Dispatches

Photographs from the Poignant Project at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; The Solidarity in Action Network; The Canadian Museum Association’s Moved to Action Report; Towards a Decolonization of the Ethnographic Displays at the National Museum of Namibia; MuseumFutures Africa Project; Museum Matters in Africa

in Museum Worlds
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Kirsty Kernohan Researcher, University of Aberdeen, UK

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Bernadette Lynch

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Lucy Bell

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Goodman Gwasira

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Sophia Olivia Sanan

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Jesmael Mataga Associate Professor, Sol Plaatje University, South Africa

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The Poignant collection of more than 17,500 photographs and associated archival material reflects the work of Axel Poignant (1906–1986), who established his career as a portrait photographer in Australia, and the anthropologist Roslyn Poignant (1927–2019). Bequeathed by Roslyn to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge upon her death in 2019, the collection came into the care of MAA in 2021.

The Poignant collection of more than 17,500 photographs and associated archival material reflects the work of Axel Poignant (1906–1986), who established his career as a portrait photographer in Australia, and the anthropologist Roslyn Poignant (1927–2019). Bequeathed by Roslyn to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge upon her death in 2019, the collection came into the care of MAA in 2021.

Roslyn and Axel met in the early 1950s; Roslyn developed photographs for Axel before they married in 1953 and moved to London in 1956. Axel became known for his responsive and relational photographs of Aboriginal Australian people, and he went on to create similar series with people from Sicily, Aotearoa New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and French Polynesia. Roslyn worked with Axel to document the images alongside her own work with the Royal Anthropological Institute photographic collections. Both Axel and Roslyn were committed to sharing photographs with relevant communities throughout their careers.

The collection cared for by MAA reflects the Poignants’ joint work from around 1953 to 1981, emphasizing research in Sicily (1957–58) and around the Pacific (1969). As a collections assistant, I worked with staff and volunteers to catalog and digitize the collection from 2022 to 2023. This project made the Poignants’ photographs and documentation available through the MAA online catalog. In this piece I reflect on 11 of their photographs, which I have chosen to represent the geographical range of Axel and Roslyn's work, to show moments where their collaborative photographic and ethnographic practices are made visible and to call attention to our own processes of cataloging and digitizing these images at MAA.

The collection is materially diverse, including color transparencies, black and white negatives, contact sheets, prints, and mounted exhibition prints alongside catalog cards, correspondence, manuscript drafts, and field notes. Shown in a composite image by project photographer Glenn Adams (see Figure 1), the range of forms offers opportunities to follow Axel and Roslyn's photographic processes from negatives to crop marks on test prints and finally to reproductions in publications (Adams et al. 2023). Their notes, too, leave a trail of names, places, and relationships across the backs of prints and on typed catalog cards, from which I have drawn most of the following information.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

A composite image of photographs and catalogue cards from Ngāruawāhia, Aotearoa New Zealand, 1969. MAA T.150595.RPT—T.150598.RPT; P.154927.RPT; P.154934.RPT; P.154954.RPT; P.154945.RPT; N.159437.RPT-N.159448.RPT. Photographs courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

We chose a portrait of Mángkudja holding his granddaughter Lena Djabbíba for a display of Poignant images at MAA exploring family relationships (see Figure 2). Most of Axel's Australian photographs are cared for by the National Library of Australia, but some exhibition prints came to MAA. Made during Axel's time at Nagalarramba on the Liverpool River in 1952, it reflects Axel's emphasis on portraiture in his ethnographic work. Foregrounding family relationships, Axel drew attention to Aboriginal men in caring roles. Here, Mángkudja is focused on his granddaughter as he helps her to stand independently on her own feet. Forty years later, Roslyn worked with Lena Djabbíba when she returned to Nagalarramba to share and discuss photographs (Poignant 1996:125).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Mángkudja holding his granddaughter Lena Djabbíba at Nagalarramba, 1952. MAA P.147970.RPT. Photograph courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

Absorbed in talking to people and writing fieldnotes, Roslyn's occasional appearances in photographs offer glimpses into her research practices. In a busy photograph from the Lau Islands in Fiji in 1969 (see Figure 3), she is intently engaged with women who are working with leaves, her notebook ready on the floor and pen in hand. The moment Axel has chosen calls attention to the varied dynamics at play in the house. The man lying on the floor beside Roslyn is looking back, his interest caught by the conversation behind. The children in the circle seem absorbed by something else, and the material evidence of bustling domestic activity frames the image. The damage to the original negative reproduced in the print offers a reminder that the physical image has travelled a long way since this shared moment in a house in Fiji.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Roslyn Poignant talking to women working with leaves in the Lau Islands, Fiji, 1969.MAA P.154533.RPT. Photograph courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

Axel and Roslyn's relational photographic processes are also evident in four negatives from Sicily ca. 1958 (see Figure 4). Often emphasizing children's experiences, the Poignant collection includes five distinct series that focus on particular children. Three of these were published as children's books, but their work with Pippo, a boy from Sicily, was broadcast on BBC Television in 1959.1 More than 600 photographs show Pippo with his family in Fornazzo on the slopes of Mount Etna. These negatives call attention to the practicalities involved in making photographs that sought to represent Pippo's rural childhood experiences. For every shot of Pippo scrambling up Mount Etna there was a heavy load of cameras, tripods, and accompanying adults. Here, Pippo is shown turning the camera on the Poignants. While this is most visible in the portrait of Pippo with the camera, I also wonder about the shot of Axel and Roslyn in the back of their camper van. Made directly after a photograph of Pippo, the low angle combined with the whimsical expressions on Axel and Roslyn's faces hint at the possibility of a young photographer.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Portraits of Pippo and Axel and Roslyn Poignant on Mount Etna, ca. 1958. MAA N.164330.RPT; N.164331.RPT; N.164408.RPT; N.164409.RPT. Photographs courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

The creative participation of children is also evident in a photograph that is part of a 1969 series made in Raiatea for the Poignants’ book Children of Oropiro (1976). The book follows three children, Eti, Timi, and Sylviane, as they borrow a canoe without permission, leaving them stranded overnight on an islet. The narrative was planned collaboratively with Eti and Sylviane's father Ro'o Tautoo, and the children themselves were vital participants in creating the images. They demonstrated how they might survive being lost by building a shelter, fishing, and shinning up coconut palms. For this photograph (see Figure 5), they acted their joy at being “rescued” by Ro'o, as Roslyn's text recounts: “They dashed into the water to meet him. Ro'o hugged them in delight. ‘Well, I am glad to see that you're all unhurt,’ he said, trying hard to look severe.” This photograph shows the collaborative creativity shared amongst the Poignants and the families with whom they made their series of children's photographs.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Timi, Eti, and Sylviane being “rescued” by Ro'o Tautoo in Raiatea, 1969. MAA P.154424.RPT. Photograph courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

A portrait of Sicilian puppeteer Emanuele Macrì calls attention to the everyday collaboration of project staff and volunteers as we work together—with the Poignants’ notes—to document the photographs. Isabella Jakobsen, one of the project volunteers, transcribed Roslyn's tiny inscription on the 35mm transparency holder for this image, which reads: “Maestro Macri—Puppet master—provides the voices + sound effects—Acireale—Sicily” (see Figure 6). Drawing on related images to identify the puppet show as Orlando Furioso, Isabella's research also identified the man as Emanuele Macrì, a master puppeteer who adapted and produced shows in Acireale (Croce 2014: 67). Isabella's work calls attention to Macrì’s artistry as it comes into dialog with Axel's. Axel's eye for light, expression, and movement in his portraits emphasizes the heart and precision of Macrì’s skilled practice and the atmosphere and intensity of the performance.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Portrait of master puppeteer Emanuele Macrì, Acireale ca. 1958. MAA T.153220.RPT. Photograph courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

The most important goal of the Poignants’ bequest was to make as much of their collection publicly available as possible, and we have been uploading records to the MAA public catalog throughout the project. Members of a Facebook group dedicated to historical photographs of Papua New Guinea have recently shared around a hundred images, resulting in comments that identify people and places in the photographs, and sharing similar experiences. With permission, we have integrated some of these comments into the MAA catalogue to enrich or challenge our existing documentation.

A portrait of Martin Kaleku, a boy from Gumine in the Central Highlands Region of Papua New Guinea, is from the series that became the Poignants’ children's book Kaleku (1972) (see Figure 7). Identified in Roslyn's annotation as “Martin serenades pigs, Marigl Gorge,” it is evocatively described in the book's narrative:

Most days Kaleku minded the pigs. … He passed the time by playing a bamboo mouth harp; the pigs seemed to like the sound. If they wandered out of sight he called:

“Ma-a-bu ma-a-bu

A-rr-k a-rr-k m-a-bu,”

again and again until they came back.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Portrait of Martin Kaleku playing a mouth harp to pigs near Gumine, 1969. MAA T.151693.RPT. Photograph by Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

A group of children in Long Laput, Sarawak, ca. 1981. MAA T.153568.RPT. Photograph courtesy of Axel Poignant.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110116

However, Facebook commenters identified possible family connections to the photograph and reflected on memories of the place. Comments like this are tangible evidence of the images being used and circulated amongst relevant communities, and offer one route to collaborative documentation practices.

Unlike photographs used in publications or circulated on social media, some images in the collection have little context. These include 400 transparencies from Malaysia made around 1981 that are less connected to the Poignants’ ethnographic work than earlier images. One photograph of children from Long Laput, Sarawak frustratingly lacks identifying annotations, but is characteristically full of movement, as a rooster ruffles his feathers and the children's attention is drawn variously towards the rooster or the camera.

The Poignant collection is full of relational moments like these as Axel and Roslyn engaged with people across the world to create dynamic images and visual records of life. Hopefully, making these images publicly available will allow people to engage with and use the images, share knowledge with each other, and (re-)establish relationships with the photographs.2

Notes

1

Radio Times, Issue 1872, London, 27 September 1959–3 October 1959, 10. https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/8c40c475d93741718801fa467a31c3b8

2

Records and digitized images can be found at https://collections.maa.cam.ac.uk/photographs/ by searching for “Poignant.”

References

  • Adams, Glenn, Eona Bell, Kirsty Kernohan, and Gemma Ovens. 2023. “Anthropologists and Photographers: Priorities and Practicalities for the Poignant and Elliott Collections at MAA.” Paper presented at the Museum Ethnographers Group Conference, Cambridge, 18–19 April.

