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.

On Re-reading Alfred Gell’s Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps

As a result of selecting this as the main first week reading for our MA paper on the Arts of Africa, I have read this paper three times in the last two years. Every time I return to it, I find more there. Over the past twenty years, Gell has largely been associated, at least in student essays, with the reductive notion that ‘objects have agency’, largely due to the title of his posthumously published book Art and Agency (1998). But his writing is lively, complex and multi-layered – it always feels like he is trying to say about five things in any one paper – but the fresh and engaging style with which he writes always carries me along as a willing and enthusiastic reader. 

A Cambridge trained anthropologist who worked largely at LSE, Gell did his initial fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, subsequently also working in India. During his career he wrote about ritual, time and exchange, publishing books in the early 1990s on The Anthropology of Time (Gell, 1992a) and Tattooing in Polynesia (Gell, 1993). However, Alfred Gell really established himself as a key theorist on the anthropology of art during the 1990s with essays such as The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology(Gell, 1992b). Not content to limit himself to generating localised ethnographies, Gell remained wedded to an anthropological enterprise that involved developing categories and forms of analysis that were applicable across cultural contexts.

This essay, published in the very first issue of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996, may be one of the last things Gell published before his premature death in January 1997. According to its abstract, it ‘explores the basis of the distinction commonly made between works of art or art objects and ‘mere’ artefacts, which are useful but not aesthetically interesting or beautiful’ (Gell, 1996, 15). This is Gellian modesty. By substituting one letter, that description becomes much more accurate – it explodes the basis of this distinction.

Replica of a Zande hunting net, rolled and bound for transport as displayed in the exhibition Art/artifact at theCenter of African Art, New York 1988 by Mariana Castillo Deball, 2013: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/mariana-castillo-deball-vogels-net

The main target of the paper is an essay by Arthur Danto (1988) in the catalogue for Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition at the Centre of African Art in New York, ART/ARTIFACT. It is worth noting Gell’s generosity in calling it a masterly essay. Nevertheless, one senses that he has real problems, both with Danto’s argument and his way of making it. Danto wants to argue that the Zande hunting next exhibited by Vogel is not a work of art, suggesting that it falls outside a tradition of conceptual art embedded in a system of ideas and interpretation that has developed in the (western) art-historical tradition. Gell points out that this conception is essentially Hegelian (relying on a notion of art motivated by transhistorical Geist), but also that Danto is not consistent in wanting to retain the great works of African sculpture ‘discovered’ by the modernists in the early twentieth century, while rejecting Vogel’s net. In order to make this argument, Danto relies on a rather absurd philosophical thought experiment contrasting ‘pot people’ and ‘basket people’, who produce identical objects but invest cosmological significance in one rather than the other of these two artefacts. Had he engaged with the ethnographic literature, Gell suggests, Danto would have encountered conceptual worlds far more sophisticated and interesting than he was able imagine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst: http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of

Mid-way through the essay, Gell shifts tack, developing a demonstration of how he would approach this problem in the form of a virtual exhibition, consisting of a series of of traps, alongside examples of contemporary art such as Damien Hirst’s shark (introduced through one of Gell’s sketches) and Duchamp’s Trebuchet, to draw out the significance and meaning from each other, demonstrating that traps can’t be straightforwardly dismissed as functional artefacts. This concentration on traps is very deliberate – they are he suggests ‘a master metaphor of deep significance’, ‘a representation of human being-in-the world’ and ‘a working model of a person’ that also embody the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

The trap for Gell represents a materialised nexus of intentionalities, and as such is an exemplary kind of art object. He suggests that every work of art works like ‘a trap or snare that impedes passage’, and that art galleries are ‘a place of capture’ set with ‘“thought-traps” which hold their victims for a time, in suspension’ (Gell, 1996, 37). Most exemplary of all is Pierre Lemonnier’s Anga eel trap -which through the eels they actually catch form images of living ancestral power ‘that actually accomplish work, actually nourish those who make them, and so achieve a goal that has always eluded our artists, waylaid as they have been by the need for realistic representation of (surface) forms’ (Gell, 1996, 34).

When you reach the conclusion, it becomes clear that Gell’s paper is not simply an exposition of Vogel’s net, a refutation of Danto’s arguments about it, or even an imaginative thought exhibition, but is fundamentally an argument against ‘the continuing hold of the “aesthetic” notion of artworks over the anthropological mind’ (Gell, 1996, 35). Gell suggests that this ‘reactionary… middle brow’ definition of art has ‘little or noting to do with the kinds of objects (installation, performances) that are characteristically circulated as ‘art’ in the late 20th century’ (Gell, 1996, 35). For Gell , ‘the “anthropology of art” ought to be about… the provision of a critical context that would enfranchise “artefacts” and allow for their circulation as artworks, displaying them as embodiments or residues of complex intentionalities’ (1996, 37). 

It would be wonderful to be able to report that in the decade and a half since I used Gell’s argument about artworks as traps as the basis of a pitch for my first curatorial job at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, that this project of artifactual enfranchisement had been successfully accomplished. There have definitely been plenty of examples of art museums incorporating and displaying collections of artefacts previously known as ‘ethnography’. But the thought that keeps arising when I reflect on this, is that museums and art galleries are themselves massive traps, capable of capturing and redirecting curatorial intentionalities along their own complex webs of ancestral intentionality. If the Anga eel trap is an image of ancestral eel power that actually accomplishes work, is the museum or gallery not an even more powerful living image of institutionalised ancestral power?


DANTO, A. 1988. Artifact and Art. ART/ARTIFACT: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York: Center for African Art and Prestel Verlag.

GELL, A. 1992a. The anthropology of time : cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford, Berg.

GELL, A. 1992b. The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology. In: COOTE, J. & SHELTON, A. (eds.) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 15-38.

GELL, A. 1998. Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press.Art

Care is Not Enough: Moving Museums Beyond Humiliation

Bristol’s Benin Bronze

In the week since the Edward Colston fell into Bristol harbour, and statues of confederates and even Christopher Columbus have come down across the Atlantic, many people across the UK museums sector have been struck by a feeling that they are probably next. When the British Museum tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter movement, they were met with over 1000 hostile responses drawing attention to unresolved cases of restitution and repatriation relating to the museum’s collections.

My former colleague Dan Hicks (who was the first to respond on Twitter) has drawn attention to the fact that the Colston statue was erected in 1895, a moment in Britain’s history when an intensification of military violence underpinned imperial expansion in Africa, marked by a quest for exploitable natural resources, and underpinned by an ideology of white supremacy.

Echoing Sethembile Msezane’s performance of Chapungu at the fall of Rhodes in Cape Town in 2015, which alluded to the ongoing presence in Cape Town of a stone bird belonging to Rhodes, that was stolen from the hilltop enclosure at Great Zimbabwe in 1889, Dan connected Colston’s statue to the ongoing display in Bristol Museum of a Bronze sculpture looted from Benin City in 1897.

