Decolonisation can’t just be a metaphor

 

 

In the museum world, particularly in Europe, conferences and workshops around “decolonising” colonial collections and what to do with stolen artifacts turned ethnographic objects have become commonplace. Small parts of those collections are displayed in exhibition halls while much of the material culture and human remains from Africa are kept in boxes, locked up in basement storerooms. European museums often invite artists and activists from Africa and the diaspora to “mine the museum.” Namibian scholar and artist Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja names this “practice of museuming” as one that asks the victims of colonialism to handle its baggage.

The issue is pressing and it is taking place on the African continent too, which is how the Goethe-Institut Namibia came to run a conference in Windhoek, the country’s capital, called “Museum Conversations.” The conference concluded a series of regional meetings with key stakeholders in the museums sector from around Africa and Europe. In the opening speech, the director Daniel Stoevesandt explained that Goethe-Institut is positioning itself as a facilitator on the continent, creating connections between regional stakeholders and players in the field.

“Museum Conversations” included a range of voices from around the continent. Prominent scholars in the museum sector, such as George Abungu from Kenya and Ciraj Rassool from South Africa, advocated for the need to urgently address the histories of violence in the museum in order to shape the museum of the future. Veteran educator and activist Mandy Sanger from the District Six Museum in Cape Town spoke about how hierarchies of suffering and trauma are used as currency in these conversations. Others, like Wandile Kasibe of Iziko Museums of South Africa, likened museums to crime scenes, highlighting the complicity of museums in maintaining the silences of the crimes committed during the colonial period, including theft, murder, and genocide.

So how are European museums addressing the question of return, restitution, and repatriation? For the most part, not very well. From personal experience, in attending many of these kinds of forums, the return or repatriation discussion is still framed as a “debate” and I get the sense from colleague-elders that these “debates” have been going on for a very long time. To quote the title of a text by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang: “Decolonisation is not a metaphor.” It is time to move from talk to action.

Here is an example, involving the German return of Namibian artifacts, that treats decolonisation as a metaphor. Facilitated by the Museums Association of Namibia, 20 objects will soon be returned from a German museum with conditions: 1) the objects are initially loaned for a three-year period after which the Namibians can apply for a permanent loan; and 2) the Namibian government must fund the return of the objects in addition to other costs involved, like the process of cleaning the artifacts—removing the poisons and toxins used by conservators to preserve them for posterity. The German government claims that the loans system is a way to bypass German laws around ownership. Some others have argued that the artifacts of African origin have an entangled and shared heritage as they now belong to both Europe and Africa. But this a shared history based on violence and theft. Can one really claim ownership of something that was stolen?

The question of human remains and cultural material held in European ethnographic museums is also a question of the largely devastating afterlives of European colonial rule. The extractive nature of colonialism meant that European nations could build their countries’ wealth through the extraction of culture, resources and people from Africa. Colonialism enforces displacement, and while the period of formal European colonialism has ended in Africa, coloniality persists. As Walter Mignolo argues, coloniality “is the continuing hidden process of expropriation, exploitation, pollution, and corruption that underlies the narrative of modernity, as promoted by institutions and actors belonging to corporations, industrialised nation-states, museums, and research institutions.”

The issue at hand also seems to be that European Museums as instruments of the state suffer from what Anne Laura Stoler calls colonial aphasia—“In aphasia, an occlusion of knowledge is the issue. It is not a matter of ignorance or absence.”

We cannot keep having debates for the next 50 years. We need strategic intervention. A more productive use of the time for museum professionals in Germany for example would be to lobby the government to create policy to speed up the returns process. In September 2019, Bénédicte Savoy, who together with Felwine Sarr authored the report commissioned by Emanuel Macron: Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain, has, with others, set up the appeal “Open Museums Inventories of African Artifacts.” It relates to the German context and demands that public museums and authorities in charge in Germany:

… make the inventories of African objects in their respective collections available worldwide as quickly as possible, regardless of the degree of completeness or supposed perfection of these inventories. Simple scans and lists are sufficient. We need them now. Only then can the dialogue begin.

That dialogue should then be one that focuses on how Europeans can return objects in a way that respects their original purposes (sometimes spiritual or ritual) and without putting the burden of that labour on Africans. It should also be one that asks not whether African museums have the conditions to preserve and exhibit such objects but, rather, how to create spaces that don’t operate with colonial logics.

As Namibian scholar and artist, Memory Biwa asks: “Are there other spaces that we can create where communities themselves can narrate histories of objects?”

This article was first published on Africa is a Country

Greer Valley
Guest Author
Advertisting

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in...

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as...
Advertising

Press Releases

Mint Group unveils Finance and Operations business

ERP specialist Andre Pearce will spearhead the Mint ERP business.

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.