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  • Croce, Marcella. 2014. The Chivalric Folk Tradition in Sicily: A History of Storytelling, Puppetry, Painted Carts and Other Arts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.

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  • Poignant, Axel and Roslyn Poignant. 1972. Kaleku. London: Angus and Robertson.

  • Poignant, Axel and Roslyn Poignant. 1976. Children of Oropiro. London: Angus and Robertson.

  • Poignant, Roslyn with Axel Poignant. 1996. Encounter at Nagalarramba. Canberra: National Library of Australia.

The Solidarity in Action Network

Bernadette Lynch

We are agents of our own change.

—Abdelfattah Abusrour

In museums, the word “solidarity” is everywhere. But how to be in solidarity from a position of privilege? The question of philanthropy versus solidarity immediately arises—how to avoid endless replications of philanthropic relations? At the same time, could adopting the language of solidarity in museums be used as a smokescreen to cover the guilt of philanthropy? And more fundamentally, can our collaborative practice in museums avoid solidarity as a White project in the Global North? Can there ever be a true alliance between the product-based model of the museum sector versus the relational work of solidarity?

For a group of international museum colleagues interested in these questions, it was clear that we needed to generate an open discussion with colleagues more globally. The intention was to engage in a deeper level of questioning of our understanding of solidarity in action and whether it might be a way forward for museums. Previous examinations of the museum's public collaboration had demonstrated deeply flawed participation practices in museums, leading to “empowerment-lite” for those involved (Lynch 2011). Through international dialog, we set out to jointly investigate whether solidarity offered a better, more equitable way to collaborate—and whether the museum institution would be capable of the level of democratic practice it would surely suggest.

Solidarity is generally perceived as an ethical practice confined to smaller, grassroots, activist organizations. Yet, following the recent extensive critiques of museum “participation” and “empowerment-lite” as opposed to people's own active agency, solidarity potentially offered a turning point, with the possibility of influencing organizations of all sizes on a much wider basis (Lynch 2019). But what does it mean in museum practice in such increasingly divided and troubled times, in which democracy itself is under threat? Can there be democracy in museums without decolonization? What if museums “stay with the trouble,” facing up to the conflict outside their doors and, increasingly, inside the museum itself (Lynch 2017)? To this end, in early 2021, we established Solidarity in Action as an international network to attempt to answer these questions. The Network reflects a mix of museums, multi-disciplinary academics, and grassroots organizations. All share a commitment to exploring solidarity, most critically, through discussions, as much as possible, between the Global North and South and between grassroots, activist organizations and museum professionals and academics. Almost 150 individuals from approximately 37 countries have signed up to the Network.1

The Solidarity in Action Network has also been building on previous writing and research on the ethics and practice of deeper, more equitable levels of collaboration, for which there is a long history (Lynch 2020). The Network has continued to take a self-reflective look at our own assumptions as museum professionals, with partners/collaborators/community activists from outside the museum invited to act as “critical friends.” “Solidarity over charity” (in other words, challenging the Western “humanitarianization of the world”) is what the Network primarily discusses and debates (Fassin 2010).2 For all involved, it means reflecting on questions such as: How do we move towards collective projects without reproducing colonial power relations? What unlearning needs to happen in our institutions? One term that has emerged in discussions with colleagues in the Global South is “parasitical solidarity” and the importance of avoiding the imposition of performative solidarity as a White project from the Global North that is neither requested nor desired. As our international colleagues have shown, museums almost always define the Global South through crises. Rejecting the perpetual images of “victimhood,” these Network colleagues from the Global South have emphasized the importance of positive stories and utopias. As our Palestinian colleague from Gaza stated: “We are the agents of our own miracles—not just victims but agents of our own change” (Abusrour 2021).

Since the Network began its collective inquiry, there have been two years of regular (every six weeks) online international forums based on specific themes related to aspects of solidarity, as suggested and presented by Network members. This led to the creation in 2023 of Critical Friends, an applied solidarity co-consultancy partnership, a case study between the Network, Birmingham Museums Trust in the UK, and five other museums with their community partners based in very different parts of the world. Staff members and their community partners from each of the institutions involved in the co-consultancy are committed to engaging in an immersive experience of intensive critical reflection on their relationships with collaborators, and the personal and institutional assumptions these may disguise. The aim is personal and organizational change, while examining the potential application of solidarity in action practices in their own settings.

As this case study in collaborative reflexivity reaches completion in June 2023, the Network begins working together on the book Museums and Solidarity in Action: From an Ethics of Charity to Active Solidarity, which will look at how broadly solidarity might be practiced within the museum sector internationally. It is to be published by Routledge in early 2025. We are also planning to contribute an extended essay to a future issue of Museum Worlds on the Network's findings and conclusions for active solidarity.

Notes

1

The Network is a closed group, and has grown by invitation or word-of-mouth. Potential new members are reviewed by the Network's international advisory board. The discussions are confidential so that all our members feel free to speak openly. If you are interested in joining the Network, please email, explaining how your work intersects with that of the Network's interests, to Cesare Cuzzola at the following address: SolidarityInAction@gmail.com.

2

.See also Seabrook 2014. This critique of humanitarian “giving” was echoed by Pheng Cheah in a March 2014 lecture (unpublished) at London's Birkbeck College, tellingly titled “Resisting the Humanitarianization of the World: Towards an Ethics of Giving.”

References

  • Abusrour, Abdelfattah. April 2021. Online forum presentation for Solidarity in Action Network.

  • Fassin, Didier. 2010. “Critique of Humanitarian Reason.” Lecture at Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 27 January 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDT2mYg6mgo Accessed 11 May 2023.

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  • Lynch, Bernadette. 2011. Whose Cake is it Anyway? A collaborative investigation into engagement and participation in twelve museums and galleries in the UK. London: The Paul Hamlyn Foundation. http://www.phf.org.uk/publications/whose-cake-anyway/ Accessed 10 May 2023.

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  • Lynch, Bernadette. 2017. “Disturbing the Peace: Museums, Democracy and Conflict Avoidance.” In Heritage and Peacebuilding, ed. D. Walters,D. Leven, and P. Davis, 109126. Suffolk: Boydell Press.

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  • Lynch, Bernadette. 2019. “I'm gonna do something: Moving beyond talk in the museum.”In Museum Activism, ed. R. R. Janes, and R. Sandell, 115126. London and New York: Routledge.

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  • Lynch, Bernadette. 2020. “Neither helpful nor unhelpful—a clear way forward for the useful museum.” In Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum, 131. London and New York: Routledge.

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  • Seabrook, Jeremy. 2014. “The doctrine of ‘humanitarianism’ is not as benign as you might think.” The Guardian, 8 September https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/08/doctrine-humanitarianism-not-benign Accessed 1 May 2023.

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The Canadian Museum Association's Moved to Action Report

Lucy Bell

Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums (Danyluk and MacKenzie 2022) is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Call to Action #67. This report from the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) is brave and groundbreaking, and a must-read for anyone in the museum sector. The report arrived on the scene 28 years after the Task Force Report, Turning the Page, co-produced by the CMA and the Assembly of First Nations (1994), which was a pivotal step at the time, and very Canadian, calling on museums to work in a friendly manner with First Nations people. Today, we need more than an expectation of good manners; we need more truth and real accountability and action. Reading and activating this new report will help ensure the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations 2007) is enacted in the heritage field. I encourage every global museologist to read the critical report and do the hard work recommended in it as we move the museum sector into the era of (re)conciliation.

When I was asked to do a review of the Moved to Action report, I thought it would be a quick assignment. It was not. The report's truths hit me to the core as an Indigenous museologist. I didn't have the lovely book version yet, so I printed the online version and carried it everywhere for a month as I wrote this review. I reviewed the hardcopy and online versions of the report. Any references are to the online version unless otherwise stated. In May 2023 I had the honor of being a delegate on the CMA's team of museum advocates lobbying the federal government for a new national museum policy and for repatriation. I also had the chance to sit with CMA members, including the two authors of the Moved to Action report, to reflect on its importance. I am so grateful and humbled to share my reflections and review of this significant publication.

Who I Am

Sdahl K'awaas hin.uu dii k'yaang, dii uu Xaadagang. My name is Lucy Bell, and I am from the Haida Nation. As a Haida museologist and “repatriator” with 30 years of experience in the field, and as a PhD candidate studying Indigenous museology, I am following the Moved to Action report as it shifts the museum sector in a new direction. Since 1996, my Haida community has brought home over five hundred Haida ancestral remains, and is forging new relationships with global museums. We armed ourselves with the Turning the Page: Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples report as we did our important work. Now we can add the Moved to Action report to our armor as we continue our reconciliatory work with museums.

I had the great honor of participating in the Haida Gwaii Museum listening circle that informed the report. I am proud and relieved to see my thoughts and experiences reflected in the report. At the time I was the head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department and was struggling. I endured racism from both the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) and the CMA, and I chose to leave the museum and speak about the racism I was subjected to. My speaking out encouraged other truth-tellers to tell their stories, launching a year-long investigation into the discrimination, the creation of a 300-page report, and the firing and retiring of many people, including the CEO, who also stepped down as the CMA chairperson. I left the institution feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned, and saddened by the museum sector. Being a part of the listening circle was healing for me and it gave me hope for a better future for Indigenous and other marginalized people working within and in partnership with Canadian museums.

Ancestral Guidance

Seeing the stories of Indigenous ancestors and knowing my experiences were reflected in the report was so moving for me. Just as I felt my ancestors guiding me to speak out against racism in museums, I feel that our ancestors guided this report as well. For this report to be so brave and truthful, it needed ancestral intervention and protection. Consider all the interconnected events that led to the report: First, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Final Report of 2015 included the call to action #67 to review the compliance of UNDRIP. This call to action is one of a few directed at museums and archives. Two years later, the CMA began the hard work of responding to the call to action #67. The CMA formed the Reconciliation Council in 2018 to guide the report work, bringing in several museum superstars. Members include my admired colleagues Lou-ann Neel, Jisgang Nika Collison, and John Moses. Several people took on the huge Moved to Action task through the years, doing good work and progressing the report before leaving the organization.