Dan ends his ArtReview article by suggesting that:

As the parallel demands of the Fallism and Restitution movements grow, it is the duty of Britain’s arts and heritage sector to no longer care for and protect objects more than we care for and protect people.

The reorientation of museum ethics around the notion of care, with humans prioritised over objects, has arguably been under way for some time. It is important, but on its own may not provide a way out of the impasse around restitution in which many museums find themselves.

I was prompted by reading Dan’s article to get out a piece of writing I have been working on over the last couple of years, and which has only been tried out so far at a couple of conferences, since it speaks to current concerns.

#BlackLivesMatter and Benevolent Paternalism

Medallion produced around 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood and Sons for the Society for the Abolition of Slavery: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O79580/medallion-hackwood-william/

As someone who has studied the history of British missionary engagements with Africa over the past two centuries, I am painfully aware that the current moment is not the first time that liberal and radical people in Britain have publicly committed themselves to Black lives. In the nineteenth century, it was more often Black souls than Black lives, but there is a long history of British expressions of sympathy of this kind, with roots in the antislavery movement.

Many of these movements, however, were deeply rooted in a model of benevolent paternalism that remained deeply racist – it was ‘our’ duty to do something to help ‘them’. Africa was frequently imagined as a destitute women, or orphaned child in need of charity. But charity elevates the giver over the receiver, creating an obligation not only to receive the gift that is offered, but to appear to be grateful.

It is critical that the British museum and heritage sector finds a way to approach restitution and repatriation that avoids framing this as a form of charity or benevolent paternalism. ‘We’ have inherited a problem, and need the help of African partners. ‘They’ can help us, and we can try to find ways of helping them in return, but this exchange must be framed around the notion of mutual aid rather than as charity. Anything less risks perpetuating the ongoing humiliation of Africa and Africans, which arguably reached something of a zenith in 1897.

Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, after his death in battle, 1897.

1897: Depictions of Humiliation

In the section that follows, I apologise for any offence or upset that results from my use of these images. They are powerful and shocking, but my intention is not to contribute to any ongoing sense of humiliation, but rather to highlight the underlying dignity of those who were depicted in this way. These images are freely available on the internet, and form part of the way in which we continue to see these important African leaders.

Mbuya Nehanda, spiritual leader of Zimbabwe’s first Chimurenga, following her capture in 1897

On 30th July 1897, Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, a Tswana group in South Africa, was killed in battle with colonial troops. In the hours after the battle, his body was propped up for a photograph. This, while somewhat unusual in featuring a corpse, forms part of a genre. In Zimbabwe, during the same year, the captured rebel leader of the first Chimurenga, Mbuya Nehanda was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African military troops, as well as a European in riding boots, prior to her execution.

The Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen, following his capture by British forces, 1897

Following his capture and removal from Benin City in Nigeria during the same year, Oba Ovonramwen was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African troops. The inclusion of African military personnel was perhaps intended to suggest the emergence of new forms of African modernity in contrast to these representatives of resistant African tradition, but it may also have owed something to contemporary photographic conventions which owed as much to hunting as to conquest.

In his book on Dark Trophies, Simon Harrison has convincingly argued that nineteenth century colonial wars with non-European peoples were frequently conceptualised in terms of hunting expeditions, and that this enabled European soldiers to engage in trophy taking practices that included the removal of body parts, and particularly heads – a fate that ultimately befell both Luka Jantjie and Mbuya Nehanda, as well as quite a few other African leaders who faced down expanding imperial armies, from at least the 1820s onwards in southern Africa.

The taking of trophies continues to form a part of the performances of assertive masculinity that are associated with big game hunting, as demonstrated in these photographs of Donald Trump junior and his brother Eric on safari in Zimbabwe in 2012. But the trophy taking associated with colonial conquest was not confined to the body parts of victims, and photographs of soldiers standing with looted objects from the royal palace in Benin City clearly have a great deal in common the staging of photographs intended to display the spoils of the hunt.

British Officers pose with loot following the sacking of the Royal Palace, Benin City Nigeria, 1897

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the forms of trophy display associated with hunting lodges and military messes came to be a feature of many museum displays during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, including, as I have suggested elsewhere, at the Museum of the London Missionary Society, where the remains of hunted animals were displayed alongside ‘trophies of the gospel’ given up by converts to Christianity.

Museum of the London Missionary Society, from the London Illustrated News, 20 May 1843.

Humiliation and Injustice

Luka Jantjie, drawn from a photograph of him visiting his people at the diamond mines in Kimberley

What is perhaps also unusual about the fate of Luka Jantjie is that he was a literate Christian, educated at a mission school, and a successful businessman in the context of South Africa’s diamond mining boom of the 1870s. Kevin Shillington, who has written Jantjie’s biography, suggested that what white settlers in South Africa found most offensive about Jantjie was his determined dignity, and his expectation that he would be treated with respect as an educated Christian man who was also the hereditary leader of a significant local kingdom. Jantjie’s refusal to bow to colonial demands for subservience generated a determination among local whites to “teach him a lesson”, which manifested in his post-mortem treatment – both the photography and the removal of body parts as trophies. This violent treatment forcefully denied, in death, the dignity and respect Jantjie had assumed in life.

The deliberate humiliation of Jantjie, the man, was followed by the humiliation of his followers, whose land was taken, while men, women and children were force marched to the nearest railway station, where they were sold into indentured labour on the farms of the Cape colony. Humiliation has been defined in the psychological literature as the deliberate exercise of power that serves to demonstrate the inequality between those with power and those without, involving the stripping of status, forms of rejection or exclusion, unpredictability or arbitrariness and is experienced by those on the receiving end as extreme injustice. 

As the three examples above, from the same year in different parts of Africa, suggest, humiliation formed a fairly routine dimension of the military implementation of conquest, particularly where episodes of resistance created a desire to teach local leaders “a lesson”. Simon Harrison has suggested that a belief that they were fighting a less civilized enemy manifested in the taking of human body parts as dark trophies – something that did not happen as frequently during conflicts with other European armies. The case of Luka Jantjie suggests that it may also have been a way for colonial troops to assert the essential difference in status between themselves and their black enemies, even, and perhaps especially, when their opponents behaved in ways that suggested they believed themselves to be equal, or even superior to the standard run of white colonists in South Africa.

