Originally posted on The Financial Times

Museums around the world are witnessing a rare moment of calm, with many still closed to the public as a result of the pandemic. Yet the debate surrounding their future has become more clamorous than ever.

In keeping with President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to return looted heritage — itself a reversal of a decades-long policy position — the French National Assembly in October passed a law to return 27 works of art to Benin and Senegal from two Paris museums within a year. The toppling of a statue of Bristolian slave-trader Edward Colston in June, in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sparked further arguments about monuments with links to the colonial past. In Berlin, the new Humboldt Forum opened in December amid criticism of the museum for housing thousands of artefacts from former colonies. And only last week, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden convened a meeting with representatives from the country’s leading heritage organisations on the subject of contested history.

All this comes at a moment of enforced self-reflection for the museum sector as it grapples with the myriad challenges presented by the pandemic. It is no coincidence that several books are now being published on the subject of heritage and the future role of the museum, ranging from Charles Saumarez Smith’s sweeping celebration of The Art Museum in Modern Times to Dan Hicks' combative polemic The Brutish Museums. As András Szántó writes in his preface to The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, “urgency — and opportunity — [echo] through the dialogues in this book, all recorded and edited in . . . 2020, when three . . . shocks convulsed the museum world: the coronavirus epidemic, the ensuing meltdown in museum finances, and . . . a confrontation with the historical legacies of racial injustice and structural inequity”.

Museums have always been shaped by discussion, controversy and also conflict. The very idea of the museum as an institution was conceived in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the 30 Years War. Thanks to those treaties, the newly arising nation state could no longer define itself on transnational religious authority, so it had to find other ways to unite its populations. Thus, the creation of a modern European form of heritage — and with it, the birth of the museum in the 18th century. Much of the museum’s contents was stolen from elsewhere, making it an institution that could only have arisen in tandem with colonialism. And since the intended meaning or purpose of these artefacts did not transfer — because European audiences were not interested — so they became mere “sights” for the rapt contemplation of the viewer.

The fate of such objects was to take on a new identity, that of national patrimony. As such, they became celebrants of the colonialism that had entrapped them. This muting of the object was part of what gave rise to aesthetics: the practice of contemplation predicated on disinterest in the meaning of the work of art and bringing to the fore the viewer’s own imagination and pleasure. In this way, the museum was part of a larger movement in the 18th century to treat art as an object of sensuous enjoyment for its own sake, as that century liked to put it.

Today this history is both in place and in tatters. Museums exhibit their collections in rarefied halls, as ever, while also interrogating the very idea of exhibition. Furthermore, our appreciation of an artefact is set within a wider cultural knowledge, including the historical violence or degradation that resulted in the pleasure we derive from it. The museum, still a place of delight and rapture, is now also a place for tough knowledge. It is hard to take in both at the same time.

Like all deep-rooted institutions, the museum cannot simply be dismantled. The leading question of three of the four books under review here is what the museum should more justly become. The best news is not that a solution to this conundrum is available, once and for all, but that a diverse group of people are raising it across the globe, with no expectation that one size fits all. The fine thing about András Szántó’s book is that it is a set of dialogues across situations, resources, and solutions. We learn what museologists are thinking and doing, from Hong Kong to Beijing, Moscow, Miami and São Paulo, working in museums national, local, independent, avant-garde and community based. Experiment and enthusiasm make this book indispensable for those interested in the way a diverse set of possible futures for the museum are being envisioned and achieved.

In Cape Town, where I live half my life, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (containing the collection of Jochen Zeitz, former chief executive of Puma) opened in 2017 in a former grain silo astonishingly redesigned by Thomas Heatherwick. Its purposes are multiple — among them, to reach out to South Africa’s diverse communities across lines of racial and economic inequality, and to gain prestige for the city of Cape Town. But also to consolidate that city’s place — and the place of African art — in global art markets. (The museum today has a marketing function too — something undiscussed in any of these four books but central to the economic engines of the Global South). How well the Zeitz museum does any of these things is a long story. The point is, it is not the same story as that of the British Museum — a vast archive of colonial collections — and how that venerable institution must interrogate its history to move forward. No one-size-fits-all in the domain of emancipation.