The year 2020 was a significant time for the museum sector as there was more awareness of the racism within museums, the heritage sector, and the world. The world's eyes and hearts were opened to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Asian hate. I feel that my Haida ancestors forced my eyes open to the racism I endured in my job, and in 2020 I called out the RBCM for racism. Armando Perla also called out the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for discrimination, and he went on to become the CMA vice-president. While this news was rocking the museum world, the CMA was trudging along trying to complete the Moved to Action work. It felt like ancestral intervention continued through this, as a huge changeover of staff and board members at the CMA took place, bringing much more diversity to the organization. The new CMA board members have been actively making changes and are passionate about truth-telling and meaningful solutions in the heritage sector. Rebecca MacKenzie and Stephanie Danyluk were directed to take over the engagements and writing of the comprehensive report. After the process stagnated, the project reignited for the final push to publication when the ancestral remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May 2021. The Reconciliation Council and authors felt the urgency to complete the report. All these big changes had to occur at a national level for the report to be born into the heritage world.

Report Summary

We call upon the federal government to provide full funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, from collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015).

The CMA responded to the call. The initiative was funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage and was guided by the CMA's Reconciliation Council. After five years of consultation, research, writing, and a global pandemic, the CMA published the 85-page hard copy and 128-page online report. The report highlights the importance of self-determination of Indigenous peoples in museum spaces. “Our understanding of history is richer when Indigenous peoples have authority over their representations,” states Heather George, CMA President, and member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Nation (Galleries West 2022).

The Moved to Action report is well organized, easy to grasp, and inspirational. It is divided into eight manageable and smart sections: historical considerations, standards for museums, repatriation and collections management, engagement and partnership, governance, operations, methodology, and recommendations. The sections could stand on their own and be used in different situations by museum professionals; each one is organized in a consistent manner, making it easy to navigate. The links to resources and the key performance indicators are mentioned often, which, at first, I thought was a mistake, but once I realized that each section could be used independently, I understood the importance of the repetition.

As Rebecca MacKenzie informed me, the repatriation section was most important to Indigenous contributors, and the engagement and partnership section was most important to non-Indigenous museum contributors (MacKenzie, personal communication, 19 April 2023). Her co-author Stephanie Danyluk (Danyluk and MacKenzie 2023) agrees, stating in a recent presentation aimed at museum professionals hoping to implement the report's recommendations:

Repatriation was top of the minds of Indigenous communities and professionals we spoke to. We really wanted to set out that, through the lens of UNDRIP, this is the right space. This isn't a decision to be made, this isn't a question of whether to repatriate. By adopting federal legislation on UNDRIP, repatriation is now a necessity.

The report makes only 10 recommendations and sets 30 attainable new standards for Indigenous engagement and partnerships between museums and Indigenous nations. The recommendations are practical and well-informed. They include: enact repatriation legislation; fund repatriation; implement UNDRIP; revise the National Museum policy; and develop peer networks and mentorships.

Accessibility

Accessibility is important for the museum sector, and the report leads by example by being accessible in a variety of ways. It is beautifully illustrated by Tiaré Lani, a graphic recorder who was inspired to draw the images during the engagement sessions. The striking images make it accessible for visual learners to interact with the content, and they make difficult content easier to digest. The report's language is accessible to a non-museum professional, with new concepts explained. The report can be understood by museum and Indigenous professionals, students, policymakers, and the public. The 85-page abridged printed report is accessible in both English and French, with a sprinkling of Indigenous languages throughout. Because the report had to be bilingual, the CMA opted to shorten the printed report and have the full 128-page version online. Another bonus is the availability of the authors’ online discussions of the report for those who would prefer to listen to the highlights of the report. The online version is more fulsome, includes valuable links to resources, and is more of a living document. By visiting the online report, the reader can also learn about upcoming workshops and new toolkits to help museums fulfill UNDRIP and the TRC recommendations.

Historical Considerations and Timeline

It would be remiss if I did not mention the impressive historical considerations and timeline (10–32). It is obvious the report was written by two keen historians. The timeline's historical examples set the background for the creation of global museums and the immense collection of Indigenous belongings. Even with my museum experience, I gained a broader perspective on the vast collecting of Indigenous remains and belongings. Lou-ann Neel, a Reconciliation Council member, agrees that the report timeline is significant, saying: “It has a great historical overview; it's an inclusive, truth-based overview that enables the context for the creation of museums to be understood and helps to establish a starting point for museums seeking ideas on where to begin implementation of UNDRIP” (Neel, personal communication 19 April 2023).

The timeline features significant impacts on Indigenous people and the connection to the disappearance of ancestral belongings and ancestral remains, as these examples show. The Potlatch Law of 1884 was a critical influence on the blatant removal of coastal Indigenous belongings and the report mentions the impacts throughout. The Kwakwaka'wakw Potlatch collection confiscation of 1921 led to one of the biggest repatriation movements in Canada. Another historic moment mentioned is the theft of the church bell from the Metis community of Batoche during the North-West Resistance of 1885 and its removal to Ontario as a “spoil of war.” The “pass and permit system,” overseen by the government-appointed Indian agents on each reserve community, and the implementation of starvation policies, meant people were under extreme duress, and sold precious belongings to collectors who then sold them to museums. This duress is slowly being acknowledged, and the common excuse that the museums possess a “legitimate” receipt is now being debunked. The timeline also addresses how some Indigenous belongings ended up in European museums, and documents the significant repatriations from European museums, such as the 2020 National Museum of Scotland repatriation of the ancestral remains of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut of the Beothuk people, who were stolen in 1827 by Scottish explorer William E. Cormack. The historical side of the timeline is addressed well; however, recent significant museum activities seem to be lumped together as “Present day: Indigenous Peoples continue to exert their self-determination in museum spaces” (30). Some of the hard truths help to shed light on the mass collecting of Indigenous belongings by collectors, and it is a valuable learning tool for everyone in the heritage sector or people wanting to understand the importance of and need for implementing the TRC calls to action and UNDRIP.

The Report Honors Traditional Values

If I had to assign traditional values to this report, the strongest value would be bravery. The use of words like “genocide,” “epistemicide,” “human zoos,” “stolen,” and “racist,” and the mention of the uncovering of the remains of children buried at residential schools and of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are bold and fiercely truthful. For a government report, it is surprisingly truthful about government actions, even stating that “museums and colonial endeavors are inextricably linked to erasure of histories of Indigenous Nations” (10) and the “overt genocidal policies and practices of the Canadian government” (11).

We are in the era of truth-telling. By telling the truth, this report embodies the purpose and biggest point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action—to tell the truth. Telling the truth is critical to enacting change. This report tells it like it is. And it's about time a federal government report, especially a museum report, is truthful and heartfelt.

What's Missing in the Report?

This report is full of thoughtful reflections and recommendations, so it is difficult to point to any major missing components; however, I will mention a few pieces I wished to see. It would have been helpful to have had one more set of eyes check over the report before it went to print. I spotted a few typos in the hard copy, like the duplication of the recommendation to enact repatriation legislation (38); however, I am glad to see these typos have been fixed in the online version (and perhaps this important recommendation was stated twice for emphasis). More importantly, the report could have included a section on the participants who helped to create it. As an advocate for ensuring Indigenous voices are credited, it is surprising not to see the names and information on all the participants from the listening circles and interviews. The Task Force Report for Museums and First Peoples listed the names of the creators of that report, and seeing the names of the great Indigenous museologists of the time, like Tom Hill and Gloria Cranmer Webster, is important to reflect on. For future Indigenous museologists to see their cultural heroes and mentors mentioned in this important historic document would have enhanced it and documented their historic participation.

The historical timeline is a valuable tool for showing the big picture and history of museums and was created to show the rise of Indigenous museology despite all the genocidal policies and practices impacting Indigenous peoples. What it does not show well are the recent activities, including the global pandemic, calling out of major museums in 2020, the massive museum resignations and firings, the creation of the British Columbia Indigenous Museum Cousins Network in 2021, and the creation of the CMA's Indigenous museum professionals network in 2022. In 2023, the hiring of Janis Monture as the CEO of the CMA and the appointment of the Indigenous Vice President of the CMA, Heather George, were significant changes in the Canadian heritage scene that could be shown in the online timeline. The sector has changed a lot in these past years, and it would be helpful for the CMA to add these significant events to the online version of the report

The report mentions the review of the 84 Canadian institutions who have been recognized for their Indigenous initiatives or who have indicated promising practices in the CMA survey. Each institution was given a score based on a rubric of UNDRIP compliance. In order to be truthful and transparent, it would be great if the museums agreed to share these results online to celebrate their accomplishments, learn from their actions, and hold themselves accountable in improving their commitment to UNDRIP.

Hopes for the Future

Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums is a living report. It is meant to be enacted and, as sector professionals, we are encouraged to use the online resources, such as the governance reassessment tool, the human resources guide, and the repatriation toolkit, to enact change. As Lou-ann Neel, a Reconciliation Council member, says: “There's lots of room still to customize processes and timelines, but the main point is that it will result in continued movement, not another stalemate where no one knows what to do first” (Neel, personal communication 19 April 2023).

As the CMA and the Department of Canadian Heritage update the National Museum Policy, it will be of utmost importance that the Moved to Action report recommendations are incorporated and the Reconciliation Council is called on for guidance. There is no need to start from scratch. I will be following the CMA's next steps as they host national workshops on how to implement the report, and as they create resources to help Canadian and international museums enact Indigenous self-determination in museums. It is up to all of us as museum professionals to enact the change outlined in Moved to Action. My hope is that everyone's copy of the report is even more dog-eared and highlighted, and as respected, as my copy is, and that we all continue to be open and willing to do better.

Acknowledgements

Haw'áa, íitl kuníisii isgyáan dii túulang! Thank you to our ancestors and my hard-working colleagues and friends in the museum sector, including the CMA staff, board, and Reconciliation Council, who strive to make the museum sector a better place for us all. Daláng ahl Hl kil ‘láagang. I will speak kind words of you all.

References

Towards a Decolonization of the Ethnographic Displays at the National Museum of Namibia

Goodman Gwasira

In this article I focus on rethinking the museum as a space for community engagement, participation, and advocacy as opposed to a center of displays that showcases the peculiarities of a settler colony. The Owela Museum is a miniature representation of the colonial order and colonial processes that Namibia went through. Originally founded as the Landesmuseum in Windhoek by the imperial German administration of German South West Africa in 1907, it came under South African administration in 1925, and then after independence in 1990 became part of the National Museum of Namibia. What is known as the Owela Display Centre, part of the public library building, is now closed. It was reserved for displays of animals and Indigenous ethnic groups using the well-known exhibitionary technique of the diorama. After independence, there were some efforts to repackage it as a museum of Namibian cultures. New displays were developed with the active participation of the respective Indigenous communities. This report analyzes the exhibition Man in His Environment and investigates how it represented a means of justifying the idea of separate development based on knowledge that was assembled through colonial ethnography and racial sciences such as anthropometrics. The report further discusses some of the challenges of decolonizing museums, especially in the aftermath of deep, multiple, and often violent colonialisms.

