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.


A number of our students have expressed concerns that our institutional Twitter account has not yet publicly made a statement supporting the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd. With silence equated to violence by activist slogans, there is real concern about external perception of this seeming sin of omission.

As far as I am aware, we have no social media policy or strategy, and the fact that there is a Twitter account at all, comes from a vague sense that we probably ought to. Some colleagues are keen that we extend our social media presence in various ways, while others appear entirely disengaged. How should we respond? How important is it that a position is taken?

I could say that I have little faith that a tweet from a departmental twitter account with less than 500 followers, at a provincial British university, will make any material difference to the deep structural racism that continually impacts on the lives of Black people on all sides of the Atlantic.

But is it more important to be sure that the institution is not perceived as silent, and therefore complicit. Renni Eddo-Lodge’s dissection of British attitudes to race in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race highlighted the almost pathological need of many White British people to declare that they are not racist, while at the same time readily participating in systems of privilege and prejudice that are underpinned by racial distinctions. Would tweeting about George Floyd’s death be the digital equivalent?

I definitely don’t want to suggest tweeting in this way would be a straightforward exercise in ‘virtue-signalling’. Simon Kuper, son of the eminent Anthropologist Adam Kuper, pointed out in a recent article that this term is basically an insult, used to side-step a substantive point. I have no doubt that many people who make statements of this kind on Twitter have deep personal commitments to these issues, which they feel the need to express.

But is tweeting the best way to take a position? Kuper begins his piece by stating that the characteristic rhetorical device of our political era is the insult, and it is clear that an awful lot of the insults he goes on to describe emanate from the Twittersphere. Marking student essays that evaluate museum displays in recent years, I have been struck that more balanced critique has increasingly been displaced by straightforward condemnation, and my suggestions that a stronger position might be formed by considering the other side of the argument – what ancient rhetoric called Dissoi Logoi – are largely ignored as an irrelevant curiosity.

Kuper suggests that the intention of the online insult is not to persuade, but to frighten opponents into silence – and perhaps to frighten everyone else into expressing agreement. There is no space on Twitter for shades of grey, for complexity or for much in the way of subtlety. But isn’t plumbing the murky complexities that swirl around the truth precisely what Universities should aspire to? Should we be spending our limited time and resources tweeting with the choir, or should we be trying to think through, around and behind the surface phenomena of our increasingly conflicted and complicated world.

The other issue of concern was that no response had been made yet. George Floyd died less than two weeks ago, but in the age of the internet this can feel like an aeon. For many of us who spend our time working on books and articles that take years or even decades to produce, it has passed in the blink of an eye. I am still trying to work out what I think. Do the protests play into the electoral strategy of Trump’s team, strengthening identification by ‘the base’? Might the protests even create the conditions of disorder needed to declare a state of emergency and suspend the upcoming elections? But Twitter demands immediacy – you need to be on trend, on time and quick to respond, or there really is no point.

Listening to David Runciman’s recent podcast on Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the week, as the protests around Floyd’s death unfolded, I was struck that the America he visited in 1831 was marked by many of the same features it is today. Established around the original sin of slavery, with a puritan and conformist approach to morality, it is the epicentre for a proliferation of raucous published opinion. De Tocqueville observed that there was scarcely a hamlet in America without a newspaper, but in the twenty-first century this drive to publication has been individualised. There is scarcely an individual without a social media account.

And of course, America is a country governed by a presidential Twitter account. De Tocqueville worried about the seeds of despotism that lay in the soil of America’s new democracy, and it does not seem a stretch to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the flowering of a particularly insidious weed. I have to admit that my approach to Twitter, and my lack of substantial engagement with the platform, has been substantially shaped by reading Naomi Klein’s book ‘No is Not Enough’ in 2017.

Klein argues that we can’t just say no to Trump, but urgently need to cultivate the space to dream and plan for a better world. She ends by suggesting that each of us also need to work on defeating our inner Trump – that part of ourselves that has fractured our attention span into 140 characters, confuses “followers” with friends, and understands ourselves and our institutions as brands that need to be on message.

In other words, we can’t resist the tweeter-in-chief by tweeting back. Should an institutional account tweet support for Black Lives Matters protesters? Why not. But we shouldn’t think this even begins to rebuild the world in ways that will make Black Lives Matter more.

This blog post is my response to student concerns. Long and pretty tentative – it resists the imperatives of Twitter, claiming the space and time needed for thought.