The Cross of Humiliation

In his 1979 Reith Lectures on the African Condition, Ali Mazrui gave one lecture the title ‘The Cross of Humiliation’. Mazrui argued that ‘Africans are not necessarily the most brutalised of peoples, but they are almost certainly the most humiliated in modern history’. He suggested that this condition arose from three interrelated systems of humiliation – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the European colonisation of Africa, and continuing racial discrimination, wherever black people live with white people. One feature of the final system, he suggested, was the insidious uncertainty people like him experienced about whether the treatment they received was the result of racial discrimination or not – manifesting through incidents that might be described in the language of contemporary activists as micro-aggressions. 

As institutions with roots in high imperialism, when the European colonisation of Africa reached its maximum extent, is it even possible for contemporary museums to transcend the frameworks of humiliation from which they derived a great deal of their institutional logics? Is it possible for museums to generate displays that are not experienced by Africans and people of African-descent as ongoing micro-humiliations, suggesting arbitrariness, exclusion, and the denial of status? In short, is it possible to move beyond humiliation – as a feature of the colonial encounter – but also a resurgent feature of various forms of social and political engagement in the present? Or are Africans and their descendants condemned to continue to have to bear the cross of humiliation, identified by Mazrui forty years ago.

Psychologists are increasingly recognising that the consequences of humiliation are far from trivial, on both an individual and societal level. Significantly, experiencing humiliation frequently leads to the loss of trust in the world. Victims of humiliating acts frequently experience feelings of resentment, rage, a sense of powerlessness, but also in some cases an understandable desire to retaliate and inflict humiliation in revenge. There are undoubtedly deep evolutionary roots to these feelings, as well as to practices of humiliation themselves, and primatologists have described similar forms of behaviour in non-human primates, particularly in relation to the establishment of hierarchy and power by males.  

Throughout history, episodes of national humiliation have prompted assertive nationalistic movements in response. While it is recognised that the perceived humiliation of Germany at the Treaty of Versailles led to the subsequent rise of National Socialism during the 1920s and 30s, it is less widely acknowledged that it was the humiliation of the Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), that seeded a drive for national self-assertion that found its ultimate focus in South Africa’s apartheid state after 1948. An article by Matt Schiavenza in the Atlantic in October 2013 argued that the deliberate humiliation wrought on China by the sacking of the summer palace by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860 was central to the founding mythology of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Indeed, the period between 1840 and 1949 is still referred to in China as the Century of Humiliation and the narrative of national humiliation is still recalled by contemporary political leaders such as Xi Jinping. Without particularly wishing to comment on the controversial political situation in Israel/Palestine, it is perhaps instructive that an article in the Israel News in November 2018 had the headline ‘Zionism is about Letting Jews Live (and die) Without Humiliation’.

In his 2017 book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra has attempted to trace the roots of contemporary forms of violence and political anger, taking in the motivations of Islamic as well as white supremacist terrorists, through the political torments of the twentieth century, right back to the contradictions inherent in forms of individual and political identity ushered in by the enlightenment. He has suggested that to make sense of this history, and of its contemporary consequences, it is necessary to focus on the fears, drives and resentments experienced in human lives, and the unstable relationship between inner and public selves. Indeed, he has argued that many of the forms of politics with which he is concerned arise from the actions and aspirations of frustrated and humiliated young men:

Then as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines. 

Mishra’s book is fundamentally about tracing the history of the:

existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

Although Mishra’s book does not dwell on the political circumstances of contemporary Africa, he does describe the ways in which the European conquest of Africa during the 1890s formed part of a response to political pressures at home – an attempt to provide an outlet for the anger of assertive but frustrated young men. Mishra argues that:

the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations

The glorification of violence and militarism that characterised movements such as Futurism in the early twentieth century was accompanied by a contempt for museums, libraries and academies, a position potentially echoed by the fictional character of Eric Killmonger in the 2018 marvel movie, Black Panther. His character and storyline embody a fantasy of violent revenge in the face of the micro-humiliations inflicted by the institution, its security guards and white curator, and the forceful repatriation of artefacts looted by British forces from the royal palace of Benin in 1897.

New Zealand artist Jason Hall’s 2006 work ‘The do-it-yourself repatriation kit

Although there is suspicion that some of the thefts from European museums of Chinese material that originated in Beijing’s summer palace may have been condoned and even unofficially orchestrated by the Chinese government, in many cases repatriation remains a revenge fantasy, as recognised by Teju Adisa-Farrar in her opinion piece in the Guardian from April 2018. If, as she argued, the continued holding of African material by European and American museums is inherently violent and neo-colonial, is restitution the only way of moving museums beyond humiliation? This is certainly the implication of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which tends to shift towards a presumption of return. But on what political basis should this project of restitution proceed?

Dialogue and its shortcomings

I would like to briefly consider the events that arose in Cambridge following a student vote at Jesus College to repatriate a bronze cockerel, Okukor, which had adorned the college dining room for nearly 100 years (a fuller account, written with my former colleague Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp is available). The cockerel was a gift to the College, whose heraldic emblem is also a cockerel, but its ongoing display functioned as a trophy, complete with bronze plaque describing the details of its removal from the ancient city of Benin in Latin.

When the decision of the college’s fellows to remove the cockerel from display prompted a series of opinion pieces in national newspapers, the University panicked, and rapidly convened a Benin Working Group, including representatives from University Museums, some meetings of which I was invited to attend. The major proposal made by this group was to host a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group, at that stage largely defunct, which would include representatives of the royal palace in Benin City, the National Council of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, as well as various other European Museums.

The Benin Dialogue Group at Trinity College, April 2017

This took place at Trinity College in April 2017. Alongside fairy nebulous proposals for capacity building and digital sharing initiatives, the declared intention of the meeting was to reopen dialogue around the issue of repatriation. However, no representatives of Jesus College attended the meeting, and members of University Museum staff, such as myself, were explicitly told that they should not discuss the potential repatriation of the Jesus College cockerel, even though it was obvious to everyone at the meeting that it was the reason why the meeting was taking place at all.

One might draw some pretty cynical conclusions about what the meeting was intended to achieve, at least from the perspective of Jesus College, but I don’t actually believe that all those who participated in the discussions can be accused of acting in bad faith. Instead, I want to suggest the organisation of this meeting was driven by an optimistic commitment to dialogue as a form of political engagement. Indeed, it has been argued that commitment to dialogue is a key characteristic of the liberal rational mood, which arose following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. As Pankaj Mishra puts it:

Over the last two decades, elites, even in many formerly socialist countries, came to uphold an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Kant.

Nevertheless, a commitment to rational forms of engagement, such as dialogue, fails to recognise the important part that human emotions and passions play in political actions and orientations, tacitly assuming that consensus can be arrived at through dialogue and compromise. 

Care and Justice

In her classic feminist work on Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan identified two different ways of thinking and talking about moral problems, characterising them as an ethics of justice and an ethics of care. While she argued that the majority of psychological and philosophical literature by male authors had concentrated on moral development towards an ethics of universal justice, this failed to recognise the ways in which an ethics of care was a recurrent feature of women’s moral development.