The museum in Namibia has a troubled and difficult history that is entangled with imperialism and colonialism. The very idea of a museum was predicated on racial classification and the political economy of colonialism. It was an institution that assembled knowledge about the land and the country's resources, which included its black inhabitants (Förster 2014). This was reflected in the configuration of cultural history displays and ethnographic displays, which were located in separate locations in Windhoek (Schildkrout 1995). The separation of ethnography from cultural history was a common practice in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South African museums (Davison 2001; 1990). This separation was premised on the understanding that ethnography was a practice of classifying and comparing different races while history began with colonization. However, in museum practice it had an ideological consequence of justifying racism, colonialism, and social inequality. Therefore, the separation of “cultural” history from ethnography can be interpreted as an extension of South African museological practices in the colony, what we can understand as a colonial product of the “South Africanization” of local museums. Namibia was colonized by South Africa from 1920 until 1990, and the then State Museum operated under the Department of National Education (State Museum Policy 1989).

What we know today as the Owela Museum epitomized the form that the ethnographic museum took in Namibia, and reflected the approach that was found in several museums around the country, entrenching theories and policies of segregation and separate development such as the Odendaal plan. According to Christo Botha (n.d.), the Odendaal Commission of 1962 had, as one of its recommendations, the philosophy that “development should be based on the ethnic division of Namibian society.” The dioramas in the Owela Museum were designed to support the “ethnicization” of Namibian society. The exhibition Man [sic] in His Environment displayed wax statues and life casts of Indigenous Namibian people in settings that were associated with their daily economic activities. The objects displayed in these dioramas included implements and clothing that served as “signifiers” that distinguished specific ethnic groups from each other. The wax statues were placed in the foreground of the supposedly “typical” ecological backdrop of the geographical location where the specific ethnic groups were found.

This exhibition had the effect of supporting the grand ideology of apartheid while presenting Indigenous people as frozen in a primeval state. The displays were based on the data that was collected by the colonial administration's staff and other settler officials, such as native administrators, state ethnographers, and anthropologists from the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs, as well as medical doctors, magistrates, and missionaries who collected objects that later become part of ethnographic collections. The exhibition functioned to ingrain the idea of separate racial development in the minds of museum visitors, who were mainly non-Indigenous people. What the display did not contain was the impact of developing homelands and the colonial context in which the objects were collected. Rather it had the effect of justifying the creation of “Bantu” homelands in Namibia. Clearly, as Mwayi Lusaka has argued, one of the ways through which colonialism succeeded and thrived was by creating and maintaining museums as state apparatus for knowledge assemblage and propaganda dissemination, which “supported the colonial agendas while subjecting and excluding the indigenous knowledge systems of colonised societies” (Lusaka 2022: 449).

In this article, I interrogate this nexus between colonial administration and the cultural institution of the museum, through a critical analysis of Man in His Environment in the Owela Museum. I first outline a general history of the development of the museum in Namibia. I follow this with a closer look at the case study exhibition and the political implications of colonial museum anthropology and, finally, the potential of developing a decolonizing museum.

The research follows a qualitative methodology, employing the exhibition analysis approach whereby information is collected through interviews and observations. The in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with some members of the San communities and current museum curators. In addition, I conducted archival research in the National Archives of Namibia, Owela Museum, and the Namibia Scientific Society. The research drew on the theoretical framework and arguments of Tony Bennett in the books Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums, and Liberal Government (Bennett et al. 2017) and The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (Bennett 1995). The research was also guided by theories of decoloniality. Walter Mignolo's “epistemic disobedience” is very relevant to research of this nature, in which Mignolo (2009) advocates for methodologies that can be used to challenge the historical narratives and archival sources which are themselves products of colonialism. The recent research by Njabulo Chipangura and Jesmael Mataga in their book Museums as Agents for Social Change (Chipangura and Mataga 2021), in which they argue for collaboration with local communities through co-curation, informed my final argument in this article when discussing ways in which museums from colonial contexts can be decolonizing.1 A fundamental point of this article is that what needs to be decolonized is not the museum; rather, the museum should be an agent of decolonization.

Development of Museums in Namibia

The rise of the museum in Namibia, as in other parts of Africa, was intricately connected to the colonization of the country. John Mackenzie (1990) noted that imperial power was symbiotically connected to research in the natural and cultural sciences. Museums were part of the global exchange networks in the imperial territories and hence were part and parcel of the imperial efforts of collection, research, preservation, and knowledge production about the empire (MacKenzie 1990). The development of museums and related disciplines of collection and conservation, such as archaeology, mammalogy, and ethnography, as elsewhere in the world, are intimately connected with imperialism and interdependent with colonial governance and administration (Bennett et al. 2017).

Like museums in other colonies, the National Museum of Namibia developed out of complex relationships between the imperial center or colonial metropoles and their peripheral frontiers.2 Ciraj Rassool (2015) argues for an interpretation of the empire as more than a geographical entity. Rather, he contends, the concept of an empire should be understood through the framework of a theory of knowledge production that exposes the asymmetric and exploitative power relations in the relationship between the colony and its colonizer. Luregn Lenggenhager has demonstrated that these unequal relationships were typical of the connections between the colonial officials and nature conservation in north-eastern Namibia (Lenggenhager 2018). What Rassool (2015: 653) calls the “extractive, hierarchical and stratified relations of knowledge” in the practice of museology were certainly applied in the work of the National Museum of Namibia. In the case of Namibia, Robert Gordon provides a detailed account of how ethnographers worked to support South African colonialism (Gordon 2018; 2022). According to Gordon, ethnography was used to justify and support policies of separate development in Namibia. Ethnographers served on commissions, such as the Odendaal Commission, where “the certainty of their expertise on local people [was used] in efforts to legitimise colonial control,” as Kletus Likuwa (2022) has argued.

At the onset of German colonialism in southern Africa, natural and cultural objects were of primarily scientific interest. German museums requested specific specimens from the Namibian territory for display and studies.3 This included human remains, some of which were from the first genocide of the twentieth century that took place in Namibia between 1904 and 1908 (Hillebrecht 2019). But the first efforts at establishing a museum in Namibia can be traced back to the German Governor Bruno von Schuckmann. Originally founded as the Landesmuseum in Windhoek by the imperial German administration of German South West Africa in 1907, the museum was introduced as part of the colonial venture that provided a system of imagining and constructing the empire, and served as a reservoir of physical evidence for the justification of colonialism and of conquest. The active participation of the state administrators in the collecting and display of artifacts is indicative of the state control of the museum narrative.

The museum was certainly not set up as an institution that the Indigenes of the territory could use. Instead, it was used to showcase the ethnographies of the Indigenous people and as a collection of knowledge about the natural resources that the territory was endowed with. Governor Von Schuckmann placed an advertisement in the Deutsch-Südwestafrikannische Zeitung of 28 September 1907 that explicitly stated that there was a need to create a scientific collection in Windhoek. The advertisement indicates that the museum was not going to be an inclusive space; rather, it was one aimed at serving the colonizers while excluding Indigenous people:

Es ist schon lange Zeit als ein dringendes Bedürfnis empfunden worden, in Windhuk eine natur- wissenschaftliche Sammlung zu begründen, in welcher sich jeder neu ins Land kommende Farmer, Kaufmann, Angehöriger der Schutztruppe und Beamter über die in Schutzgebiet verkommenden Tiere, Pflanzen, Mineralien und Ethnographischen Besonderheiten orientieren. (It has been felt for a long time that there is a need to establish a natural-scientific collection in Windhoek, in which every new farmer, merchant, member of the Schutztruppe and official can find out about the animals, plants, minerals and ethnographic peculiarities degenerating in the protected area). (Deutsch-Südwestafrikannische Zeitung 1907)

We can safely conclude from the advertisement that the museum in Namibia was established as an elite space where the Indigenous people were excluded from participation while their cultures were objectified. Local people and strategic resources such as fodder, poison, useful plants, animal pests and important mineralswere the subject of the museum. Indigenous people were the subjects and not the audience of the museum. It was an institution that gave orientation to the settlers and other Europeans regarding the strategic economic opportunities that the territory provided.

The Landesmuseum was established through a “natural-scientific” collection, which demonstrates that cultural heritage preservation was not yet its mission. Cultural heritage became the focus of conservation when European heritage was prominent in Namibia (Vogt 2004). The Indigenous people, whose ethnographies were collected and ordered for purposes of governing, were themselves considered natural specimens. When Indigenous cultural objects were collected, they were regarded as ethnographic, to showcase Besonderheiten (peculiarities). When analyzed in the context of the economic mission of the Landesmuseum, the ethnographic peculiarities could be taken to constitute the distinctive ethnic features that could be useful in the colonial economy. Ethnography therefore became a euphemism for collecting information about the people and classifying them for administration purposes. This was reflected in the configuration of cultural history displays and ethnographic displays, which were in separate locations in Windhoek (Schildkrout 1995).

The fact that the Landesmuseum was established in 1907 was significant, as it situated the institution in the context of colonial conflict. The years 1904 to 1908 were marked by a brutal war of resistance to colonialism (Katjavivi 1988). The war, which was variably referred to as the Herero rebellion or Herero uprising, resulted in the first genocide of the twentieth century, in which almost two-thirds of the Herero community and a third of the Nama community were exterminated (Erichsen 2004). In the postcolonial era, the war was reframed as a war of national resistance (Emmet 1988). The national museum was, therefore, unquestionably developed under conditions of colonial violence and conflict.

The Man in His Environment Exhibition

The Owela Museum or Owela Display Centre is located in the heart of the capital city of Namibia, Windhoek. It is part of a complex of state cultural institutions that are located along Robert Mugabe Avenue. These cultural institutions include the National Art Gallery of Namibia and the National Theatre of Namibia. In close proximity to this complex is the City Library. Owela Museum was reserved exclusively for ethnographic and natural history displays. The museum was divided into three distinct sections. The reception area, also reserved for temporary exhibitions, was located in the center of the building and divided the southern section that housed the ethnographic and natural history exhibitions from the northern section that housed the children's touch room and the museum education officers’ work spaces. Currently, the northern section of the museum houses new exhibitions of Namibian cultures that were developed after independence. However, Owela Museum has been closed for structural renovations to the building and will be opened to the public once the renovations are completed.

