- NecrographyThe Year in the United Kingdom
In the UK as elsewhere, this year's largest-scale discussion of life stories—which ones belong in public life and how they should be told—centered on statues. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 intensified preexisting debates, began new ones, and in some cases, brought them to a rare point of actual change. In Bristol, a likeness of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth, dragged through the streets, and dumped into the sea. Though Colston died in 1721, the statue had been erected in 1895; they had tried to use the conventional legal channels to get it removed, but protestors had been frustrated by years of inaction. Colston was later trawled up by the council, and now faces a future in a museum rather than a public square. In London, a Parliament Square statue of Winston Churchill had its plaque annotated "is a racist" in spray paint. Though a protective box was quickly thrown up around the statue, a troop of self-styled "statue defenders" nevertheless gathered in the capital to come to its aid. One was arrested for—apparently inadvertently but definitely drunkenly—urinating on a memorial plaque for a police officer who had been killed while on duty outside Parliament. In Oxford, protest centered on the statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes that faces out onto the city's High Street from the University's Oriel College.
Launched in 2015 in solidarity with a similar effort at the University of Cape Town, Oxford's Rhodes Must Fall campaign was a foundational moment for the writing of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution by Dan Hicks, a Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University and the Curator at its Pitt Rivers Museum. Rhodes Must Fall "shattered the complacency of the Pitt Rivers" (211), according to Hicks, who presents The Brutish Museums as much as an act of conscience as one of scholarship: it is published by the left-polemical Pluto Press rather than the more academic presses for which he has previously written.
The Pitt Rivers was established in Oxford in 1884, the year of the Berlin Conference's division of Africa among European powers, and the beginning of what [End Page 161] Hicks describes as "World War Zero," the process that led up to 1914 and developed both the technologies of industrial killing and ideologies of racial superiority that would return to Europe in World Wars One and Two. In doing so, Hicks follows in the footsteps of Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All the Brutes, though it is Lindqvist's Dig Where You Stand, an earlier manifesto encouraging workers to understand their workplaces, which Hicks cites in his introduction. Hicks's digging shows that General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) organized the objects he accrued (30,000 on the collection's founding, 300,000 plus photographs to date ) around a logic of "typology" based on transferring Darwinian ideas to material culture, and particularly tracing the "evolution" of weapons technologies as well as "degeneration." Pitt-Rivers wanted to demonstrate, as Hicks puts it, "how small innovations in design have incrementally significant effects when taking place at scale" (181), but Hicks argues that "the museum of weapons gradually transformed the museum as weapon, a device for the production of alterity" (182).
Hicks arrived at the museum in 2007 as "questions of acquisition became neutralized, or watered down at least, in a wider set of questions about anthropological fieldwork in the past" (29). He "sought to develop a model of collections-based research that understood the museum as a kind of archaeological site, where the excavation of the archives would 'reshape them, just as an excavation constantly reshapes the archaeological record.'" To more traditionally academic works such as The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology (2006), he added Lande: The Calais "Jungle" and Beyond (2019). This project was written in collaboration with a Pitt Rivers colleague, Sarah Mallet, and used the material culture created by immigration policy and rhetoric to pose parallel questions about the boundaries and contents of the nation-state and the public/scholarly...