She connected these modes of ethics with the different ways in which men and women are often socialised, linking these to modes of play in children. Boys, she suggested, often play games with complex rules, such as football, where interactions frequently involve lengthy disputation around the interpretation of the rules, but adherence to the rules and maintenance of the game is valued above all else. Girls, on the other hand, often play in ways that prioritise the maintenance of relationships, and will abandon games when tensions arise.

I would argue that in parallel with a shift towards dialogue and assumptions of liberal consensus, museum ethics, at least in the ethnographic museums with which I am most familiar, have shifted over the period since Gilligan published her book, perhaps in line with the shifting demographics of the curatorial profession, towards prioritising an ethics of care over an ethics of justice. The principle of avoiding violence, and prioritising the establishment and maintenance of relationships has become the standard curatorial orthodoxy.

What an exclusive focus on dialogue, relationships, and an ethics of care fails to recognise is that many forms of political contestation and conflict are driven by potentially irreconcilable interests. As we are increasingly aware in the UK, political disagreement is an inevitable feature of human life, which can’t always be resolved simply through discussion. Indeed, the assertion that rational self-interest should enable people to see that they are in fact wrong in their views has led in the case of Brexit to amplified forms of antagonism, and a corresponding desire to humiliate one’s opponents, particularly online (and I would suggest particularly on Twitter).

The political and emotional drive to repatriate material in the face of ongoing humiliations will not ultimately be resolved through the compromise of online access and long-term loans that was arrived at by participants in the Benin Dialogue Group meeting, even if this offers a tangible and achievable first step. By retaining control of the debate, and the ultimate power to make the decisions, the University of Cambridge, delivered another micro-humiliation to Nigerian participants in the dialogue, who were expected to agree that acting rationally would entail being grateful for the offer to build their capacity for rational museum practice – something not lost on student activists, who responded angrily to the outcome of the meeting in the student press.

Transformative Thinking?

Pankaj Mishra’s book accomplishes a remarkable dissection of the anatomy of our contemporary predicament and its apocalyptic mood. He suggests that underlying this global political situation is a world in which: 

Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.

What is the scope then for attempting to talk about these things without falling into the same traps, established by the liberal assumptions of many of us engaged in the conversation. Mishra is unclear about the prescription necessary to shape a future that does not involve more cycles of violence, humiliation and reprisal. The final sentence of the book suggests the need for some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world. But what should that involve?

One person who has attempted to think about different ways of doing politics is the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who suggested that the belief in the possibility of a universal rational consensus has put democratic thinking on the wrong track. Like Mishra, Mouffe is concerned about the liberal political discourse that accompanied the managerial politics that arose in the 90s, but has argued that this has created a moralistic tendency, whereby political antagonisms are increasingly played out in a moral register, whereby the struggle between ‘right and left’ has been reframed in terms of ‘right and wrong’.

For Mouffe, who derives her understanding of ‘the Political’ from Carl Schmitt, a German critic of liberalism, all forms of identity are relational and derive from a constitutive other. Every ‘we’ requires a ‘they’, and this carries within it a tendency towards antagonism, but for this not to fall into a friend/enemy relation some form of common bond must exist between the parties in conflict – a ‘taming’ of the relation which Mouffe has called agonism. The difference between antagonism and agonism is the difference between warfare and sport, or between violence and the rules of a parliamentary system designed to prevent the deterioration of conflict into violence.

Mouffe suggests that instead of trying to design the institutions which, through supposedly ‘impartial’ procedure, would reconcile all conflicting interests and values, the task for democratic theorists and politicians should be to envisage the creation of a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted. She argues that when channels are not available through which conflicts can take an ‘agonistic’ form, they tend to emerge in the antagonistic mode, so that instead of being regarded as a political confrontation between ‘adversaries’, they are framed as a moral confrontation between ‘good and evil’. The consequence is that the adversary is regarded as an enemy to be destroyed and humiliated – and this inherent tendency is, as Mishra points out, embodied both in the terrifying acts of terrorists, but also the interactions of Twitter mobs and trolls. 

In returning to museums, it is probably important to suggest that the optimistic liberal ideals of celebratory multiculturalism which accompanied the social inclusion agenda of the New Labour government after 1997 have had their day, as yet another example of British benevolent paternalism. A true commitment to pluralism recognises that the variety of positions occupied by participants in society, shaped by a range of historical inheritances, inevitably embody a range of conflicting interests, but also political identifications and passions.

The challenge, in attempting to move beyond humiliation, is whether museums, as essentially liberal institutions, described by Mouffe as linked to the construction of bourgeois hegemony, can find ways of channeling, taming and presenting these conflicts in an agonistic way, so that a common bond is retained between adversaries, rather than moralising them or suggesting that they can be resolved through rational consensus. In the context of museum collections derived from military violence and acts of humiliation, is it possible to ‘tame’ former antagonistic relations so that former enemy ‘theys’ come to be regarded as integral to an expanded ‘we’.

The inherent danger, is that this proceeds in a paternalistic manner, whereby those in charge of institutions – like it or not, generally members of the liberal elite – attempt to retain control of the terms of argument and the debate (with the inherent assumption that ‘we’ are right, rational, and beyond having interests of our own). This is certainly a direction taken by some contributions to the debate around reparations, and will continue as long as ‘we’ attempt to remain the primary arbiters of repatriation decisions involving ‘them’.

An important dimension of the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron was the suggestion that decision making should be removed from the hands of museums and their trustees, and provided an institutional structure that embodied a ‘we’ that included representatives from both sides of the friend/enemy conflict that operated during the colonial period. Moving ‘beyond humiliation’ to forge a common future entails being able to imagine a ‘we’ which is not immune to disagreement or conflict, but which is nevertheless committed to the development of common forms of decision making as a means of resolving these.

For Gilligan, ultimately it was the integration of the ethics of justice and the ethics of care that marked the achievement of maturity in moral thinking in both men and women, and would, she argued, lead to a more generative view of human life. The reparation debate cannot then be resolved simply by an emphasis on care and relationships, important though these are, but must also start to think about justice – developing a set of procedures for adjudicating repatriation/reparation cases – the rules for the game – which will be recognised as just and fair by all sides.

I want to suggest that the challenge now facing museums is that of integrating an ethics of justice with an ethics of care, through the careful design of an approach to arbitration that avoids perpetuating the humiliations rooted in violent colonial encounters. It is important that museum directors, as well as their boards of trustees, recognise that while they may have good arguments for, or against, repatriation in particular cases, that they are far from impartial commentators, regardless of where they come from or the colour of their skin. Achieving a form of justice that will ultimately be respected by all sides involves situating decisions about repatriation and reparation within agonistic structures that are independent of museums or the institutions of which they form part.

