The Big Idea: Dan Hanks

There’s a line, made famous from the movies, that Dan Hanks is thinking about with his newest novel, Captain Moxley and the Ember of the Empire. The problem is… that line doesn’t go far enough.

DAN HANKS:

“It belongs in a museum.”

That’s the quote we all know and love, uttered as the bad guys try to steal the priceless artifact away from Indiana Jones. And when he says it, the audience is usually cheering him on. He’s the scientist with the archaeological smarts after all. He knows how much these artifacts could benefit the world, so he’s going to risk his life to give us the chance to see them. Pretty damn noble if you ask me.

Except.

That’s not really the whole story, is it? 

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, was always meant to be a fast, fun, action-packed adventure in the Indiana Jones style. An entertaining beach read (or, I guess, ‘pandemic read’ now). However, it was also important to me to address some serious archaeological issues, in particular the colonial elements of these types of stories. I wanted to pull that aspect into the torch light and inspect it properly (while hoping it didn’t set off a trap). 

The big idea here is that the famous “it belongs in a museum” line is only half complete. In a world where archaeologists and museums are being nudged to move beyond their colonial past, it deserves a follow-up: 

Whose?

Museums are inherently collections of artifacts often obtained without permission. There’s no getting away from that uncomfortable fact, no matter how much we’ve been taught to overlook it in favour of the benefits they offer. 

Okay, yes, it’s tricky to get permission from the dead to show off their old coins, flints or ceramics. But a lot of material culture that goes on display is simply detritus and of arguably low personal significance to its past owners. (Burials and bodies are a whole other level of significance that would require a separate blog post/PhD to talk about.)

What I’m mainly concerned with here are artifacts of importance that quite clearly belong to other cultures or countries. Stolen items that continue to be displayed in usually Western collections, where the right to keep them might even be fiercely defended under some kind of weird, misplaced national pride. 

In order to tackle this much-needed conversation in my book, I felt it important to give the characters opposing viewpoints on it. To give them the knowledge to raise issues I know I’ve often thought about and have them argue the point.

Luckily, my background helped. 

I was literally old-schooled in Western archaeological thinking, studying the subject at university far too long ago, and almost venturing along the path to becoming a Doctor of Archaeology. I worked in the heritage sector in Australia, where issues of ownership and permissions were front and centre of all Indigenous archaeological projects. And, more recently, I’ve been listening intently to traditionally silenced voices on the subject – voices that must now be hoarse after talking for so long about the false romanticism of stealing artifacts from their native lands and displaying for outsiders to ogle over them. 

Of course, even with all this experience at my disposal, trying to inject it into a light-hearted, pacey action-adventure was challenging. Thankfully, readers always need a moment or two to catch their breath. It was in these quieter moments I was able to explore the topic more fully by making it a central conflict between our cynical, seen-it-all-and-killed-a-bad-man-to-get-the-T-shirt protagonist, Captain Samantha Moxley, and her younger, more blinkered archaeologist sister, Jess.

Readers will spot the theme elsewhere too. We also have an antagonist, Colonel Arif, who is a pretty awful human being, but who we sympathise with on some level because he’s right to be upset with westerners pinching things from his beloved Egypt. Meanwhile, the idea also helped bring the debate full circle at the end of the book, more closely tying the plot with the theme via a final revelation that poses a question the characters can’t answer… although maybe the reader can?

Thanks to my exploration of this big idea in Captain Moxley, I’ve come to more fully understand how possible it is to love something problematic, while also acknowledging its faults (as long as they’re not too faulty or beyond redemption). 

Some of my favourite places in the world are museums. And I will continue to champion their importance as places of learning where we can protect and study our past, learning more about ourselves and where we need to go next. BUT in certain cases they also bring with them a range of issues relating to the collections they hold. We might be grateful that they’ve saved priceless artifacts from harm previously, yet if there’s a chance to repatriate them now, why wouldn’t we? 

We can – and should – encourage them to do better. Which first means recognising the issues for ourselves. 

As for Indy… well, I’ll always love his stories. I didn’t quite follow in his footsteps and became an author instead (which is much less muddy, but with infinitely more curses). Yet being on the outside of the profession has meant I’ve been in a much better position to write a love letter to it, while tackling its less desirable elements. And I think that’s important. Because, in the end, it’s time for our thinking – and these stories – to move beyond the Western romanticism of travelling the world obtaining artifacts, and for us to realise maybe they don’t always belong in museums. 

At least, not ours. 

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Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Dan Hanks”

  1. One of my favorite museums is the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where they have spots reserved for the “Elgin” marbles, should England ever realize to whom they really belong.

    This sounds like a great read; I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Ooh, I’d like to read this; I think this angle on things deserves more attention.

    People up here in Canada tell stories about the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Europeans simply haven’t been out there very long, and the issue isn’t just that UBC sits on stolen land. I’m paraphrasing here, but what I hear is that in some cases Indigenous people can look at an artifact and say e.g. “Yes, my great-aunt made that, and I can tell you about the day the settlers took it.” Especially bad if it’s an item that has deep cultural/spiritual significance. Seems to me that educating the settlers – if we insist on doing it in a way that kind of fetishizes – is something that replicas and diagrams could do just as well, without being quite so awful to local peoples.

  3. I hadn’t really thought about this until I went on a trip to Berlin, and visited the Pergamon Museum:
    https://www.european-traveler.com/germany/visit-pergamon-museum-ishtar-gate-berlin/
    They have an entire Greek temple and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon there, and while I was grateful that I got to see those priceless artifacts, I wondered “why are they not in a museum in their native lands?”. (The answer, of course, is that they were annexed by their European excavators.)

    This lesson was driven home on a later trip to Greece, where it seemed that every other tourist destination had a replica of their famous attraction, with the tagline “Of course, the original is in the British Museum”, culminating in The Acropolis Museum mentioned above and the so-called Elgin marbles.

  4. I will never afford to travel as Far East as Greece. I only made it to West Germany, with its iron national boundary, as a NATO soldier. I did later make it as a civilian as far as Britain, but no further, where I was grateful to see the “Elgin marbles” but I think they have a new, politically correct name now which I cannot recall.

    As the old national “citizenship” ideal falls, and as more people see themselves as “global citizens” (about half in a classroom in America) then I hope we can globally enjoy artifacts, regardless of national boundaries. When a teenage girl stole Chinese culture by wearing a Chinese dress to her prom in Utah in 2018 the scandal was reported for a long ways, even in Canadian newspapers. I think someday there will be no scandal for such things, in a new improved global world.