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Museum Conversations
African Museums of the future: „Museum Conversations“ in Kigali

Museum Conversations
Foto: Daniel Koßmann

There is a new global term coming up that redefines museums. Which new concepts, ideas or approaches are needed that museums remain a relevant cultural place? How does a futuristic African museum look like? Which challenges faces this kind of museum? International museum experts discussed these and more questions at the opening event of the “Museums Conversations” series hosted by Goethe-Institut Kigali and of the National Institute of Museums in Rwanda.

A searing light floods the old University City, when a white bus stops in front of the Chinese Restaurant in Huye. Midday heat, lunch break and Chinese food are competing with the look of dried beans and plantains and the smell of spiced rice and lots of brochettes. Pink Christmas angels and a colorful potpourri are overlooking the scene from the wall. The group of international museum experts is in a good mood and sits around a long table. Invited by Goethe-Institut Kigali, they arrived from Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Germany and Switzerland. For three days they want to talk about the future of African museums.

There is a new global term coming up that redefines museums. Meanwhile, Museum means more than presenting the past, but also includes the idea of the present and the future. The presentation of the past shall be questioned, as well: Which narratives and power structures reflect the exhibition concept? New concepts, ideas or approaches are needed, so the museum remains a relevant cultural place. African museums are often confronted with additional challenges: the locals rarely notice them and do not see their room for dialogues. A contemporary and postcolonial museum is inseparably connected to the continued effect of the western colonization. During “Museum Conversations” organized by the Goethe-Institut, creative artists and museum experts discuss future models of sub-Saharan African museums.

Start: Kigali July 9, 2018. The workshop is already in full progress for hours. The participants discuss in big groups at the Kandt House, a museum of history and remnant of the German colonial times, as well. They debate seven topics: It is all about the museum as a place, an institution for generating knowledge, its relationship to the nation, publicity, technology and politics. Furthermore, they discuss the museums’ ethnical responsibility. The key topics are presented in detail in prepared essays of the experts. The workshop can only be a starting point of the conversation.  In addition, it is a transcontinental and regional exchange about the future of museums. They continue debating about essential issues of the following years.

For the employee of the Director of Rwandan museums, Gabriel Kayonga, a museum is a place of excellence meaning. “Most Rwandan museums are focusing only one topic, because they are located at the true historic places.” Charles Kabwete Mulina a professor for history agrees on that, as well. “A place with a meaning is preferred a memorial, a museum or a monument.” It is self-explanatory. The curator of ethnographical collections at the University of Mainz, Anna-Maria Brandstetter, cannot go along with that. “Place and room are always constructed.” Only humans give those places a meaning. That is why they are not self-explanatory at all. Whether the location of a museum is historical relevant or not, the question that has to be answered first is how people can be animated to visit a museum – also in Rwanda.

“Many locals feel excluded when a museum is build, including a fence surrounding it”, thinks the historian Maurice Mugabowagahunde of the Institute of National Museums Rwanda. In his opinion, not the place is important for the museum, but how it is presented. However, Jeremy Silvester, the Director of the Museum Association of Namibia is questioning if that is enough. In his vision the museum of the future is maybe a museum without walls. It is essential for him to “bring the museum to the people and not only bring the people to the museum.”

Who are the people they are talking about? What is the target group? Flower Manase Msuya of the National Museum of Tanzania, says that there are people who are not going to the museum because they know the exhibition pieces already from their grandparents. Is the concept of a museum only working in Europe? How do contemporary African museums look like? What happens with memorials, memorable trees and other monuments as ancestral shrines, Thomas Laely from the Zurich Museum of Anthropology wants to know? There had to be practices for preserving the tradition in Africa.

Whereas the historian Mugabowagahunde wonders how to make sure that visitors believe the information’s presented in museums. Lastly, both polity and economy play an immense role. “The polity decides whose story is going to be told.” The curator Flower Manase Msuya has a similar opinion. “The donor decides which story can be told.” As a curator it is possible to do recommendations, but the financier makes the final decision. The own collection often raises issues according to credibility, because many collections are arranged by outsiders. Msuya asks: “Can we trust in information’s that we did not compile?

Altogether, in small groups, in private conversations in the evening, the exchange is not over: Those and more questions are employing the workshop participants for even more hours. Start Kigali, a beginning for more – more networking, more museums, more negotiating knowledge.      

Text: Goethe-Institut Kigali / Daniel Koßmann and Lena Wassermeier