Now that is a challenge to the Institute of Art and Law, appointed by Arts Council England in March to produce new guidance on restitution and repatriation for museums…

Assembling Bodies

This is a review of an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge which was written for the Journal of Museum Ethnography. However, as it looks like it will be published after the exhibition closes, it seemed like it might be worth putting up here while the exhibition can still be viewed:

Assembling Bodies: Art, Science & Imagination, at Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge, from 10 March 2009 to November 2010.

For further information see: http://maa.cam.ac.uk/assemblingbodies/

Atomised – Jim Bond, 2005

Finding your way into the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge means entering a gated archway. Passing through this creates a sense of leaving the public space of the town and entering an arena that belongs to the university. As a ‘townie’ growing up in Cambridge, I had the sense that all the exciting things that ever seemed to happen in the city took place behind such gates. Once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard dominated by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, which appears to have landed in the middle of the lawn. Out of sight and tucked away in one corner is the door behind which lies the museum. The museum’s ground floor archaeology gallery is lit up by the orange and green hessian lining its cases, and there is little here to suggest much of the art, science or imagination of this exhibition’s subtitle. However Assembling bodies is displayed in the museum’s second floor gallery, and getting there means leaving this space and climbing a staircase. As you climb, you glimpse people entering and leaving passages and doorways, and on the second floor landing, opposite the entrance to the gallery, you can make out the massed volumes of a department library behind the glass of a door.

This is very definitely a university museum, and you can’t enter it without being aware that it exists alongside and in relation to the university as a site of teaching, learning and research. Rather than attempting to dumb down for a contemporary public, bloated on a diet of celebrity news and reality TV, Assembling Bodies embraces this position and catapults its visitors into the midst of a conversation between people living and working across the departments, colleges, hospitals and artists’ studios of this city. In the Foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue the museum’s director Nicholas Thomas notes that this is the most ambitious exhibition it has ever attempted, and suggests that it ‘exemplifies what university museums do best… a visual and sensory feast that we hope will excite everyone, but is also above all a research-driven, question-raising exhibition.’ The exhibition has been timed to coincide with both the Museum’s 125th anniversary and the University’s 800th. Most of the city’s other exhibition spaces seem to be dominated by marking another anniversary, the 150th since Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species and the 200th since his birth. Rather than dwell on the achievements of one of the University’s more famous alumni, who is also claimed by a large number of other places, Assembling Bodies positions itself firmly within Cambridge’s present. It could even be argued that this exhibition forges a path into the future.

Much of the work underlying the exhibition has taken place during a recent cross- disciplinary research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust on ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’ and this is perhaps why the exhibition creates such a sense of ongoing and unfolding exploration. Like Darwin’s explorations and experiments on the Beagle, this experiment in exploratory exhibition-making also feels like it may continue to generate insights for a while to come. This is no bad thing since the exhibition will be in place for a period of around twenty months. The research interests of the exhibition’s three curators Anita Herle, Rebecca Empson and Mark Elliott are made prominent in the exhibition through the use they make of Haddon’s Torres Straits photographs, a household chest from Mongolia, as well as an array of Indian sculptural busts made by the sculptor Marguerite Milward. As well as collaborating to produce the text of the exhibition, website and catalogue, each of the curators has contributed an individually authored essay to the catalogue. These are joined by other essays written by archaeologists, anthropologists, classicists, artists, and sociologists who were involved in the research project, most of whom work for the University of Cambridge. While this journal now has separate review sections for exhibitions, books and electronic media, in this case the relationship between all three is so close, that it seems sensible to regard them as different parts of the same overall body of work. A visit to the exhibition in Cambridge feels like a ‘first contact’ which can be developed through further engagements with the website as well as with the more reflective essays in the catalogue.

See: http://maa.cam.ac.uk/assemblingbodies/catalogue/

According to the website, the exhibition ‘explores some of the different ways that bodies are imagined, understood and transformed in the arts, social and bio-medical sciences.’ Entering the exhibition-space one is faced with a kinetic sculpture, Atomised, which assembles and then disassembles the steel outline of a human body as visitors pass in and out of the exhibition. This contemporary artwork forms part of an introductory installation which brings together a plaster cast of the nude female Aphrodite of Knidos, a French anatomical model and a New Ireland malangan sculpture all from the nineteenth century with a model of the DNA double helix, a shaman’s costume from Manchuria, and an ancestral effigy from Vanuatu from the twentieth century, as well as a middle Bronze Age funerary urn from Cambridgeshire and a print of a South African acrylic painting produced in 2003. That the curators choose to describe this as an installation is significant, since it seems that they understand their role in assembling this exhibition as simultaneously artists, scientists and imaginaries. Displayed on the wall above the entrance are a number of texts relating to the laws governing the treatment of human bodies in contemporary Britain, and these flag up another sense in which the curators intend the title of the exhibition to be taken – drawing attention to the assembly as a gathering for a common purpose as in the case of a legislative ‘body’. Each of the bodies on display in the museum is simultaneously the product of and the reason for a process of material assembly, but also for an assembling of humans, whether they be scientists, classicists, South African AIDS activists or mourners from New Ireland, Malekula, or Bronze Age Cambridgeshire. The bodies on display assemble a body of humans around them, but are also an assembly of such a body. This is a fractal exhibition in which the sense of the terms Assembling and Bodies recur and resonate at many different levels and scales of meaning.

