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There’s a Lot to Heal

© Caroline Lessire

A workshop held in Brussels to jump-start the project "Alles vergeht, außer der Vergangenheit" (“Everything passes except the past”).

By Cristina Nord

Is it possible to heal a museum? If so, how might one go about that? Grace Ndiritu, an artist from London, believes so firmly in the idea that she calls one of her participatory performances "Healing the Museum". In early May, she appeared at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels. About thirty people were seated around her, a few of them museumgoers, most of them participants in a workshop entitled “Alles vergeht, außer der Vergangenheit“, or "Everything passes except the past", about dealing with the vestiges of colonialism in European museums and collections.

King Leopold II had the Royal Museum for Central Africa built at the beginning of the 20th century in a huge park just outside of Brussels. The object was to convince the Belgians that colonizing the Congo was a good idea. The statues still on display in the alcoves here are meant to show how Belgium, at the time still a new buffer state between France and the Netherlands, to “bring civilization” to Central Africa. Only recently have explanatory panels been added to provide some critical perspective on these bronze allegories of European self-exaltation. And the exhibits in the museum’s spacious basement were intended to shore up claims that the Congolese were savages: behold the statue of the infamous “Leopard Man”, for example, who, with his whole head and upper body wrapped in a leopardskin, was said to attack innocents with razor-sharp blades attached to his fingers. It would have been dishonest to banish to the depot these vestiges of colonial Eurocentrism, says staffer Christine Bluard as she guides us through the museum. In the Hall of Minerals, the ores and turquoise and pink crystals on display sparkle seductively, but tell a story of rapacious acquisitiveness and ruthless exploitation. And that story isn’t over today by any means, given the manifold evils of current-day coltan mining in the DRC to supply the capacitors used in mobile phones and many other electronic devices.

So there’s a lot to heal here. But how?
Grace Ndiritu draws on shamanistic techniques, meditation and yoga exercises for healing purposes. She asks us to take off our shoes, sit down on the floor, close our eyes and try to sense the presence of the exhibits in the showcases. Do they speak to us? Can we feel them? Needless to say, this meditation exercise cannot undo the building’s history, which is inextricably bound up with colonialism, or the ruinous combination of high-handed Eurocentrism and ruthless economic exploitation of overseas colonies. But it does enable us to experience the museum in a new way.

After taking part in the exercise, Guido Gryseels, the director of the Africa Museum, says he has never walked around the museum without shoes on or sat on the floor here before. That may not seem a big deal on the face of it. But it actually makes a difference whether you stand there looking around the room or whether you walk through it or sit on the floor with your eyes closed, which means relinquishing power – and what could be a bigger step towards really grappling with the history of colonial injustice than showing a willingness to surrender power and privileges?

“Healing the Museum" was part of a workshop to launch "Alles vergeht, außer der Vergangenheit" ("Everything passes except the past"), a project launched by several Goethe-Instituts in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain along with various partner organizations. Roughly half our time there was spent on internal discussions and working groups. The participants – including Mnyaka Sururu Mboro and Yann Le Gall, two activists from the Berlin Postkolonial organization, art historian Didier Houénoudé from Benin and artist Géraldine Tobé from Kinshasa, as well as Katia Kukawka, a curator at the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux – contributed diverse and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, which repeatedly caused productive friction. Placide Mumbembele, for instance, a cultural anthropologist from Kinshasa, rejects the European tendency to seek out so-called "source communities" for restitution purposes, because in his eyes it is the African states, not individuals or groups, who should decide the future of looted objects.

the voracity of museum depots

Mumbembele also insisted on the necessity of returning colonial-era exhibits when Hartmut Dorgerloh and Lars-Christian Koch outlined their plans for the interior of the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Berlin Palace. The two museum directors presented the project as a combination research centre, meeting place and museum. The new museum is to set up residencies, respond to current developments and debates through temporary exhibitions, and provide space for collaborative research.

Other workshop participants expounded theoretical considerations concerning the limitations on the knowledge produced by European museums. Grace Ndiritu embraces alternative practices and grassroots activities, outreach work to bring art and knowledge to residential neighbourhoods and youth centres, bringing in experts in alternative forms of knowledge (e.g. shamans) and letting objects circulate: "Take the objects out of the museums!” Clémentine Deliss, a curator, journalist and researcher, agreed that ethnography should not be the only discipline called upon to explain artefacts. She talked about the voracity of museum depots, where countless objects are preserved in ideal conditions, to be sure, but where they can no longer be seen, let alone touched, by anyone. She hopes museums of the future will become places of low-threshold transdisciplinary knowledge production.

The difficulties of obtaining a visa

Wayne Modest of the Research Center for Material Culture at Amsterdam’s ethnographic Tropenmuseum added a radical critique of European border regimes. He sees enduring proof of the devastating effects of Eurocentrism in the way we divide people up into those allowed to travel freely, without any hassles or restrictions, on the one hand, and those who actually risk their lives in order to cross borders and are denied entry into Europe, on the other. Though not quite that dramatic, the experiences of the workshop participants from Benin and the Congo were nerve-racking all the same. Like Dada Kahindo, an artist from Kinshasa, Placide Mumbembele and Didier Houénoudé did not receive their visas for Belgium until the very last minute. Given the prohibitive cost and hassles involved in obtaining a visa and travelling to Europe, no wonder it’s still so hard for African artists and researchers to contribute to European discourse on a regular basis. If Houénoudé and Mumbembele had one wish, it would be for more joint research and collaborative production of knowledge – in Europe as well as in Africa.

All in all, the participants aired both very concrete and highly abstract ideas, which will be taken up and further developed at upcoming workshops in Lisbon, Barcelona and Bordeaux. Here’s a cursory rundown of their proposals:
  • The crisis of the museum should be seen less as a problem than as an opportunity to redefine what museums are all about.
  • Multidisciplinarity is a must. Interpreting museum exhibits must not be the exclusive preserve of ethnologists.
  • The inclusion of women artists – whether from Africa, the African diaspora in Europe or from Europe itself – must not be a token gesture. And museums should not outsource institutional self-criticism to artists and then simply carry on as before.
  • Restitution is important, but not a panacea. It is essential to investigate claims and provenance, but, in the worst case, these processes may keep artefacts in depots for a very long time due to the many lingering uncertainties. We need to think about what can be done with them now.
  • Collaboration between African and European researchers should be more frequent and a matter of course.
  • Educational programmes in African countries should seek to familiarize people there with their lost heritage.
  • Mutual goodwill should be the driving force behind these healing efforts.