White Redemption Rituals Remixed?

Last week news broke that the chair of trustees at Royal Museums Greenwich had resigned, reportedly because the government blocked the reappointment of Aminul Hoque as a trustee because of his focus on “decolonisation”. RMG includes the National Maritime Museum which is the closest thing the UK has to a museum of national/imperial history, so this is no small thing.

For me, this brought back memories of the time I spent in Australia during 2003 when the government placed the National Museum of Australia under review. Arriving from a Blairite Britain on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I was struck by how polarised positions had become as a result of Australia’s ‘History Wars’ (‘black armbands’ v ‘white blindfolds’) , and just how much scrutiny this had placed on the work of museums.

Stung by his characterisation as a left wing activist by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and former New Labour politician, Dan Hicks has recently claimed that ‘Decolonising museums isn’t part of a ‘culture war‘. While much of the position Dan outlined in the piece makes sense, I’m afraid that when museum trustees are being sacked, such denials ring pretty hollow.

This is especially the case since Dan has done more than most to escalate this particular conflict, through the forceful promotion of his book, the Brutish Museums, both on Twitter and off. Dan is a fighter by nature, and I’m sure he feels on secure ground, but I fear that all the sturm und drang has turned museums and their ongoing attempts to grapple with colonial legacies into a legitimate political target. The thing about all wars, culture wars included, is that no one ever really wins, but almost everyone gets hurt.

Having worked in museums for two decades, including at the Pitt Rivers – Dan and I were the first members of staff to move into the new research centre, sharing it briefly with the builders in 2006 – I know that most people working in them are pretty liberal or left-leaning and struggle with the idea of being complicit with colonialism and its contemporary legacies. But the overwhelming desire to resolve this discomfort poses a series of traps, particularly when decolonisation is pursued primarily in terms of repatriation in an exculpatory mode.

One of the most honest and thoughtful contributions to reflect on Australia’s History wars and its impact on museums is a largely uncited paper by the Melbourne Museum curator and anthropologist Philip Batty. It is called White Redemption Rituals: Reflections on the Repatriation of Aboriginal Secret-Sacred Objects – incidentally presented at a Pitt Rivers research seminar about fifteen years ago. Batty, whose job it had been to return secret-sacred objects to indigenous communities in Central Australia as part of a government programme, found that many of those to whom repatriation was made were profoundly ambivalent about the process – a pretty low priority compared to the major social and health issues they faced. One young Aboriginal man pointedly told Batty ‘I’m glad you brought these things back, now we can sell them’.

In at least one case, the process stoked underlying tensions between competing claimants, prompting someone to memorably say that returning the particular object was ‘like lobbing a grenade into the community’. Batty’s conclusion was that the national project of repatriation could be primarily attributed to chronic moral dilemmas within white Australia and a broader desire for redemption, without much real interest or investment in the lives of the country’s Aboriginal people.

As a white South African, born into apartheid, I understand the profound discomfort that comes from being what Michael Rothberg has called an ‘implicated subject‘. But I also know that there is no quick and easy path to redemption – personal, institutional or national.

In his book, Dan suggests that it was African thinking that shattered the complacency of the Pitt Rivers museum – a 2015 #RhodesMustFall Oxford tweet described it as one of the most violent places in Oxford. But the forms of African thinking adopted in the UK museum sector have been pretty partial.

One of the major intellectual influences on the #RhodesMustFall movement was the South African Black Consciousness thinker Steve Biko, and key here is his critique of white liberalism. According to Derek Hooks, Biko identified four modes of disingenuous white anti-racism:

  1. A fetishistic preoccupation with disproving one’s racism
  2. Ostentatious forms of antiracism that function as a means of self-promotion
  3. The consolidation and extension of agency through redemptive gestures of ‘heroic white antiracism’
  4. ‘Charitable antiracism’ which positions tolerance within a model of charity, as an act of generosity that reiterates the status and role of an antiracist benefactor

Gary Younge pointed out that the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd was ‘almost like teenagers discovering sex where everybody wants to do it very urgently and not particularly very well’. I can’t help feeling that the enthusiasm with which ‘decolonisation’ has been adopted within the museum sector over the past year regularly risks falling into many, if not all of Biko’s modes of white anti-racism.

Dan Hicks’ book has been read by some as an attack on the museum as an institution, but is ultimately premised on a project of redemption – he defines the work of restitution as ‘the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and “world culture” museum’ and suggests that he wants his book ‘to be read as a kind of defence of the unfinished project of the anthropological museum’. What is absent from this conception is any sense of how the proposed restitution responds to the needs and desires of people in Africa, who are grappling with a range of other more immediate colonial legacies, not least the continued political and economic impacts of both colonial indirect rule and extractive mineral economies.

If restitution is to be connected with decolonisation as a project, then surely it has to be twinned with a willingness to listen to other points of view, and attempt to resist the colonial tendency to control the terms of the conversation and determine its outcomes. Steve Biko suggested that ‘white liberals always knew what was good for blacks and told them so’.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, admittedly now an elite philosopher in New York, has said that he doesn’t think Africans should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen, because he wants museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when his grandfather was a young man. His suggestion is that a negotiated restitution should include not just the major objects of significance from African history, but a decent collection of art from around the world – something lost as a consequence of the sacking of Kumasi in 1874.

Achille Mbembe, who Dan quotes approvingly on Necropolitics, has suggested that in an ideal world the objects in which we recognise the best of human creativity should be granted the right of radical mobility and free circulation – unlike the mobility of Africans which is increasingly restricted by the immigration policies of fortress Europe. Indeed, Mbembe has probingly asked what the relationship is between the technologies of deportation for people from Europe and the desired return of African objects.

Mbembe has suggested that the losses caused by colonial occupation are so radical that there can ultimately be no adequate form of restitution. Instead, Africans have to learn to live with that loss and Europeans will have to learn with what their ancestors did. The first part of this process is surely learning to live with the discomfort of being implicated, without seeking immediate redemption on our own terms. The second is learning to be quiet enough to hear when people tell us what they actually want.