The Man in His Environment exhibition was opened in 1973 and displays eight carefully selected and diverse cultures of Namibia. The ethnographic specimens (including life-casts and artifacts), which were meant to signify the various cultures of the nation, were juxtaposed with a painted backdrop of presumed environments or “climatic conditions” (as the display handbook puts it) that “identified” the lenses of the economic ways of life through which each community should be imagined. It was purportedly installed to portray the relationship that the various cultures of Namibia had with their environments. However, the exhibition had the effect of creating an understanding of the cultures as confined to specific environments and primordial economies in a static manner. An uncanny aspect of the exhibition is that it perpetuated views of the then Caprivi strip (now Zambezi region) as not being part of Namibia by virtue of omitting any economic activity from the region. Considering that museums are sites of knowledge production and transmission, as Larissa Förster (2014) states, then we can see that Man in His Environment expresses to the visitor a certain order of settlement desired by the colonizer. In addition to that, the exhibition reflected the ideology of separate development or apartheid that was implemented by the South African colonial administration in Namibia when it took over from the Germans later in the twentieth century.

The exhibition is divided into two sections, one being fauna and flora and the other the ethnographic dioramas. The dioramas on the ethnographic side of the museum display the collecting of seeds by the Damara; the manufacture of rope from the leaf fiber of the Sanseviera plant by the so-called “Bushmen;” the different uses of weapons and sources of arrow poison among the people of Namibia; the smelting of copper by the Thwa blacksmiths (people living in the Kaokoland); the preparation of skins among the Nama; the making of pottery among the Mbalantu; the cultivation and use of Omahangu millet in the former Owamboland, and the dependence on the river by the people of Kavango. Also included in the exhibition are the traditional musical instruments, clothing, and ornaments of the OvaHerero and the Himba.

All these displays are presented in separate dioramas as if to clearly indicate the bounded and distinct differences between the communities. The ecological backdrops of some of the dioramas associate particular communities with specific environments. The content of this exhibition emphasizes the peculiarities of each Indigenous community, materializing the policy of separate development and justifying it by magnifying these differences between communities. It is remarkable that this display survives today, effectively preserving “the ideas and epistemic horizons of the time of [its installation],” as Förster has argued in relation to ethnographic museums in Europe.4 However, the observation is apt here for the description of the current status of the dioramas from the colonial period that are still in the Owela Museum 32 years after Namibia gained independence. One can still read today in three dimensions the dominant ideology of the former colonial administration, and also the use of outmoded ideas such as anthropometrics, which was used to classify Indigenous people by means of eugenics. Of course, this raises the question of the relevance of colonial displays in the postcolonial era and the need for decolonization of ethnographic exhibits in African museums.

Ethnography Exhibitions as a Colonial Apparatus

As scholars have argued, the expertise of anthropologists was utilized by the colonial administration of the then South West Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, to collect data that was useful for convincing the often “sceptical international audience … that apartheid was morally just and workable” (Gordon 2018: 97). Anthropologists either worked for or were academically associated with the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs. Thus, there was a symbiotic relationship between the state and anthropologists. Indeed, the exhibition Man in His Environment was developed out of the results of colonial ethnological research.

The exhibition can be seen as a tool used by the administration to justify the division of the territory into homelands. Each of the ethnic groups was allocated a homeland and was restricted to that homeland. The creation of such homelands resulted in land dispossession for the ethnic groups, while arable land was consolidated for the express occupation and use of the settler farmers. Mobility of the ethnic groups was restricted to their respective homelands or controlled through labor hire (contract labor). The homelands were created as labor reserves where the capitalist economy could draw cheap labor (Likuwa and Shiweda 2017; Silvester 1993; Werner 1993; 2016). However, such consequences of the creation of the homelands were not reflected in the exhibition before independence. More than 30 years after independence, the exhibition is still starkly mute on such issues as land dispossession, alienation from the means of production, forms of knowledge production, and cultural knowledge. Instead, it is still framed merely as a way of “preserving cultural traditions” for the Indigenous people.

Therefore, we can see that this destructive nexus between the state and the museum shows that cultural and heritage institutions, which appeared objective and free of violence, were in fact ideological and propaganda machinery for colonization. Man is His Environment provided scientific justification for colonialism in general and apartheid in particular. The exhibition was based on the “scientific” work of anthropologists and, therefore, appeared objective, but it was actually a prism through which the condition of the ethnic communities of Namibia and the colonial administration's efforts of “bettering” that condition could be seen—in essence a cultural propaganda mechanism aimed at sanitizing the policy of apartheid.

Furthermore, the display amplified ethnicity within the framework of separate development as a counter strategy to interethnic unity, which was perceived as an obstacle to the South African occupation of Namibia. Joining together in unity across ethnic lines to oppose the colonial state was obviously a threat. The South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), in bringing Namibians of different ethnic backgrounds to successfully wage a war of liberation, was a good example of what was feared by the colonial administration—that is, the possibility of different ethnic groups uniting to resist colonialism.

A critical reading of Man in His Environment should be anchored in the politics of the time in which it was installed. A contextualization of the exhibition particularly in relation to the Commission for South West African Affairs (which was later known as the Odendaal Commission of 1962) reveals the key purpose of the exhibition. It was part and parcel of the colonial project of “state making,” as Gordon (2018) has argued, for the use of anthropology in that project. Such a project involved assembling knowledge about the land and its cultural and natural resources. Gordon (2018: 97) aptly explained the process of state-making as a process involving the “description and classification of the borders of Namibia.”5 The work of the museum curator is predominantly an exercise in ordering, and as Alison Petch has argued in her review of Tony Bennett's work on colonial governmentality (Petch 2017), exhibitions are also a form of ordering. In addition, the museum was an instrument of pacification and divide-and-rule—in Namibia it was easier to subjugate and govern a divided nation than suppress ethnic groups that were united.

An analysis of this display not taking into account the wider context of settler colonialism and especially the background of the Odendaal commission would produce a depoliticized reading. Instead, seen in the context of the political developments of the 1960s in what was then South West Africa, we can see clearly that the exhibition functioned on two fronts politically. First, it aimed at demonstrating that “natives” had distinct identities that could be classified and linked to specific landscapes that denoted their homelands. Such identities were peculiar and warranted preserving through dioramas that froze history. Distinctive economic activities were presented as defining the ethnic groups and these were expressed through a backdrop painted in the dioramas. “Bantu” homelands, for example, were also seen as good for preserving the unique cultural traits of the Indigenous people. The emphasis was on differences between the ethnic groups, as such differences justified the creation of separate homelands as a form of colonial control. Second, the exhibition functioned to justify the general occupation of Namibia by South Africa. South African colonialism was presented as having brought order, peace, and development among the warring natives.

One of the major concerns of this research was to gather views of what can and should be done with exhibitions of such an offensive nature as Man in His Environment. Responses to this question varied from removal of the exhibits from public display, as advocated by the San respondents, to the Ju/”Hoansi-San, who expressed the view that the life casts of the San exhibition were particularly traumatizing to them. They called for the exhibition to be entirely removed and casts buried, since according to them the casts were human remains. According to the Ju/”Hoansi culture, “someone's face should not be seen away from the owner of the face” (N/aici 2022). Seeing images of dead people was even associated with bringing bad luck to the community. In fact, it was a traumatic experience for the Ju/”Hoansi-San to visit Owela Museum, because the oldest member among them saw a picture of his late father, and he could also point out a picture of a man who disappeared from their community some years ago. Both pictures are still on display in the reconstituted San display.

In responding to the question of what should be done with exhibitions such as this, a young librarian from the Aawambo community advocated for systematic removal but also preservation and documentation of the display. He stated that “When we remove items from display, we should not totally get rid of them. They should be documented so that we can later look into them and reflect on them” (Kamati 2021). Respective current curators of Anthropology and Exhibitions at the National Museum of Namibia are descendants of communities that are displayed in the dioramas. When asked how they respond to the exhibition that has such an uncomfortable history, they replied that the main inhibition is the lack of a policy of decolonization at the museum. The curator responsible for Owela Museum indicated that in the absence of a policy they have resorted to “factual correction” of the displays (Nekale 2021). They correct discrepancies in the information presented and this is being incorporated into the old displays. New audiences, mainly Indigenous people, frequently point out such discrepancies. Therefore, information is added to the exhibitions in a way that retains and reinterprets the display to make it is less offensive.

The museum itself has responded to the exhibition by developing new displays that aim at correcting some discrepancies. These new displays are in the opposite gallery and can be viewed as counter narratives juxtaposed to the Man in His Environment display. Another approach that has been implemented at the Owela Museum involves retaining a diorama and explaining the history, processes, and methods of its production. The Indigenous curators see it as their responsibility to challenge the existing narratives through community participation in activities such as exhibition development. According to the Senior Curator of Anthropology, the museum has to do more than consulting communities; it has to involve them right from the conception of exhibition ideas and co-produce the new exhibitions together with communities. In the words of the Curator, exhibition developers at the National Museum should “go to the communities and be teachable” (Ha-Eiros 2023). This is one way of decolonizing museum work and museum displays, because it breaks down the power relations that were established during the colonial period.

Discussion: Three approaches to decolonization

There is potential for reflexivity in addressing the colonial connotations of the dioramas in Man in His Environment. To retain and explain, while juxtaposing the old dioramas with the new Cultures of Namibia displays, presents a pragmatic, stimulating, and yet novel way of decolonizing colonial ethnography in museums. The dioramas were left almost as they were before independence, except for additional brief descriptions and the addition of a typical Afrikaner heritage depicted as a camp at Gautscha Pan. The approach currently adopted by National Museum staff puts the old dioramas section of the museum in conversation with the new wing in an interesting way that seeks to address issues of postcolonial museum practice.

The new wing of the Owela Museum represents the current approach to exhibition development by involving communities in the work. It embodies a departure from exoticizing the object, and reflects a new concern with the meaning of the objects that is manifested through displaying how it was used, by whom, and for what purposes. However, co-production and community involvement in museum work can be more effective if communities are able to directly participate in developing concepts for exhibitions from the beginning. Such an approach has the effect of avoiding the reproduction of colonial connotations and even stereotypes about communities that are often represented in museums. So, in spite of the absence of a decolonization policy or guidelines in Namibia, we can discern at least three approaches that the National Museum has employed to decolonize ethnographic exhibitions from the colonial era, namely: juxtapose; retain and explain; and retain and interpret.