Fa`a fafine: in the manner of a woman – Shigeyuki Kihara, 2005

After this introductory section, the exhibition consists of six further thematic zones located around the circular balcony gallery. The curators declare that there are many pathways through these, describing the groupings as overlapping ‘clusters’ that draw on the comparative method to ‘throw differences into relief, to identify similarities between diverse materials and to make the familiar appear strange and open to investigation.’ The website lists these clusters in one order and the catalogue in another, neither of which was that in which I encountered the exhibition. Body & Landscape suggests ways in which bodies can relate to the landscapes in which they live by displaying a number of archaeological materials as well as a model Haida totem pole and a print by Jo Stockham which suggests an analogy between human body and the globe, as microcosm and macrocosm. A video installation shows, in accelerated time, the process by which a number of living bodies unearthed a dead one during an archaeological excavation during summer 2007. Genealogies & Genomes brings together a number of forms for reckoning the relationships between bodies, including twelfth and seventeenth century European diagrams, an aboriginal bark painting from Arnhem land, a Maori cloak, a Chinese spirit tablet and a Tibetan rebirth mural. Alongside these is displayed a volume of the printed version of the DNA sequence published by the human genome project in 2005. This anonymous coded text sits in counterpoint to a portrait by Marc Quinn of the geneticist John Sulston who led the project, which includes his photograph alongside a sample of DNA in a bar of agar jelly. Alongside this is an installation of bilum string bags and pearl shells which explore Melanesian modes of relatedness, outlined further in a catalogue essay by one of their most important interpreters, Cambridge’s recently retired Professor of Anthropology, Marilyn Strathern. Extending and Distributing includes interesting sections on votive body parts, relics & memorials, prosthetics and organ transplants. The Body Multiple includes four further ‘body maps’ produced by the Bambanani Women’s Group in South Africa, which document the lives of a number of women with HIV who have had access to antiretroviral therapies. The maps began with an outline of each woman’s body, but layers of interpretation are built up around these detailing the multiple ways in which each woman thinks about her body. Measuring and Classifying includes display sections on Instruments & Analogies, Typologies, The Body & Its Capacities, Phrenology, Brain Imaging and Anthropology & Photography. The last of these draws heavily on the museum’s own history and collection and becomes a self-reflexive installation by the museum’s curators. Art & Anatomy includes the Milward portraits, a set of Roman busts, a Mende mask, a number of anatomical diagrams and devices as well as a display on sounding bodies that includes a number of stethoscopes. Alongside these is the striking photographic triptych Fa’a fafine: in the manner of a woman by Shigeyuki Kihara, which was also exhibited in the last exhibition to be shown in this space: Pasifika styles.

The re-presentation of this artwork made me think of the ways in which a part of one body may become reconfigured as part of another, suggesting permeability and leakage between bodily formations. The central space of the gallery is filled by a sculpture commissioned from Jim Bond who also made Atomised with which the exhibition begins. From most angles in the gallery Anamorphism appears as a number of disconnected steel pieces, but when viewed from one end these come together to give the outline of a human form. The photograph of this in the catalogue shows it against a black background, but in the gallery the museum’s large totem pole, appears to be looming up behind it, another whole formed from many parts. The curators use the hollowed out reverse of the totem pole as a convenient place to mount an interactive monitor showing images of brain scans, but it is not the only object from the museum’s collection which permeates into the space of this exhibition without being given a label. Hanging from the roof is a canoe which suggests itself as both an extension to the human body and a way in which bodies relate to their environment. Because bodies touch and are touched by so many things, I found myself struggling to think of an object that could not have found a place somewhere in this exhibition. As a result, it is not only the boundaries between this exhibition and the rest of the museum that are permeable and the objects displayed in the exhibition come from the collections of other Cambridge museums, college collections and even the National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum in London. The interchangeability of bodies means that many of the objects displayed in this exhibition would have worked equally well in a number of the exhibition’s other thematic clusters.

The Head of the Blue Chip II – Dianne Harris, 2009

The exhibition’s introductory panel asks its visitors ‘How does the encounter with these different human forms influence the way you think about your own body?’ This question occurred to me on three occasions while visiting the exhibition. The first was
when I caught sight of my own reflection in one of the glass case fronts. The second was as I encountered the lifelike gaze projected by Head of the Blue Chip II by the artist Dianne Harris. The third occurred on leaving, when rather than looking at the doorways that led off the staircase, I was faced with my own reflection in the mirror of the lift. My body, unlike those I had been looking at is alive and its actions, such as entering by the stairs and leaving by the lift, are not uniform enough to be predicted by the laws governing the movements of other kinds of bodies. Isaac Newton famously assembled these laws of motion in Cambridge, and his presence in the exhibition is marked by his death mask, which features in the exhibition’s display of relics. The body responsible for assembling this exhibition, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, is in many ways more like my body than those it has assembled, since it is hard to predict what it will do next.

Birmingham – A City in the Making

This week I attended a meeting of the Historians Advisory group for a major new suite of galleries at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Birmingham – A History in the Making will take its place on the third floor of the museum and replace the history galleries that were hastily assembled when the museum’s natural history collections were removed in 2003.

View of the proposed entrance to the new galleries. Copyright Redmans Design. See: http://www.bmag.org.uk/new-birmingham-history-galleries/your-museum

Even though Heritage Lottery Funding was only announced in November, and even though the galleries aren’t scheduled to open until 2012 or 2013, the plans seemed to be pretty advanced. We were asked to comment not simply on ideas for galleries, but on a particular case and its contents. I was in a group looking at how slavery was going to be represented in a gallery on the eighteenth century.

We struggled with how to represent on the one hand the way in which Birmingham manufacturers and consumers benefitted from the slave trade, but on the other hand the way in which the movement against the slavery became particularly strong among the non-conformist manufacturing elites in the town.

The real problem was how to get across all this complexity in a single glass case. In my group was Catherine Hall, Professor of History at UCL whose fantastic book Civilising Subjects covers some of this ground in relation to Birmingham in the nineteenth century. That book, however, runs to over 500 pages and only deals with the period 1830-1867.

As historian after historian suggested textual documents which might be used, I started to realise the real challenges involved in creating a good museum display. It’s nothing like writing a book since you can’t rely on, and refer to endless other texts. Finding the right objects to display makes all the difference, but sometimes these can be terribly elusive.

The problem with slavery in eighteenth century Birmingham is that much of the time it was happening elsewhere. Goods were made there but exported. Sugar arrived there, but almost mysteriously from afar. Making slavery present in Birmingham is not just a problem that just confronts 21st century curators but was also a problem for anti-slavery campaigners such as Josiah Wedgwood.

Campaigning materials are some of the most eloquent objects that Birmingham has to display, but these only tell one part of the story. The other is the everyday, taken for granted nature of slavery, the way in which it was tied into all sorts of business practices and investments. I couldn’t help but thinking of commodities such as ‘blood diamonds‘ or the mineral coltan, which like sugar in the eighteenth century is central to all sorts of new consumer behaviour in Britain. While we might read about the connections between our behaviour and horrific acts of cruelty and violence, we still can’t quite believe that our mobile phones and engagement rings are really responsible.
In the end, as a group, we argued that you couldn’t really deal with slavery by separating it out and placing it in a case called ‘taking a stand’. Instead you had to try and also make its presence felt in other sections of the gallery that focussed on trade and manufacture, and the prominent men of the city such as Matthew Boulton. You also can’t really deal with it by confining it the eighteenth century, as if the 1807 abolition of the trade in the British Empire marked the end of Birmingham’s involvement in supplying goods that were traded for slaves.
Since the bicentenary, three years ago, slavery has almost become too prominent in the museum world, presenting a now well-known story with a happy ending. By telling this story, you can almost get out of telling all sorts of other stories about the way in which life in Britain has been intimately connected with the lives of people in other parts of the world for a very long time. One has to wonder how many people have died at the end of a gun that was made in Birmingham. 
However, unlike the slave trade, that story may be a more difficult one to tell, since the UK continues to export arms around the world. BAE, one of the largest arms producers in the world, continues to have factories at Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, just down the road from Birmingham Museum. 