For Smith, former director of three major British museums, including the National Gallery, it is very much the aesthetic business as usual. The Art Museum in Modern Times reads like a guide to the holy of holies, written with the crisp elegance found in Baedeker’s guide book to Venice, or even Edith Wharton’s writing on Italy. It is organised around the modern, the postmodern, the new and the “reinvented” museum, then finally around issues of design, funding and globalisation. Its blithe confidence in the glory of the museum is delightfully free of any critical ideas: the book is written for the aesthete and art collector rather than the museological interrogator.

At the other end of the spectrum is The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution by Dan Hicks, professor of archaeology at Oxford and curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The title says it all. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, who gave his collection to the University of Oxford, stipulating that a permanent lecturer in anthropology must be appointed. A number of Benin bronzes ended up at the museum after the destruction of the Kingdom of Benin (now Edo state in Nigeria) in 1897 by British troops in retaliation for colonial insurrection there. The museum played a key role in the justification of the theft.

Hicks’s condemnation is so fierce that one ends the book in fear of committing a crime against humanity simply by setting foot in the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is unclear whether he retains his curatorial position there in the museum to liberate it from itself intellectually, to return its contents to their original sites, or simply raze it to the ground.

The Brutish Museums leaves no stone unturned in building a case for the prosecution of Pitt Rivers and companion British colonial museums. A good deal of what he says is right — although over-theorised and under-described. The book is full of ideas that hang in the air rather than being carefully worked out: “the museum is to empire as the border is to the nation state”, for example. We learn at length what Marx meant by “primitive accumulation” but do not learn how the museum exhibits are organised, what its links to the University of Oxford were and are (conceptually, not simply institutionally) nor anything about what constitutes an anthropological museum.

Hicks’s book is closest in subject to Barnaby Phillips’ Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes. This Kenyan-born journalist has written a gripping story of the theft and its aftermath. It is a must read. The book’s journalistic approach tells the story of the history of conquest and resistance that led to the 1897 sacking and looting of the Benin kingdom and the fate of both the players and the objects thereafter. Its cast of characters, including deputy consul-general James Phillips, Admiral Harry Rawson, and others are worthy of the Ealing Studios — pith helmet and all. British violence, theft and self-justification are abundantly registered in this book, without idealising the Benin kingdom.

Perhaps its real virtue is that by interviewing a number of descendants of the Edo king of Benin about questions of restitution, and about what it is like for them to visit their heritage in a British museum, he receives a surprising set of answers. Some resist the idea of repatriation on the grounds that Nigeria will fail to care for the bronzes properly. Others bespeak national pride and the sense of violation they feel seeing these objects exhibited in the colonisers’ home country. Nigerian curators discuss the privatisation of public museums, where political leaders feel entitled to take objects at will and give them out as presents. One of them would like to see the Benin bronzes returned and exhibited in a restored palace, so the country’s youth can see how the objects lived in the past and take pride in their heritage.

Phillips and Hicks both write well about the various justifications the British Museum has formulated over the past 20 years to retain its artefacts. Perhaps the most audacious is the idea of the “universal museum”; against mounting pressure to repatriate stolen objects back to the African continent, Greece and elsewhere, the museum has argued that, while it may possess objects acquired by shady means, these objects are bigger than the communities from which they have been taken, and those where they are housed, and so demand a museum of “universal” scope. This last gasp of Enlightenment thinking (the implication that Europe is the only continent able to speak in the name of all humanity) neatly avoids the indignity of theft, and all questions of historical debt, especially in a context of ongoing north-south inequality. A more reasonable (although still controversial) argument has been the “retain and explain” policy, which seeks to retain objects while reframing them in more historically honest ways.  

For Hicks, the focus on repatriation is necessary but too limited. He suggests that repatriation has become a fetish eclipsing deeper confrontation with endemic problems in the institutions themselves. Today, institutional racism is being confronted in many museums, from their user-friendliness to some communities and not others, to their staffing, to their focus on exclusionary historical narratives that consecrate certain objects while dismissing others. But neither Hicks nor Phillips offers a clear way forward in these matters, apart from critique.

The truth about the museum is that it is a compendium of contradictions, like a city, a nation state, a court of law, a university — all equally indelible to the modern form of life. Its role is not simply to inspire wonder but to stimulate debate about its terms of justification. These four books illustrate those facts with absolute clarity.

Daniel Herwitz is professor of humanities at the University of Michigan, and author of ‘The Political Power of Visual Art’ (Bloomsbury), to be published in April