlotte Lydia Riley, Guardian

'An epiphanic book for many generations to come'

- Victor Ehikhamenor, visual artist and writer

'Unflinching, elegantly written and passionately argued, this is a call to action'

- Bénédicte Savoy, Professor of Art History at Technische University

'In his passionate, personal, and, yes, political account, Dan Hicks transforms our understanding of the looting of Benin. This book shows why being against violence now more than ever means repatriating stolen royal and sacred objects and restoring stolen memories'

- Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University

'A startling act of conscience. An important book which could overturn what people have felt about British history, empire, civilisation, Africa, and African art. It is with books like this that cultures are saved, by beginning truthfully to face the suppressed and brutal past. It has fired a powerful shot into the debate about cultural restitution. You will never see many European museums in the same way again. Books like this give one hope that a new future is possible.'

- Ben Okri, poet and writer

'Destined to become an essential text'

- Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

'Dan, your words brought tears to my eyes. I salute you'

- MC Hammer

'A powerful call for western museums to return the objects looted in the violent days of empire'

- Guardian

'A masterful condemnation and inspiring call to action'

- Los Angeles Review of Books


- Nature

'The Brutish Museums shows that colonial violence is unfinished, and as it persists in the present, it cannot be relativized.'

- Ana Lucia Araujo, Public Books

'The Brutish Museums leaves no stone unturned'

- Financial Times

'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'

- The Baffler

'A bombshell book'

- Los Angeles Times

‘After this book, there can be no more false justifications for holding Benin Bronzes in museums outside of Africa’

- Africa is a Country

List of plates
1. The Gun That Shoots Twice
2. A Theory of Taking
3. Necrography
4. White Projection
5. World War Zero
6. Corporate-Militarist Colonialism
7. War on Terror
8. The Benin-Niger-Soudan Expedition
9. The Sacking of Benin City
10. Democide
11. Iconoclasm
12. Looting
13. Necrology
14. ‘The Museum of Weapons, etc.’
15. Chronopolitics
16. A Declaration of War
17. A Negative Moment
18. Ten Thousand Unfinished Events
Afterword: A Decade of Returns
Appendix 1: Provisional List of the Worldwide Locations Of Benin Plaques Looted in 1897
Appendix 2: Sources of Benin Objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (the ‘First Collection’)
Appendix 3: Sources of Benin Objects in the former Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham (‘the Second Collection’)
Appendix 4: Current Location of Benin Objects previously in the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Farnham (the ‘Second Collection’)
Appendix 5: A Provisional List of Museums, Galleries and Collections that May Currently Hold Objects Looted from Benin City in 1897

Published by Pluto Press in Nov 2020
Hardcover ISBN: 9780745341767
eBook ISBN: 9781786806840

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