Rebuilding Tradescant’s Ark at Sea

I went to the Ashmolean Museum today. I was keen to see what the £61 million refurbishment had ended up looking like.

I have a soft spot for the Ashmolean since I had my very first undergraduate tutorials there. They were with the inspirational prehistorian Andrew Sherratt, in his dingy attic office with views across the Oxford roofscape. We had eight weeks to cover the whole of human history from human evolution to the silk route, by way of the origins of farming, cities and metal-working. This was an exhilarating ride – the task for my first week in Oxford was to produce a diagram showing the significant events in human history – all of it!

Tutorials were epic events at 2pm on a Friday afternoon, sometimes lasting upwards of three hours. I remember Andrew repeatedly boiling an old kettle next to his desk and making himself cups of black coffee. He never thought to offer a cup to the two first year undergraduates sitting across the desk from him. By 5pm, gasping with thirst, we would be turned onto the street by the museum security guards, locking up the galleries for the night.

That was in 1997, and in those days many of the galleries at the Ashmolean still featured arrays of countless objects with handwritten labels and explanatory panels. There were galleries of material from Egypt and the Near East, from the ancient Mediterranean, from India and China, as well as galleries of European fine art. They were all in the same building, but each space had a very different look and feel, reflecting the preoccupations of the different departments of the museum. To connect the dots, and think about how what was happening in China related to what you could see in the European galleries, or how the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia related to Minoan crete or Ancient Greece and Rome, you needed someone like Andrew.

As a pioneer of world-systems thinking in Archaeology, he was happy to move from one part of the world to another, following the trade routes. He would drag us between the galleries to compare different types of pottery. When talking about stone tools in one tutorial, Andrew decided that the best thing would be to get the feel of them and dragged us into the bowels of the museum where he made us hold a series of stone tools dug out of a dusty storage boxes. Today, some of this connecting up has been attempted by the new displays. The welcome text declares that the museum’s new ‘display approach – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time….reveals how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’ Glass panels and balconies allow you to look from one gallery to another and make the imaginative leaps yourself.

The atrium that you arrive at from the main entrance encourages the visitor to make connections between the different areas of the Ancient World that are displayed on the ground floor: the Mediterranean, the Near East, China, Egypt and India. In the basement a series of new displays make connections through themed displays on money, reading and writing and the human image. The key gallery on the first floor is called ‘Asian Crossroads; while the second floor has one called ‘West meets East’. The third floor seems to be preserved for European art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is hard to escape the feeling that European modernism appears to have transcended the inter-regional influences of previous centuries (While in reality the influence of African and Pacific art on European modern art has been enormous). The third floor is also still largely empty, with some expansive (but unused) temporary exhibition spaces. Although the museum was formally opened by the Queen a month ago, it is still clearly a work in progress. Many cases were awaiting their labels and a number of positions in the cases remained unfilled. Like a venerable old ship, the Ashmolean continues to move, but attempts to impose a new display approach, like setting a new course from the bridge, isn’t going to happen quickly.

A lot has happened in museums since 1997, the year in which Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979. By signing up to the New Labour social inclusion agenda, museums have been able to access pots of money for large capital building projects and new museum buildings have emerged all over the country. Pushing my son in his pushchair I was more than happy to find the new building dotted with lifts. However, I did have to work hard to find them and they are quite small, (we just squeezed in a pushchair, a wheelchair and two people standing at one point). Because of this, much of my afternoon seemed to be spent waiting at lift doors. These are the ubiquitous brushed metal, with plenty of mirrors inside which my one year old son could use to make faces at me.

The archaeologists of the future will surely marvel at the last decade as a boom period for museum building and renovation, inaugurated by the opening of the British Museum’s great court in 2000. It is of course paralleled by the contemporary and related trend of rebuilding those other great public buildings of our age: shopping centres. Both trends are perhaps symptoms of the consumer boon of the last decade. The stark modernist architecture in both cases features white surfaces with lots of chrome, stone and wood. The Ashmolean even has chrome baby changing stations. The only problem with shiny new buildings is that they make slightly less shiny, slightly less new buildings look much older than they actually are. They also show up dirt incredibly badly. With areas of the building still something of a building site, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of dirt and dust around the Ashmolean.

While the refurbishment of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre has been put off due to the economic downturn, the Ashmolean redevelopment has managed to slip through the net of the impending age of austerity. As the UK’s oldest public museum, founded in 1683, the Ashmolean has seen recessions before. It has seen new museum buildings and reorganisations that have led to transfers of the natural history and ethnographic material from the University’s collections to other museums in Oxford. One can’t help thinking that for those curators who manage to hang on to their jobs, the shift away from big building projects, which the next decade must surely bring, may be something of a relief. The main beneficiaries of the bundles of cash spent on museums in the last ten years have been designers and architects, who have expected curators to supply them with objects, ideas and text, which they then mould into a design that has to look modern and up to date. Most museums have the same number or fewer curators than they did in 1997, but like the NHS, museums have employed armies of managers to see that the curators keep up with their increased work loads. While the redisplayed Ashmolean, and its new ‘display approach’ appears to embrace so many of the ideas of Andrew Sherratt, it is hard to imagine him working there. Discovering and following connections and patterns between different parts of the world requires an enormous amount of research time, but also quite a bit of fortuitous discovery that results from apparently purposeless exploration and lateral thinking.

At the end of a long afternoon exploring the galleries, I decided to visit the Ashmolean’s new rooftop restaurant for a cup of coffee, while I fed my son his dinner. Having managed to find the one lift that actually went to the fourth floor, I arrived to find the waiting staff packing up for the day. They told me that the coffee machine wasn’t working, denying me, once again, the chance of having a coffee while looking out from the roof of the museum. Once again we rode the lift back down to the basement cafe. My son is just learning to walk and following an afternoon strapped into his pushchair he was keen to cruise around the cafe from chair to chair for a bit of exercise. For a brief moment he dropped to the floor crawling over to something that had caught his eye. He reached up to me, his tiny hand clasping what looked like one of the obsidian flaked tools Andrew Sherratt had made me hold in my own hands. What he had actually found was a piece of broken glass, and a trickle of blood slipped slowly from the thin slice it had made in his one-year old thumb.

