Museums Museums and their potential in Africa
Museums and galleries are not only important in safeguarding the historical, cultural, scientific or artistic artefacts; they are intrinsic in preserving heritage and pieces of history for future generations, while contributing to the arts and cultural development of society by also reflecting the zeitgeist.
It's with this frame of mind that the Goethe-Institut Namibia brought together academics, curators and museum experts for the Museum Conversations conference to discuss the future of the African museum from a post-colonial perspective.
On day one, delegates and the public were guided on a tour of the Independence Memorial Museum situated in the heart of Windhoek. They were acquainted with one of Namibia's most modern-day museums that was built to focus on the country’s liberation struggle and anti-colonial forces. In the museum's auditorium, professor Ciraj Rassool from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa noted the importance of museums, the need to question legacies and reimagining citizenship. “Our challenge is to rethink the museum in Africa as a site for critically questioning legacies, reimagining citizenship as the ability to interrogate these legacies and participation by communities in all aspects of museum work,” he said.
One of Windhoek’s biggest tourist attractions built during the colonial era and that stands right opposite the museum, the Christuskirche, was after the conference’s opening showered in recorded sounds of persons speaking the Khoekhoegowab language that was widely spoken before colonization. Jarrett Erasmus of Burning Museum in South Africa and Robert Machiri from Pungwe in Zimbabwe guided delegates to an artistic performance. The performance of throwing a ball and aiming for a target was synced with and responsive to sounds over the Khoekhoegowab recordings to symbolise the past, present and future.
The Role Of Communities.
Day two of the conference opened with Jeremy Silvester from the Museum Association of Namibia (MAN), who delivered a brief overview of the Namibian museum landscape. He pointed out some of the major projects underway locally in the sector, such as the Namibian Musical Museum, which is due to be housed at Omuthiya in northern Namibia. This one of many projects is geared towards decentralising museum development, create employment and facilitate economic growth in communities across Namibia. “Our way forward is bringing museum and art works together because they are too separate at the moment,” he said. Silvester also noted a project in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture that consists of workshops to gather information on how the rural communities have over time learnt to deal with deforestation and the human-wildlife conflict. “Museums have the potential to represent the people and how their cultural ways of handling these challenges brings them together,” he said.
Albertina Nekongo from the National Archives of Namibia gave an impassioned presentation on the need for Namibian museum professionals to decolonise museum spaces and bring young people closer to the content. “We are trapped with a dominant ideology of heritage production, which is an official version of telling history that is only looking at a one-sided story,” she said. For her, communities are not equally represented in museum spaces, as young people are finding it harder to relate to what they see in museums.
Most speakers on the panel that varied from museum and national gallery curators to multidisciplinary artists agreed there is a need to involve communities in the process of heritage preservation and presentation. Providing information on a case study of the Usakos Museum in the Erongo Region as a community based museum, Saara Ilovu from the Karibib Town Council spoke at length about the ways in which museum work can add value to local communities, instead of merely serving as tourist attractions. Community involvement was prominent in the discussion, as noted through examples of regional museums in Zambia by Flexon Mizinga from the National Museums Board of Zambia. He said the trend of regional museums established by traditional authorities has great potential to involve communities and have them participate in the creation of their representation, but only if financial resources were more available.
Alternative and Conventional Spaces.
Opening the third session of day-two, Raphael Chikukwa from the National Gallery of Zimbabwe reminded delegates of the legacy of the museum in pre-historic Africa. “The museum in Africa is where the people are supposed to connect with their past other than being educational and cultural hubs. People are told about the so-called worldview of museums and yet, the ancestors built these hubs before they were looted during the colonial era,” he said. He described various private initiatives across North, East and Southern Africa that provide local artists with the opportunity to create and market their works internationally for the artefacts in European museums to be better understood as what they were before removed from the context that constructed their meanings to the people of the continent. This, he said, highlights the importance of having the worldwide concept of a museum include that of the institution in the continent’s context.
The National Art Gallery of Namibia's Curator, Ndeenda Shivute spoke of the gallery’s role in making space available for artists from all walks of life to showcase their work. She spoke of wide-ranging platforms the gallery offers artists to enable creation, including alternative spaces beyond the building that are smaller than imagined but where profound works are produced. “The link between the gallery and the museum is a space we want to occupy and use for the fostering of arts ventures in Namibia’s regions,” she said. Nicola Brandt from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom presented examples of how museums in Europe take archives out of the structures and put them on the streets for the public to engage and scrutinise the oversimplified understandings they represent. “Artists have the burden to scrutinise that colonial archives,” she said adding responsibility is often too heavy to execute and challenge the spaces of representation; museums. She said museums have the potential to become research centres of their archives and engage with artists to help society think through social issues such as racism. “Themes of the colonial archives are returned and they haunt the present when we should be critical of how implicit we are in creating a past and a culture,” she said.
'The African Museum Concept: Reworking Narratives' was another topic discussed with a panel that consisted of Zamansele Nsele from the University of Johannesburg, professor Alinah Segobye (Namibia University of Science and Technology) and professor Rassool. This panel examined the human body as a representation of history and how it is traditionally portrayed in dioramas that are designed according to stereotypes, most of which the modern people of Africa do not relate to. “These displays renders a way of creating knowledge through the stereotypes and the language of modernity erases colonialism through the imitation of a savage life that ignites that ‘romantic’ experience of how we are told to understand ourselves,” said Nsele.
'Museum Conversations – Experts in Dialogue' took place in Windhoek from 30 to 31 August with delegates from across Africa and beyond sitting together in productive discussions about the state of museums on the continent. This dialogue took place just after the “The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage conference,” and in co-operation with Unesco, The Namibian Scientific Society, the National Museum of Namibia, and University of Namibia MAN.
Museum Conversations is a series of conferences held by the Goethe-Institut network in seven African countries including Namibia, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana.