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Department of Social Anthropology


Professor Dan Hicks (University of Oxford)

A Dead White Man


#PittRivers is trending. Don’t worry, he’s still dead. The news that curators have removed the displays of human remains from the Victorian galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum spread quickly last autumn. And yet the world-view of Augustus Pitt-Rivers — the soldier-ethnologist and cultural-evolutionist seen by many as a founding figure for anthropology on a four-field model — is still memorialised by this institution. Unlike Berkeley's Kroeber Hall there’s been no call for de-naming. Nonetheless the question of how colonial museums should dismantle, repurpose, and reimagine the white infrastructure of their displays and their storerooms has not left the Pitt Rivers untouched, indeed it has become a matter of public debate — not least in the case of restitution (Hicks 2020). It’s increasingly recognised that a colonial world-view was built into the fabric of the colonial museum and is still with us in the present. But what of the libraries and seminar rooms of our colonial discipline? Which books find themselves stacked under my laptop for the Teams tutorial or for this Zoom lecture?

Some are calling for the ‘decolonisation’ of colonial museums, while others (myself included) prefer in the case of European museums to frame the challenge as the unfinished work of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. In museum anthropology and material culture studies, the euphemistic language of ‘relationality’, ‘entanglement’, ‘object biography’, and so on distracts from questions of descent: the transmission of power and property across generations (Hicks 2021). But can reading-lists, theories, case-studies, framings, centrings, citation practices and silencings constitute colonial endurances and memorialisations too, just as much as artefacts on display? Surely knowledge itself, not purely objects in a gallery, are also part of anthropology’s enduring white infrastructure? With words as well as things, dead white men wrote themselves into our disciplinary thinking for posterity. What is to be done?

As the urgent work of decolonizing the curriculum in Anthropology develops, the inclusion of writers and thinkers from across the global south is crucial. But is decolonizing a discipline only about filling in gaps, about adding to curricula? Or can it also learn from the fallism movement the importance of removing memorials built to promote a cultural supremacist world view? Is it possible to speak about Pitt-Rivers and others like him as if doing more than just re-writing a museum label? 

Does the decolonisation of anthropology require not just adding more perspectives to it, but also sometimes tearing down an epistemological statue or two? 


Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. He was Visiting Professor at the Musée du quai Branly in 2017-18 and was awarded the Rivers Medal of the Royal Anthropological Society in 2017. Professor Hicks has written widely on material culture, landscape, colonialism, art, and the history of archaeology and anthropology. His most recent book, The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, was published by Pluto Press in November 2020. It’s been described by Ben Okri OBE as "a startling act of conscience" and was listed as one of the New York Times Best Art Books of 2020. 


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Thursday, 13 May, 2021 - 17:30 to 19:00
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Online - please register