What a reminder, if one were needed of the origins of human culture and technology along the cutting edge. While the Ashmolean museum presents a celebratory account of human borrowing and influence under its motto ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Time’, arguably the Ashmolean museum is not really about cultures at all, but about civilisations. As Andrew Sherratt would no doubt have been pleased to point out, while large states with urban centres manage to produce some pretty impressive objects, they also have well armed military forces ready to impose their will, particularly when their trade routes are threatened. It is no surprise then that the Chinese navy are currently looking for a permanent base on the African coast to take on the Somalian pirates. While culture is a word used most often by those who are trying to escape the influence of their former imperial powers, civilization is one most often used by empires. The French Anthropologist, Marcel Mauss has declared that ‘Societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves by the refusal of borrowing.’ It is the conflict, and the cutting edge that appear to have been left out of the Ashmolean’s vision of ‘how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’

In getting to grips with the redevelopment at the Ashmolean Museum, a better analogy than steering a ship, might be rebuilding the ship while at sea. You can replace a few sections at a time, but try to do much at once and you start to spring some serious leaks. I wasn’t at all convinced that the Ashmolean wouldn’t require quite a lot of bailing if it were a ship at sea. The different departments’ displays, while more integrated than they once were, still seemed to be pulling the museum in different directions. As I left the baby changing area at 5:45pm, having cleaned up my son’s cut thumb, I found that although the museum officially now closes at 6pm, I had been locked into the empty galleries. As I waited for a security guard with a key to come and let me out, I reflected that despite its shiny new building and ‘display approach’, it was clearly still the same Museum. I hope that one day soon, I’ll manage to have that coffee with a view from the roof.

Finding gold at the end of the rainbow

I went to see the Staffordshire Hoard yesterday.

The hoard is an extraordinary find and deserves most of the excitement that has surrounded it. However there is much more going on than straightforward archaeological interest in the objects and their manufacture.

Arriving at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, soon after the museum opened on saturday morning met a long queue that stretched down the main stairs and into Chamberlain Square. The previous day, when the display had opened, the museum had around 2000 visitors coming to see the finds, and is now letting small groups see the objects for controlled amounts of time.
 These are small things, mostly sword fittings, so people have to crowd around the cases and peer at the delicate craftsmanship (See photos by my friend David Rowan).

However, now that the hoard has been discovered, and once the initial excitement dies away, further questions will arise about who it belongs to. Possession is an important part of the process by which archaeology and history become converted into heritage and put to work politically.

An inquest on 24th September found the hoard to be “treasure trove” and it therefore belongs to the crown. The finder and landowner will be rewarded to the value of the find. Such a discovery would once have been moved directly to the British Museum in London, as the nation’s main repository for archaeology. However questions have increasingly been raised about whether things that come from other parts of the British isles are necessarily best displayed in London (such as the Lewis Chessmen).

The last decade has seen the BM engaged in a series of partnerships with regional museums, such as Birmingham, and this seems to have tempered some of the acquisitiveness of the London curators. The decision to display the find in Birmingham before it has been valued in London is unprecedented and recognises the importance of the regional interest in the find, as well as the work that has been done at Birmingham Museum. However although the finds liason officer to whom the find was reported is based at Birmingham, the hoard was actually discovered in Staffordshire.

It seems that the Staffordshire County Council and the Stoke-on-trent City Council are interested in the find and are keen to claim it for themselves. The leader of Staffordshire County Council has declared “This is our heritage and we need to do it justice”.

Meanwhile, the leader of Stoke on Trent City Council has declared “This… will entice people from around the world to visit Staffordshire and the potential for this find to stimulate learning and regeneration is simply incredible.”

The leader of Birmingham Council Mike Whitby is on Youtube suggesting that the horde displays “the level of civilization within the midlands” and has suggested that it will teach us about “our heritage” but has urged for unity “so that we can keep the majority, if not all of this collection here in the midlands, its rightful home”.

Although it is the declared aim of all three councils to attempt to acquire the collection jointly, how this will work and who will display which objects will only be resolved by long and complex negotiations. Council funded museum services are under major financial pressure across the country, and curatorial posts have been cut under the watch of some of the same council leaders who are now so interested in acquiring the hoard.

Finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may only be the beginning of this story, as people will now have to decide who it belongs to and what should happen to it. Given the rise of groups such as the English Defence League, who have recently been protesting in Birmingham, it probably won’t be long before people start connecting the Anglo-Saxon origins of the objects and their important as heritage for the ‘English’ as an exclusive ethnic group.

Aston Hall in Birmingham

I went to Aston Hall today.

Built between 1618 and 1635, its showy Jacobean architecture is a bit of a surprise in north Birmingham. The hall overlooks Villa Park and the Hall is closed on match afternoons. It is not far from spaghetti junction and the A38M Aston Expressway runs along one edge of the park, generating a constant buzz of traffic noise. However some clever tree planting has created a leafy environment from which the surrounding city seems distant.

The house has a long and complex history, being attacked during the civil war, and once the home to James Watt junior. The house has been owned by the city of Birmingham since 1864 and has been used as a museum since that time. However, it was only after the second world war that the house has been furnished as a period house, very similar to a National Trust property.

According to information panels in the house, during the 1990s the Hall and Park suffered from “reductions in funding and problems with vandalism and failure to respond to the needs of the local community.” In 1996, following the establishment of the Heritage Lottery Fund two years earlier, a £12 million redevelopment programme was planned.

In 2002 an application was made to the HLF, co-funded by the local development group Aston Pride. This is a local body set up with government money to tackle the area’s poor job prospects, high levels of crime, educational underachievement, poor health and problems with housing and the physical environment.

In October 2006 the Hall closed for the work to begin, and it re-opened earlier this summer. Having last visited the hall before it closed for one of the popular Aston Hall by candlelightevents, I wanted to see what had changed.

Most obvious was the new entrance in the old stable block. This now has a new reception area and shop, cafe and toilets. It is fully compliant with Disability Discrimination legislation, providing a route into the Hall which avoids the front step – really useful when pushing a buggy.

On the first floor, accessible by a shiny new lift is an exhibition called ‘Astonish’ which engages with the history of the local area, and particularly with its significant history of immigration, industrialisation and urbanisation. The refurbishment has also focussed on the park with the construction of a number of sports pitches and an impressive looking new Sports Pavillion.

As well as the Astonish gallery, the redevelopment has attempted to engage with the area’s diverse community in a number of ways. A new garden draws on 17th century European and Persian forms, with fountains reminiscent of the Alhambra, and bright new benches designed by the artist Anu Patel.

In addition the ‘World Room’ includes displays on the ‘Influence of the East’ on design and furniture styles. There are also sections on ‘oriental carpets’ as well as tea drinking and the relationship of European sugar consumption to transatlantic slavery.

Despite these touches, and the Hall’s free admission it’s hard not to feel a bit like Aston Hall is not entirely comfortable with its position in the middle of north Birmingham. The overwhelming focus of the room settings is still on the Jacobean period, when the Hall existed in a largely rural English landscape.

The local area is felt most strongly in the stable block, but according to the Duke of Wellington, being born in a stable does not make you a horse. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the children born in Aston, with family roots elsewhere, would grow up thinking of Aston Hall as their heritage or not.