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A Curator’s Museum Is Filled with Looted African Art. Now He Wants It Returned

While stories of looted African art span the continent, one of the most brutal examples occurred in the sack of Benin in the late 1800s. After razing the capital, colonial forces pilfered the country’s art treasures and ensconced them in British museums. Amid a global reawakening to these atrocities and increasing demands to repatriate such works, an interesting advocate has emerged. As a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, Dan Hicks presides over one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts looted from Benin. But in his unsparing new book, “The Brutish Museums,” he makes a case for their return, while calling for greater honesty in the telling of colonial history and the enabling role played by museums like his own. Hicks says his position was partly informed by the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, which erupted in South Africa in 2015 and spread to the University of Oxford, where he serves as a professor of contemporary archeology. Students demanded the removal of a statue of colonial tycoon Cecil Rhodes within a wider “decolonization” campaign that denounced the Pitt Rivers Museum as “one of the most violent spaces in Oxford.”