Conclusion

Decolonization of ethnographic collections in African museums has followed different paths, procedures, and programs. There is no one universal and standardized approach. However, inasmuch as there are various methods that have been implemented (some not so successfully), there are some basic lessons that have been learned from this case study of grappling with colonial-era exhibitions at the Owela Museum. The first is to provide more comprehensive information and make the displays more interactive to supplement and update the exhibit. Another suggestion is to dismantle the whole exhibition altogether and create new displays that reflect a new Namibia. Neither option has been entirely implemented in this situation; rather, staff decided on an overall recontextualization of the dioramas and even a translocation of the most problematic Bushman diorama (see Gwasira 2021). Another approach that can be employed in decolonizing colonial collections, which has been considered by the Owela Museum, is reconceptualization aided by a wider consultation with the previously alienated source communities.

Decolonization may involve disrupting inherited Western practices of classification and “Othering” in museum curation and display. Nevertheless, this does not entail wholesale disregard of everything that was produced in the museum during the colonial era. Institutional reflexivity, multivocality, and reciprocity are required for establishing a decolonial museum project (Bouquet 2015). A decolonial project involves critical analysis of the history of the museum exhibitions and a deep understanding of the complex political and historical contexts in which exhibitions were developed. This can be achieved through a careful consideration and evaluation of the contexts in which the collections were assembled, accessioned, and “museumified.”

In this article, I argue for a systematic, research-based, and knowledge-based decolonization process for colonial museum collections and exhibitions. Museum anthropology, like other colonial sciences, was subservient to the colonial administration. Thus, anthropologists worked within the colonial structure doing the work of collecting ethnographic objects, including human remains. Therefore, decolonization should first confront and dismantle the systems and structures of colonialism. To this end, I argue further that it would be a futile exercise to focus only on decolonizing the collections and exhibitions without meaningfully engaging with the colonial structures that underpin museum management and practice. Finally, decolonization of museum displays is an epistemological exercise; thus, contexts of colonial knowledge production must be interrogated as well. Decolonizing museums entails confronting and disrupting the asymmetrical power relationships that characterize knowledge assemblage and presentation in museums.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Global Academy of Liberal Arts through which research for this article was conducted and to my mentors in the GALA programme, namely professors: Mary Bouquet, Michael Burke, Jairos Kangira, and Ian Gadd.

Notes

1

The term decolonizing museum rather than “decolonized” museum is preferred in this article because it stresses the sense of it being an ongoing process that does not end, just as colonialism has not ended but continues in a different form, hence, the use of the term coloniality. A good example of a decolonizing museum is the District Six Museum in Cape Town, which deals with issues of social and restorative justice (see Rassool 2006).

2

Ethnographic museums in Europe also assembled their collections from their colonial encounters, and that raises questions about the legitimacy of the ethnographic museum, according to Rassool (2014).

3

Kaiserliches Gouvernement für Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Landesmuseum in Windhuk Specialia. National Archives of Namibia [ZBU1005], 6 June 1902.

4

Larissa Förster made this argument in reference to European museums that kept parts of their nineteenth- and twentieth-century displays. See Förster 2014.

5

For an extensive and critical analysis of the role of anthropology in the creation of “Bantu” homelands, see Gordon 2018. His analysis largely shaped the argument that I make here about contextualizing colonial museum exhibitions within the political developments of the time when the exhibitions were developed.

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MuseumFutures Africa Project

Sophia Olivia Sanan

Born out of a series of engagements called Museum Conversations (2017–2019), the MuseumFutures Africa project was collectively conceived by a group of African cultural professionals as a practical model for African museums to initiate processes of change within their institutions. Change for whom and change to what end? The project was designed precisely to facilitate space for African museum workers and museum stakeholders to engage this question themselves, without an implied (Western) blueprint that came attached to the funded opportunity. This is not to say that the project did not articulate its own ideas of change in museums: it identified in particular the “need for museums to become mobile, dynamic and respond to the contemporary moment—to issues of restitution, to pluralized identities outside of the old nationalist singularities, and to an increasingly youthful, tech-oriented continent” (MuseumFutures Africa Proposal Document 2020). Mindful of the geopolitics that animate the cultural funding landscape and the global asymmetries in knowledge production about museums, MuseumFutures Africa sought an alternative implied center in the rethinking of museum practice.

The project has been running since 2020 and operates remotely via a project manager and a steering committee comprising some of the cultural professionals who designed the project model, as well as members from Africa-based Goethe Institutes. The managing team has remained committed to an open-ended and iterative process since the proposal document came to life, and has tried to support museum workers within each selected participating institution to design strategies to address endemic museal challenges and realize potential ambitions and dreams. The heart of the project lies in the simultaneous collective work done at the local museum level, and the cross-regional, multilinguistic platforms created by the project (through travel exchange, online workshops, co-created and curated research outputs, and reflections) to meet and share the experiences over an 18-month period.

After a continent-wide call out and extended application process, MuseumFutures Africa began working with a first cohort of six African museums in 2020. These were the Musée National de Guinée in Conakry, Guinee; National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya; Uganda Museum in Kampala, Uganda; the Musée Théodore Monod IFAN Ch. A. Diop, Dakar, Senegal; the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, South Africa; and the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) in Lekki, Nigeria. With the exception of the latter two museums, the rest had colonial histories. Whether a museum in Africa is formed during colonial rule or after, however, legacies of colonialism remain inscribed both in the form and the concept of the museum, as well as in the vast majority of African societies. In fact, the entanglements between the museum and the deeper logics of colonialism (and colonial capitalism), have become part of the standard discourse of museum practice today. The museum in Africa in itself is somewhat of an anomaly, even a contradiction.

Mapping the African Museum Context: Complex Inheritances

Museums in Africa are shaped by a legacy of epistemic instability. The question of the extent to which colonial museums really were remade, rethought, and moreover reconfigured to serve new constituencies in postcolonial contexts is a haunting one for many museums in Africa. Chika Okeke-Agulu's reflection on the postcolonial museum captures the idea that perhaps this project was never realized, and that the postcolonial African museum is a museum of the future:

… precisely because the Colonial Museum was from inception corrupted and scarred by the epistemic violence of colonialism but also was unable to establish its relevance in the shifting, post-independence civic and cultural imagination and experience, the Postcolonial Museum must be conceived as a radical break from this past and as a new space for rethinking, repairing and reanimating histories of African societies and for weaving the rich tapestry of life in the present through art and artifact old and new. (Okeke-Agulu 2021)

Okeke-Agulu's diagnosis brings to the fore both racialized colonial inheritances present in many African museum exhibitions, as well as, in many cases, stagnant, patronizing, and perhaps most importantly uncritical postcolonial state-driven narratives. That dominant (inherited) paradigms of cultural and historical story telling are outdated is clearly indicated by a widespread problem of the lack of buy-in from local audiences, particularly youth. Khwezi Gule, head curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa, and one of the project's conceptualizers, highlighted the complexity of creating new audiences and dealing with inherited audiences in former colonial institutions (particularly in settler colonial contexts), and the need to reevaluate for whom and why the past is preserved. There is a lasting allure of the colonial edifice even in the postcolonial state, and as a consequence, Gule urged, we need to critically question what kind of social role players are really vested in vis-a-vis the transformation of the museum.

At the heart of the “decolonize museums” conversation is the (arguably belated) recognition that colonialism is not a completed chapter in world history, but is also an organizational logic that continues to be remade in the present. As such, addressing and dismantling colonial legacies in museums is not only a representational project aimed at transforming paradigms of historicization, but it is also a social and political project that identifies and attempts to dismantle the stubborn afterlives of colonialism present in unjust social relations. The idea that the project of decolonization can be practiced on an institutional level alone has been widely critiqued by Ariella Azoulay (2019), Greer Valley (2020), Zoe Samudzi (2020), and Alirio Karina (2023), among others. Instead, if it is to have any impact and meaning, decolonizing the museum must be part of a larger project of decolonizing society. This, however, raises important questions about the parameters and capacities of the museum as an agent in a larger social network.

Yesomi Umulo (2020) describes the current condition of museums and the implications for work to be done, which must be connected to a wider, embedded view of the museum as part of a social infrastructure:

If we have now arrived at acknowledging the genealogy of violence and injustice in our institutions, public spaces, and personal lives, then the hard work of the days and months to come is to unlearn the practices and behaviors that have emerged from this condition, and seek to build anew along antiracist and decolonized lines.

Umulo's suggested roadmap indicates that it is not plausible to respond to the critiques of museal practice only through interpretive gestures or performances within the plane of representation (for example, inviting new voices in the interpretation of objects, or displaying transparency in the accumulation of histories of collections). Instead, it calls also for a questioning of the mechanism of cultural authority implicit in the museum, its (financial and cultural) support structures, and its continual refashioning by those in positions of power through different regimes. The entanglement of museums in social structures, and their recreation through certain epistemic frameworks, calls for close scrutiny and methodological imagination if we are to imagine alternative uses for them in the future.

For Alirio Karina, the museum's inheritances render it “faulty and ethically and politically compromised” (Karina 2020: 655), and as such its search to represent, to narrate the past, to be a space of memorialization, is fundamentally compromised. Galvanized by these powerful criticisms, at the heart of the MuseumFutures project is an argument for the mutability of the form of the museum. Our museum partners attest to an ongoing investment in the mutable museum: the museum as memorial site, as a safe study space for youth, as a space of entertainment, contestation, difficult conversations, and of celebration. It is not (necessarily) a doomed colonial white elephant that we would do better to dismantle entirely in the African context. Instead, as MuseumFutures Africa explores and seeks to document, African museums continue to demonstrate ways in which the form of the museum, its project of historicization, and its complex inheritances can be a lively (and volatile) space of change and productive instability.

In a reflective conversation with the six initial museum participants in 2023, all of the alumni museum partners found themselves embracing a multipurpose functionality of their spaces, by encouraging and inviting university students, school learners, and communities surrounding the museum more generally, in order to utilize the grounds, the resources, and the facilities of the museum in nontraditional ways. More specifically, this included providing spaces of learning in the libraries and resource centers (Steve Biko Centre and IFAN Diop), relaxation in the gardens and grounds (National Museums of Kenya and Musee Guinee), civil society meetings, weddings, and community events (Uganda Museum), photo shoots and even shooting music videos within the museum (YSMA). Public and Common spaces are rare and under enormous pressure in the neoliberal African cities of today, and it is exciting to see how museums are stepping into the role of community centers providing spaces of recreation, creativity, and learning.

This aspect of change in museums, one of many that the project seeks to document, recalls Njoki Ngumi's essay about the project (Ngumi 2022: 29) in which she mused:

If museums truly want to be homes for their local publics first, then these publics should be allowed ways and means to further non-museum agendas in these spaces, with possibilities ranging from council of elder meetings to small improvisational performance troupe rehearsals, youth talent development and competitions, and weekend festivals and pop-up entertainment areas.

The museums offered experimental ways of breaking away from the traditional museal dictum of constructing publics via a closely guarded agenda of research, education, and exhibition. The implications of weaving these practical ways of heterologizing the museum space into other more epistemic aspects of the museums work (reflecting on history, acting as custodian of heritage, etc.) will be important to trace.

Making Space for Rethinking: Centralizing Study as a Way of Centralizing Human Relationships in the African Museum

The core concept of the Museum Study Group was guided by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's powerful book The Undercommons (2013). The Study Group is a collective organized within the museum, made up of museum workers and stakeholders who meet regularly to think, read, be, study, reflect, play, explore. The funds provided by the project intended to support this rare and precious time, away from the regular workflows and chains of command within the museum (often structured by inflexible social hierarchies), in which people vested in the museum could meet as just that. Participating museums constituted their own study groups with members occupying diverse roles vis-a-vis the museum: educators, directors, security personnel, guides, curators, groundskeepers, administrators, visitors, community elders, and artists, among others.

The study group committed to gather regularly (twice a month for over a year) and create a roadmap for experimentation in their museum. As Kitaulwa Abraham from the Uganda Museum reflected after 14 months of study, “little did the community know that they are stakeholders in the museum (this is gradually changing)” (Sanan 2022: 9–10). Through intensive self- and collective reflection in regular meetings, the museum study groups worked towards creating spaces of dialogue (including disagreement) and experimentation, first between museum workers and then within a larger community of stakeholders. The study groups were also supported by the MuseumFutures project via regular online meetings with museum peers (significantly also crossing linguistic barriers), through a pedagogical guide that provided prompts for open-ended group sessions, and through regular (online) engagements with artists, historians, activists, and thinkers in the field of African museology.

The centering of collective study in the museum speaks back to paradigms of knowledge creation supported by the form of the museum that traditionally (and implicitly) have upheld patriarchal and Eurocentric values. Against the cult of expertise that has long dominated museal practice, collective and self-driven study invites a multiplicity of perspectives into the operational logic of the museum. This is not necessarily a very “efficient” space of decision making, and reflections from the museums attested to the stubbornness of deeply engrained social behaviors around differences in age, gender, “expertise,” cultural identity, and so on that arose in bimonthly meetings. The messy intangibles of social relations that the museum of the past has kept at arm's length, and indeed attempted to document with neutrality, were invited into the boardrooms, galleries, gardens. This is slow work, but it can also be radical work.

The Musee National de Guinee, with impetus from engagements with digital heritage specialist Chao Tayiana Maina, embarked on the digitization of a collection from the Koundara community. The collection was established in 2017 and comprised artifacts from minority communities whose collections in the Koundara Prefectural Museum were vandalized during the popular uprisings in 2007. The collection itself was thus born of reparative impulses, and the undertaking of digitization by the study group itself (as opposed to outsourced experts) ensured a capacity-building aspect was woven into the project. Training workshops were organized for the study group in taking photographs, processing images, and the operation of the database and website. In addition, volunteer-based sourcing methods were utilized to develop knowledge about artifacts from members of the Koundara region. As such, new collective practices of object care and research hinted at a methodology that moved past the standard protocols of preservation as an elite professional task. In the service of rejuvenating dwindling local interest in the very act of viewing objects within the ethnographic frame, the Musee Guinee study group worked from the inside out in its foray into people-centered museum processes.

The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art worked with a cohort of university students and interns from the Pan Atlantic University to produce reflections and interpretations of artworks in the permanent art collection bequeathed by Prince Yemisi Shyllon. In its own way, this was an invitation to democratize the performance of interpretation, and to remove the barrier of “expertise” that makes the very term “art” so daunting. Unexpectedly, the creation of digital content emerged as a secondary benefit to the strong relational infrastructure that developed through the project: as Michael Oseghale reflected, “we only had student workers when the project began. Now we have a student advisory committee that advises the YSMA on student engagement activities” (Oseghale in Sanan 2022: 12). In these cases, digital projects undertaken by a non-specialized museum team had implications for the strengthening of community relationships, the rethinking of established methods of knowledge creation related to museum objects, and the complication of overlapping social identities within the museum: as workers and community members, as audience members, researchers, and curators.

Molemo Moiloa, one of the project conceptualizers and a prominent voice in debates about restitution in Africa, presents an argument for the African museum to develop itself as a space to nurture relational infrastructures rather than remain defined by values of accumulation and objectification.1 “[T]aking from AbdouMaliq Simone's (2004) concept of people as infrastructure, I argue for a reimagination of the place of the object—repatriated or local—as of value primarily in its potential for the social and relational infrastructures that it might enable,” writes Moiloa, “[a]nd that in doing so we might completely rethink the role and form of the museum in Africa, and perhaps even begin to conjure the first inklings of what an African museum might be” (Moiloa 2021: 357).

The MuseumFutures project has sought to nurture the conditions for rethinking within the African context, by investing in the relationships that structure the museum rather than the objects in the museum. Critiques of the colonial museum highlight appropriative and extractive logics that have long guided the acquisition, research, and display of museum collections. These logics require unlearning. But unlearning is not enough. The museums involved with the project are also rebuilding epistemic spaces and creating conditions through which collections, exhibitions, and versions of history housed in museums may be continually brought to life through the heterogenous communities that the museum serves.

In order to further nurture lateral conversations and invite more unexpected lessons, MuseumFutures has expanded the conversation beyond the African continent itself. Museums based in the Global South have much to learn from each other's strategies, realities, and entangled histories, but do not often find positions of engagement. Instead, global funding often works in ways that strengthen North/South cultural relationships. By providing financial, relational, and infrastructural support, MuseumFutures has embarked on a journey to nurture an imaginative collective process driven by the following six museums: the Maji Maji Memorial Museum in Songea, Tanzania; the Arna Jharna Thar Desert Museum in Rajasthan, India; the Museu Mafalala in Maputo, Mozambique; the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and Raipur, India; the Mutare Museum in Mutare, Zimbabwe; and finally, the Acervo da Laje in Salvador, Brazil. As it unfolds, the theme of relational infrastructure seems to be taking root even more deeply, not only in highly localized ways between museum staff members and their surrounding communities, but also more widely within an international museum community with a changing implied center.

Note

1

Moiloa explores this point in depth in the context of the “Museum Conversations” among other Goethe Institut-supported museum projects. See: Moiloa 2021.

References

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  • MuseumFutures Africa Proposal Document. 2020. Collection of the author.

  • Moiloa, Molemo. 2021. “nto>ntu: Reimagining Relational Infrastructures of Museums in Africa. In Museum Futures, ed.L. Emmerling, L. Gupta, L. Proença, and M. Biwa, 357365. Berlin: Turia & Kant.

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  • Moten, Fred and Stefano Harney. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions.

  • Ngumi, Njoki. 2022. “Drawing up a Map of Dreams: Study and Change in the African Museum Landscape.” In MuseumFutures Africa: Booklet 1/4, ed.Sophia Sanan, 1730. Johannesburg: MuseumFutures Africa. Available at: https://museum-futures.com/resources (accessed 15 July 2023).

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  • Okeke-Agulu, Chika. 2021. “The Postcolonial Museum.” Okwui Enwezor Distinguished Lecture, hosted (on Zoom) by the Cluster of Excellence Africa Multiple and Iwalewahaus of the University of Bayreuth, 15 July. Text posted by Okeke-Agulu: https://www.instagram.com/p/CRVEQaxF2L-/ (accessed 1 September 2023).

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  • Samudzi, Zoe. 2020. “Reparative Futurities: Thinking from the Ovaherero and Nama Colonial Genocide.” The Funambulist Magazine, Issue 30: Reparations, June 29.

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  • Sanan, Sophia. 2022. “Preface.” In MuseumFutures Africa: Booklet 1/4, ed. Sophia Sanan, 516. Johannesburg: MuseumFutures Africa. https://museum-futures.com/resources.

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  • Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture, Fall 16 (3): 407429.

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  • Valley, Greer. 2019. “Decolonization Can't Just Be a Metaphor.Africa Is a Country: Culture, 11 December. https://africasacountry.com/2019/11/decolonization-cant-just-be-a-metaphor.

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Museum Matters in Africa

Repatriation and New Museum Projects

Jesmael Mataga

The two main issues that have dominated the contemporary museum landscape in Africa are high profile new museum projects and highly contested debates related to the repatriation of African objects located in museums outside the continent. The first issue about the construction of new museums across the continent is the less publicized, while the second is very high profile, but both are central to contemporary discussions of museum development and echo the persistent search for new modes of museum-making in Africa, a longstanding goal given the colonial origins of museums on the continent. Current commentary on museums in Africa acknowledges this difficult past, yet also seeks new, decolonized future trajectories for museums (Abiti and Laely 2021; Goethe 2019;1 Mataga 2022; Silverman, Abungu, and Probst 2022; Witz 2022). Within the emerging scholarship on repatriation, and particularly its practicalities, there is also a search for new relationships between museums in Europe and Africa (Hicks 2020; Laely, Meyer, and Schwere 2018; Mbembe 2021; Sarr and Savoy 2018), as well as efforts to establish new and inclusive trajectories in museum development (Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Silverman, Abungu, and Probst 2022; Witz 2022; see also Sanan this volume).

