Interview: Dan Hicks at the Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 27 May 2021
Image credit: Dan Hicks

On the 15th May, the Cambridge Union held a panel discussing colonial artefacts in British museums, and whether they should be returned to the countries that they came from. Following the event, I had an interesting and enlightening conversation with Dan Hicks; a Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University, Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a Fellow at St Cross College. With such an interesting set of titles to his name, I was interested to see if Dan lives up to them in person. And as luck would have it, it only took a minute or so for this question to be answered: he does.

We start off by talking about Dan’s book “The Brutish Museums” which was published just last year. Dan informs me that the book is “a response to having experienced protests outside of the Pitt Rivers, as well as being challenged by school children and visitors all across the world about what the museum’s purpose is.” He adds that “as a curator, I feel that the returns of colonial artefacts should be made.” True to his word, in the book, Dan makes a case for the urgent return of the Benin Bronzes; a collection of thousands of brass plaques and carved ivory tusks which were pillaged during a British naval attack in 1897.

Next, I ask Dan to summarise his argument about colonial artefacts for those who don’t get the chance to watch the Union event on the Youtube page. Dan begins by saying that “there’s a series of myths to bust here. One of the things that people don’t realise is that most of the objects we are talking about are not even on display.” He explains that “even in the high profile example of the Benin bronzes, 800 of the 900 objects are in the store rooms, and there are more in other UK museums; so it’s all about transparency. It’s about being open to what’s in the museums. For instance, how can we care for objects when we don’t even know what we have, and if we are not aware of what is there in the first place?”

After this thought-provoking question, Dan goes into more depth on his opinion on returning colonial artefacts: “in the case of the Benin bronzes, it is no longer possible for us to continue to say no to returning them. Generally what has to end is the argument that under no circumstances will we ever return any African objects. It has to be on a case-by-case basis. He clarifies that “it’s not about sending back, it’s about giving back when asked and sharing knowledge about what’s in the collections.” In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Dan is running a “series of projects which seek to expand dialogues about restitution into something closer to action than has been the case in the past.” This is all a part of the museum’s mission to “share knowledge about the collections, and to bring displays of objects into the 21st century.”

Sharing knowledge of the 21st century sounds like a pretty big job, so I ask Dan to detail exactly what his job entails. Dan’s (modest) response is that “a big part of the job is of course to keep things the same and to make sure that the moths aren’t eating the fabrics.” His favourite thing about the role is that “due to spending a long time in landscape archaeology and field archaeology in the UK and elsewhere in the world, I see curation as an enormous post-excavation project.” He adds that “the last remaining archaeological sites are around museums. We don’t fully understand what’s in them. They’re full of layers of colonial taking and dispossession, and these histories really really matter in the present.” As a result of this, Dan is excited to be “excavating these incredible archaeological sites which are of such urgent political significance to many people around the world.”

As an undergrad anthropologist myself, I couldn’t help but ask Dan about his (ample) experiences researching within the fields of Archaeology and Anthropology. “In many ways they are the same discipline, I see myself as an anthropological archaeologist, or an archaeological anthropologist.” The” urgency” of the discipline, then, is that they are about the “whole of human past and human cultures in the present.” After a brief pause, Dan elaborates that “increasingly these disciplines are about a redefinition of how we think about humanity; ways of seeing, knowing, believing and creating outside of a European lens.”

I thought this message of hope and change was a poignant note to end on. It was a genuine pleasure to talk to Dan, he was open, helpful, and most of all, passionate about what he does.