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The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence & Cultural Restitution – Professor Dan Hicks

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

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

The story of the Benin Bronzes sits at the heart of a heated debate about cultural restitution, repatriation and the decolonisation of museums. At our event on 24 June 2021, Professor Hicks, author of ‘Brutish Museums’, made a powerful case for the urgent return of such objects, as part of a wider project of addressing the outstanding debt of colonialism.

The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution was published by Pluto Press in November 2020. http://www.plutobooks.com/9780745341767/the-brutish-museums/  

“a startling act of conscience” Ben Okri OBE
“a real game-changer” The Economist
“beautifully written and carefully argued” The Guardian
“destined to become an essential text” Sunday Times

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, where he has worked since 2007. He spent ten years as a field archaeologist before becoming a student at Oxford. He works as part of an international movement seeking to change practices of museum display and ultimately to challenge the continued holding of cultural artefacts that arguably belong with descendants of the people who made them. His recent book ‘The Brutish Museums’ uses the story of the Benin bronzes to address the highly contentious issues of cultural restitution, repatriation and the decolonisation of museums.  

Summary of Professor Hicks’ talk

Before turning to his book, Professor Hicks sketched in the background to the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers* to display his collection of artefacts and to exemplify his theory of cultural evolution which applied Darwinian ideas to the development of material objects. Even now the museum’s display is essentially typological, showing, for instance, all spears or boomerangs together in order to show how they have evolved over time. Much of the collection is devoted to weaponry, reflecting Pitt Rivers’ military background and his interest in the development of the rifle. But Professor Hicks said that it was not this aspect of the museum’s collection that attracted the attention of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Oxford in 2015 when it pointed to the museum as ‘one of the most violent spaces in Oxford’. Its anger was instead directed at the display of objects looted from Benin in 1897 by a British military force. For African students, this display and the accompanying explanation of how the objects were acquired, was a constant reminder of colonial violence and its impact on ancient African civilisations. 

Professor Hicks then talked about the assault on Benin, which was presented at the time as a punitive expedition against the Oba (king) of Benin in response to the killing of a small number of British administrators. He argued that it might better be seen as one of a series of extremely violent corporate-militarist attacks across Africa in the late nineteenth century intended to demonstrate European power, test new weaponry and protect trade by removing troublesome local rulers. Such attacks were often carried out on the fringes of empire, where the rule of law was less well enforced, rather than in formally constituted colonies. This applied in the case of Benin, at the time part of the Niger Coast Protectorate (later absorbed into colonial Nigeria). The Royal Niger Company, established in 1886, was involved, like other such companies, in a form of commercial colonialism, exploiting local supplies of rubber and palm oil, which the Oba opposed. The Royal Navy led the expedition to overthrow him, and for an allegedly punitive expedition it was extraordinarily well-resourced with over 5,000 servicemen, 36 Maxim machine guns and other modern military technology. The result was the deaths of many thousands of Beninese and the wholesale destruction and looting of Benin City and other towns and villages. The action was very well documented with photographs of the destruction and of the looting, actions which were to be outlawed by the First Hague Convention of 1899.

As well as destroying the local civilisation the invaders took over 10,000 objects, many of them sacred and royal possessions, which were returned to Europe and found their way into museums across the world and into private collections. These included bronze plaques recording the several hundred year history of the kingdom, beautiful casts of royal figures, and ivory carvings and masks. The importance and significance of the objects that were taken led to calls for their restitution from as early as the 1930s, when some objects were returned. Demands for the return of more objects have increased over the years, led from Africa but supported by diasporic African communities in Britain and elsewhere. 

Turning to his recent book, Professor Hicks said that the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ demonstrations had come as a shock to a museum that thought it was doing a good job by engaging with source communities and promoting cultural and artistic exchanges. The protests made clear that while museums had stopped displaying human remains which memorialised white supremacy and anti-black violence they had failed to recognise and deal with displays of cultural objects which had the same effect, and were, from an African perspective, displays of loss and death. The question then arose of how to respond to this situation. 

As a first step to removing such displays he said it was important to be transparent and, by setting out where looted works of African art are held (including in the Royal Armouries and Leeds City Museum), to provide the information which could lead to their restitution. A second step is to engage, case by case, with requests for the return of cultural objects which have been taken by violence. This should be seen as a natural extension of a process of restitution which has precedents in the return of human remains and of items looted by the Nazis. He was at pains to say that this was not about emptying museums or pitting African demands for return against white curatorial desires to hold onto what they have. Many curators recognise the need to restore looted objects to the descendants of the original owners. In that context he welcomed the recent action of many museums in returning items, and changing attitudes to the idea of return, though acknowledging that this was a slow process (the Pitt Rivers display which sparked the protests remained unchanged). He also stressed that the return of objects was not the whole story; what was important was to return agency and knowledge so that African peoples themselves, not museum curators, could decide on the future of stolen objects.  

This was a wide-ranging and challenging lecture which addressed an issue at the forefront of the so-called ‘culture wars’ and it made a compelling case for tackling the dark legacy of colonialism in our museums.  

*Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900) was born Augustus Henry Lane-Fox at Bramham, just north of Leeds. In 1880, when he inherited the estate of his cousin Horace Pitt-Rivers, he was obliged to take the name as a condition of the bequest.   

 Martin Staniforth

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