What is also becoming apparent now is that there is an intricate connection between the major new museum projects on the continent and the increasing calls for repatriation and for finding a “home” for repatriated objects on the continent. The calls for the return of African objects to Africa have taken center stage, grabbing attention in museum professional and academic circles, political and diplomatic circles, the public media, and artistic representations. The Sarr and Savoy (2018) report has had an afterlife, galvanizing talk about restitution, raising consciousness, and prompting practical acts of return. Topics discussed have ranged from the legal, moral, and ethical, to the sheer practical issues related to the logistics of return, including finding appropriate homes, establishing ownership, and working out custodianship at the point of return. If anything, recent developments in Nigeria have shown how these issues are likely to be much more complex, even as more objects are returned. For some, given the violence and callousness with which objects were removed from Africa in the first place, the act of return is a moral responsibility for mainly European countries to facilitate appropriate logistical and moral restitution/reparation. For it is not just the materiality of the objects that were looted—it was the soul, the symbolic, even the sacred, nature of the ancestral beings and human remains (Hicks 2020; Mbembe 2021). It is the events around the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria that have captivated the global community in relation to repatriation and the intricacies of global cultural politics. Thousands of metal castings and ivory carvings were looted by a British military expedition in 1897 from the Benin kingdom in what is today southern Nigeria, and are now mainly in museums in Europe and the US. In recent years, several of these museums, responding to demands from African countries, have started to return objects that for decades have been in Western museums (Lidchi 2022; Zetterstrom-Sharp and Wingfield 2019). Currently, several countries in Europe are actively working with African governments to develop plans to return art and artifacts.

Yet discussions on where the returned objects should belong are still in their formative stages. Contemporary museum projects in Africa (new and planned) are intricately linked to these developments. Recent developments in Nigeria concerning the Benin Bronzes show how these processes and repatriation logistics are tied up with local cultural and political contestations. A key question is whether the returned objects should go to state/national museums, or whether they should be sent back to communities from whence they came, and managed by local traditional and spiritual leadership. In early 2023, the Nigerian president declared Oba Ewuare II's ownership and custodianship of the returned bronzes. This declaration, confirming custodianship and ownership with traditional leaders, was in line with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)’s museum project in Benin City—the Edo Museum of West African Art—a state agency responsible for the preservation, promotion, and development of Nigeria's cultural heritage.

Thus, questions related to the logistics of returns, especially around local and global arrangements, remain important. In order to gain consensus, collaboration and networks (especially between Europe and Africa) are needed to facilitate meaningful repatriation. Meanwhile, the very idea of the museum itself is not settled. While the search for the museum's purpose so far has been a global and longstanding quest, for Africa, museums have always occupied an ambivalent space, due to the ways in which the museum institution was socialized on the continent through colonialism—a space that has become even more ambivalent in postcolonial, postapartheid contexts.

The search for an alternative, more inclusive African museum has been ongoing since the beginning of decolonization on the continent, as newly independent states have sought to correct the misrepresentation inscribed in colonial museum curatorial practices. Although the old museums were never demolished, there has been a questioning of the museum's role. What is a museum for, who does it serve, and is it the appropriate model for managing African histories, culture, and traditions? Who gets involved and excluded? What are the processes involved in the making and functioning of museums? From as early as the 1970s, in the middle of the political struggles for the decolonization of the continent, these debates were, in part, reflected on by several bodies; the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and the Centre for Heritage Development in Africa ( CHDA) supported local initiatives and numerous other continent-wide initiatives to develop museum capacity in the region (Silverman, Abungu, and Probst 2022). In past decades there have been notable, but less widely reported, ongoing efforts to rethink and reconfigure the social role of museums on the continent (see, for example, Sanan in this issue).

The growth of the museum sector in Africa is reflected in a few different projects ranging from national museums to those spearheaded by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and others: from the planned National Museum in Lesotho, the first and only museum in the country, to the Museum of African Liberation in Harare, earmarked to commemorate Africa's liberation struggles against colonials, and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), a public non-profit museum in Cape Town that was opened in 2017 and is the largest museum of contemporary art on the continent. They include huge projects such as the Grand Egyptian Museum; The Pan-African Heritage World Museum Project in Ghana, with a deliberate thrust towards elevating the heritages of Africa and the African diaspora; and a flagship project of the African Union (AU), namely The Great Museum of Africa (GMA), planned to be launched in 2023 in Algiers (Algeria), as part of the African Union's fifty-year continental development Agenda 2063. Finally, there are spectacular buildings such as the Museum of African Civilizations in Senegal, which opened in 2018, fifty years after its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, articulated a postcolonial vision of négritude.

The desire to elevate a pan-African narrative, based on a degree of “self-representation,” is reflected in all these museum projects. For example, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) outside Cairo on the Giza Plateau, housing Egyptian artifacts, including the famous Tutankhamun collection, is touted as the largest archaeological museum in the world. In early 2023, a part of the galleries of the museum was opened to the public.2 In Senegal, the Museum of African Civilizations, a project reportedly initiated by Senghor himself, has expansive exhibition spaces and a distinctive exterior that draws inspiration from the round huts that are characteristic of traditional Senegalese architecture.3

Meanwhile, in Ghana, another museum is in its formative stages. The Pan African Heritage World Museum (also known as Pan African Heritage Museum), registered as an NGO, is envisaged to house archives, exhibits, galleries, and a theater that will “provide a natural residence and resting place for all the looted cultural artefacts of our continent, which are housed in foreign museums and which will be returned to us.”4

It is, however, in the story of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) where we can see most clearly the link between repatriation and contemporary museum/nation-building and cultural identity. The EMOWAA's development has been directly connected with returned artifacts, specifically the Benin Bronzes, from what is now southern Nigeria. More than a century later, the new museum, whose motto is “Our heritage revisited Our future re-imagined,”5 is to be built on the site of the ancient Benin City's ruins (Gershon 2020). The building, partly funded by a nonprofit organization, is seen as a fitting home for the array of artifacts being returned to Nigeria by museums from around the world.

So, what is the common theme that runs through these recent, new, and future projects in Africa, and what can we decode about the future of museums in this part of the world? One recurring idea is that the museum is still seen as a site for dealing with a number of social issues, and this is manifest in the linkage between these institutions and local, regional, and global geo-cultural politics. Another is the element of reclamation of the past—this time through museums built for and by Africans rather than as colonial visions of the Other erected by the colonizer. And third are the current debates around repatriation and the tricky issue of where the repatriated objects should be held. Many museums in Africa (old and new) are touted as the appropriate “homes” for the repatriated objects.

Another key observation I would make is the diversity of non-state players in museum-making. While some state-based projects have received financial support from countries like China, there is also a widening of the local role of players such as NGOs and academic/research institutions. I am also struck by the ways in which these museums all engage their publics as part of an effort by African states to create their own museums, in contrast to (but perhaps also paralleling) those built by the former colonial powers, and in some cases to bolster stronger cultural nationalisms within the global geopolitical landscape. For instance, the Museum of Black Civilizations (Senegal), the Pan African Heritage World Museum (Ghana), and the Grand Egyptian Museum are all, at least in part, political projects, where they are integral to strategies enhancing the cultural and political identity and profile of their respective countries. The Museum of Black Civilizations describes its mission in terms of regional/African cultural leadership, positioning itself within Dakar as a pan-African, West African cultural hub and the pivot of regional cultural influence.

There is also a competitive element here of building “world-class museums,” and this is reflected in the scale and visibility of some of the projects. The buildings, architecture, and facilities correspond with international standards, and the curatorial programs reference global standards, and while this might seem to homogenize museology, yet I would say overall the museums construct, project, and effectively front-foot the uniqueness of the connections to their own particular African cultural heritages. The museums are all conceived with the goal of highlighting what might be called “Africa's contribution to the world's cultural and scientific patrimony.” Some of the museums discussed here were on the list of “ultramodern museums,” noted as homes for the returned materials by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy (2018) in their report on the restitution of African cultural heritage.

On the ground, in Africa, from architectural styles to collection strategies, modes of curation, and community engagement activities, the new museums reference and foreground communities and Africanness. Designed by renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the EMOWAA's design echoes the shape of the pre-colonial palace. On its website, the museum asserts that it moves beyond the notion of the museum as a building, and research as purely academic or institutionalized knowledge. EMOWAA, they say, “will contain the rich, regal and sacred objects of Benin's past, in a way that allows visitors not just the possibility of “looking in” but “looking out” into the visual landscape of imagining the once historic borders of a restored ancient kingdom.”6 While questions on the real impact and influence of the new museum projects will only be answered in the near future, for now, what we can be sure of is that the museum as an institution still matters in Africa.

Notes

1

Goethe's MuseumFutures Africa project is a pan-African project established to support the conceptual development of museums throughout the African continent. See Sophia Sanan's review in this issue. See also: https://www.goethe.de/ins/za/en/kul/dis/mfu.html.

2

Grand Egyptian Museum website: https://visit-gem.com/en/home (accessed 11 March 2023).

3

Senegal Ndiaye Museum of Black Civilizations website: https://senegalndiaye.com/en/listings/museum-of-dakar-black-civilizations/ (accessed 1 July 2023).

4

Pan African Heritage Museum website: https://pahmuseum.org/ (accessed 1 July 2023).

5

Edo Museum of West African Art website: https://www.emowaa.com/ (accessed 1 July 2023).

6

Edo Museum of West African Art on the Adjaye Architects website: https://www.adjaye.com/work/edo-museum-of-west-african-art/ (accessed 13 June 2023).

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Contributor Notes

KIRSTY KERNOHAN completed her PhD in anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in 2021, with research focusing on intergenerational family practices of colonial collecting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has worked with Dumfries Museum to explore the relationships between local communities and ethnographic photographs of Scotland and currently works at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge where she was Photographic Collections Assistant for the Poignant Project.

JESMAEL MATAGA is an Associate Professor and the inaugural Head of Humanities at Sol Plaatje University, in Kimberley, South Africa. He previously worked as a Curator with the National Museums and Monuments in Zimbabwe. His recent publications include the book Museums as Agents for Social Change: Decolonisation at the Mutare Museum co-authored with Njabulo Chipangura (Routledge 2021) and contributions to the Routledge International Handbook of Heritage and Politics (2023). Jesmael is the reviews editor for the African region for Museum Worlds: Advances in Research.

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Museum Worlds

Advances in Research

  • Figure 1.

    A composite image of photographs and catalogue cards from Ngāruawāhia, Aotearoa New Zealand, 1969. MAA T.150595.RPT—T.150598.RPT; P.154927.RPT; P.154934.RPT; P.154954.RPT; P.154945.RPT; N.159437.RPT-N.159448.RPT. Photographs courtesy of Axel Poignant.

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