The Goethe-Institut Namibia hosted the final conference of the Museum Conversations project from 18 to 20 September 2019, following other conferences in seven Sub-Saharan Africa countries during 2018. (Kigali, Rwanda; Windhoek, Namibia; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Accra, Ghana; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; and Lagos, Nigeria). The 2019 edition was opened by keynote addresses from Prof. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann (Goethe-Institut President) and George Abungu from Kenya. It brought together professionals in the museology industry, academics and artists in various disciplines for deliberations on matters including restitution and the future of museums in Africa.
The two-day event gave attendees opportunities to discuss such topics, of which some are sensitive in other academic spheres and thus avoided. One such topic was the restitution of human remains and how they should be handled. Wandile Kasibe, a young South African scientist, defined bones in museums as “crime scenes” that should be dealt with accordingly and noted how the museology fraternity in Africa should also look at museum collections on the continent. For instance, South Africa is also in possession of dubious collections from neighbouring countries such as Namibia and Botswana that they once occupied; collections that should also be restituted as soon as possible.
In addition to information-sharing and opinions on sensitive topics, Museum Conversations 2019 was also a platform for the exchange of content such as the use of digital media in museums, the institution’s integration into the education system and the importance of intra-Africa networking, A total of 10 innovative approaches were presented to African curators and alike. The Humboldt Forum also presented the exhibition’s concepts.
In particular, some topics were not foreign to professionals present from Germany and discussions unearthed the importance of targeting young groups for them to recognize the value of museums at an early stage and develop an understanding of a museum as a natural component of life-long learning. Growing collaboration with communities was also identified as a topic that should not only be the concern of historical museums. Museums are seen as a safe placed and have the potential to be used for civil society concerns. The institutions of art and others have also started investing in community-engagement to offer more organic and suitable approaches.
The last day featured a discussion on the return of the Hendrik Witbooi Bible from Germany to Namibia; the very first and thus far only example of restitution up for discussion between all parties involved. Despite the success and first of its kind between the two nations, an emotional debate demonstrated frustration amongst the younger generation, in demand for more and faster returns. Prof. Wiebke Ahrndt from the Überseemuseum in Bremen also made it clear: there cannot be a blueprint for returns. She said it is more important that for communities to formulate their ideas clearly and structure the process accordingly.
The "Museum Conversations" are a series of projects run by the Goethe-Institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa and take place at the participating locations in cooperation with local national museums, museums associations ministries and UNESCO. They offer space for the initiation of an inner African discourse.