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Museum in a Box tells our stories

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Twelve African heads of state, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, committed last month to “speed up the return of cultural assets” to the continent during the 33rd assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Most of these cultural assets are still held captive by the old colonial powers in Europe. This renewed, high-level interest by African leaders in repatriating objects to their places of origin coincides with intensifying debates within Europe about decolonising museums there.

Britain — consistent in its refusal to return the looted Greek Parthenon Marbles and other items — now faces pressure from the European Union to repatriate the Marbles as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Despite this, a British newspaper saw fit last month to question whether artefacts stolen during the colonial era meet the criteria to be returned to their rightful owners or descendants.

Such deeply embedded reluctance to confront this glaring aspect of Europe’s colonial past is made starker still by French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to facilitate the immediate restitution of African artefacts held in French museums to their original homes in Africa.

As calls to decolonise strengthen worldwide, repatriating artefacts to the people and places they were often brutally taken from is both urgent and complicated. The remarkable work of the Kenya-led International Inventories Programme shows just how hard it is to get European museums to share inventories and details of their collections in the first place. As they argue, people first need to find out what was taken from them.

But getting artefacts back is also just a first step. Returning high-profile pieces is an important part of the decolonisation process — but it doesn’t, on its own, restore control over the history of the artefacts to communities that made and used them. Where colonialism was so pervasive was in its erasure of those histories, rewriting them once the artefacts entered museums. Even now, it’s rarely the people who made and used the artefacts who get to tell their stories and say why they’re important.

What headline-grabbing repatriation cases do not address is how to approach the thousands — in some cases, millions — of similar items languishing in museum storerooms: artefacts that colonialists saw value in taking but that aren’t, now, considered valuable enough in European terms to permanently exhibit in museums, yet aren’t being given back either. Beyond the big-ticket items, we need to think about how we rewrite these stories, who it is that gets to tell them, and how.

Technology — ranging from online, open-access museum databases to 3D proxy prints of artefacts — is often touted as the solution to reunite people and objects torn apart during colonialism. But simply handing over images to Google to share far and wide does not solve the problem. Fundamental questions of who designs the databases, and who gets to control the data, reflect entrenched power dynamics that have historically left originating communities on the sidelines of their own history.

These debates about how to deploy new technologies are emblematic of a broader need to upend lingering colonial-style relationships, to shift power so that people can tell their own stories, in their own language, on their own terms.

There are ways, however, to use the power of technology to do just that. The Amagugu Ethu collective in KwaZulu-Natal — an isiZulu-speaking group of artists, a nurse, a writer, an educator, a tour guide and a sangoma — is attempting that with their digital Museum in a Box.

Last year, during a visit to Cape Town, the collective identified and recorded stories for the Museum in a Box about Zulu artefacts collected in previous centuries for the country’s oldest museum — now part of the Iziko Museums. In monetary terms, few of the artefacts selected have value. But, for this group, artefacts dismissed by museums as pots, medicine containers, herbs or beadwork — objects chosen in colonial and apartheid days to “prove” how little civilised Africans were — have rich histories and significance that resonate today. What the box does is give space to narrate these unwritten stories on their own terms.

The shoe-box sized museum is, technologically speaking, a simple device centred on a Raspberry Pi — a credit-card sized computer that costs about $70. Working with near-field communication tags, when a scaled 3D print or photograph of the artefact is placed on the box, it starts to “talk”, giving the object’s oral history through the built-in speaker. Crucially, for Amagugu Ethu, the voices in the box are Zulu-speaking collaborators. The response to telling and hearing their own stories has been — in the words of creator Nini Xulu — emotional and affirming.

The collective exhibited the box at various heritage events in September. The aim is to place boxes in museums, schools and libraries across KwaZulu-Natal, and then work on expanding its collection to include Zulu artefacts held by museums across Europe — and beyond.

Being low-cost and portable, the box provides people access in places where internet connectivity is limited and expensive. It is not a substitute for doing the soul-searching political work of repatriating the artefacts; decolonisation is more than repatriation, but cannot happen without it.

What the box may be is a new way of using technology to upend these old power dynamics and ask people to tell their stories, in their own way.

Dr Laura Kate Gibson is a lecturer in the department of digital humanities, King’s College, London

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