When woke goes reactionary: Britain’s museums face a sinister new threat

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

We live in confusing times. The Garrick Club last month finally succumbed to progressive opinion and voted to admit women as full members – they had long been allowed into the hallowed, art-laden Covent Garden premises as guests. Now Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, a university institution, is not displaying an Igbo mask. A female eye might alight upon it – and that just would not do if today’s Igbo have not given their explicit approval. And this too is being justified in the name of progress.

In Igbo culture for women to view such masks, and the male-only rituals they were employed in, is apparently taboo. A British museum, indeed a British university, has decided to go along with such retrograde notions of ritual taint and hide objects away on the grounds of “cultural safety”. The traditions of its creators, it is argued, have to be respected and honoured – regardless of how far they may be removed from contemporary Western values.

Whether today’s Igbo, one of the major ethnic groups of Nigeria, would be offended by the public display of their masks – there is no reason to think it is a major concern – seems to be irrelevant to the Western defenders of Igbo custom. Indeed, the Pitt Rivers Museum itself states, “We have not consulted with the community and have had no community requests for any particular storage, research or display conditions relating to this object”.

Outdated patriarchal attitudes are frowned upon when found in Western institutions. The fact that Catholic priests, indeed Anglican priests too until not so long ago, can only be male is seen as clear evidence of misogyny, a throwback to an earlier, more primitive age. But somehow, respecting the much more conservative attitudes of non-Western cultures has become a wokeist cause.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has insisted that it “works with groups to allow them to decide how their own cultures are represented”. But, more generally, it is only certain groups that progressive opinion seems to feel the need to consult about how their material culture is presented in museums. Are Italian monks being asked how Renaissance altar pieces should be displayed? Are the British aristocracy consulted about how the acquisitions their forebears made on the Grand Tour should be exhibited?

It seems to be a particularly odd position for a museum to take. By their very nature, museums display their collections – or large parts of them – in a way that was not intended by its creators, indeed would be anathema to them.

Go around the National Gallery and see crucifixion after crucifixion that was intended for religious veneration, not for display alongside profane depictions of humdrum sixteenth century life. But no one objects to their display outside of the environs for which they were intended.

How far will the Pitt Rivers dispensation go? Will female academics be prevented from studying the Igbo mask? The museum has already removed photos of it from view on their website.

The move is not wholly without precedent. In 1868 the British Museum acquired 11 Tabots – carved tablets that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church regard as so holy that only priests may handle or view them – as part of the Maqdala hoard.

The Tabots have never been on view, perhaps showing that the Victorians were rather more culturally sensitive than they are given credit for, and are even out of view to the museum’s curators. But should such rules now be applied to all non-Western objects which once had a sacred purpose?

The Oxford museum’s Curator of World Archaeology, Dan Hicks, has form in this regard. His 2021 polemic, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, calls for “the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and ‘world culture’ museum” – whatever “white infrastructure” may be.

The tome is long on denunciations of Western imperialism, capitalism and rapaciousness. It rehearses the familiar litany of charges levelled against European nations in general, and Britain in particular.

But it is strangely respectful of the type of institutions woke opinion would abhor in the United Kingdom when they are found in African monarchies. Again and again it reminds us that the Benin bronzes – which were seized in 1897 when the Kingdom of Benin fell – were regal and sacred objects. It asks “what then became …. of the Oba’s [king’s] harem, slaves and servants” after the British conquest? As if somehow the closing of a harem and the freeing of slaves in 1897 was an affront to royal dignity. Professor Hicks seems to be an ardent royalist, so long as the royals in question are far removed from Windsor.

When objects are hidden away, if potentially they cannot even be studied by scholars, it will be much easier to argue for their “return”. For what purpose do they then fulfil in Western collections? “Respecting” other cultures and their objects may well mean that such objects come to be removed from our isles and “returned” to those claiming a link to their ancestral creatures. It will make our cultural experiences narrower, not broader. We will all be the poorer for it.