"Museum Conversations" 2019 in Windhoek It’s About the People

Talking about the museum of tomorrow
Talking about the museum of tomorrow | © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

The African cultural infrastructure is presently at a turning point. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, highlights the positive and mutual interest in the urgent questions of postcolonial museum work in his keynote address at the opening of the final international Museum Conversations conference in Windhoek.

By Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut

The South African painter Ernest Mancoba, who died in 2002, said during a conversation, “Despite our science, with everything we think we know, we do not know the future, we do not know tomorrow. But artists and poets, these people who do not just think mathematically, could bring us closer to the future.”

Connecting the past and the future

Thinking about the world of tomorrow is a central part of the Goethe-Institut’s commitment to international cultural cooperation. In projects and initiatives, global topics of the future are identified and formulated with partners. These learning communities thrive on the multitude of perspectives, on views and counterviews, on dialogue across national borders and language barriers. We believe in the power of culture, but we also know that culture is not peace making as such, but must open up, have mutual appreciation and seek understanding.

Museums are suited for enabling this cultural dialogue in and with society, for connecting the past and the future, for acting as educational and learning places, communicating across generations and fulfilling social functions. However, their character must always take specific account of their social and historical environment and they must be independent in their work. Only then are they part of society and credible.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, during his keynote address in Namibia Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, during his keynote address in Namibia | © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

Future plans for Africa must be created in Africa

At a very early stage, the Goethe-Institut and its partners around the world carried out major projects on questions about the museum of the future and its role in society, in South America with the Museum Episodes, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific with Transitioning Museums in Southeast Asia and in India with Museum of the Future. Africa belongs in this big context. In addition, the institute organised international conferences in Germany, which also addressed the role of museums in connection with restitution due to colonial history. All of these activities were shaped by the extended perspective of treating the past not as a closed chapter, but as an historic obligation for the future. This also applies to the political and economic asymmetries and injustices that continue to exist from the colonial era.

Future plans for Africa must be created in Africa. With 47 countries, more than 650 million inhabitants and more than 1,000 languages, sub-Saharan Africa is a very heterogeneous region, but at the same time it is a culturally rich region due to its diversity. The Goethe-Institut has an intensive network and is presently working in eleven institutes as well as in other different manifestations. For the Goethe-Institut it’s a fortunate circumstance to be able to work so closely in this network with African colleagues, scientists and artists. For example, we were able to organise local and regional meetings in seven different locations – in Kigali, Windhoek, Ouagadougou, Kinshasa, Accra, Dar es Salaam and Lagos – in advance of this final conference of the Museum Conversations 2019. They were dominated by the voices of Africa, also increasingly in the context of global issues and an overarching conceptual discourse on museum work in Africa. Although there had already been an exchange of views in the past on issues of museums related to Pan-Africanism, Négritude and pre-colonial reality, as well as the bilateral relations between African and European museums, this project has a particular approach and yield. For one thing, due to its intensive regional forerun, the complex questions of the topic could be well focused and thus used for the final conference. For another, the networking of the African and European discussion on questions of restitution and the significance of cultural heritage allows the latest state of the debates to be consolidated for the first time so that proposed solutions can also be elaborated. Overall, the approach was suitable for expanding the circle of participants and thus understanding the cooperation across borders as an opportunity.

  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
  • Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations  in Windhoek. © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia
    Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.

Challenges of globalisation, modernisation and digitisation

These regional museum networks with independent expertise and our main conference are so important right now because African cultural infrastructure is at a turning point. This is especially true for museums.

  • A number of the existing museums in Africa were created by Europeans from an ethnological point of view. For example, the colonial powers established six museums in South Africa between 1825 and 1892, followed by two museums in Zimbabwe in 1900 and 1901, one each in Uganda in 1908, Kenya in 1909 and Mozambique in 1913. Experts from across generations, but in particular curators and a young, educated elite are now critically examining existing collections and their presentation in their countries. Rightly so! They were an expression of the prevailing ideology intended to scientifically legitimise unjust and unequal relations in times of colonialism. They served European hegemony. History doesn’t happen; it’s made. Therefore, it’s about a fundamental change of meaning of the museum in Africa that facilitates the recovery of African history.
  • A second group of museums was founded at the end of the colonial era directly on the independence of the states. National narratives for the formation of identities often played a role here. Both the first and the second category convey a closed topic and do not react to the social developments of today; they are fixed on the past. In order to position the museums with the questions of our time, more of a mobile, flexible and dialogue-capable type is needed.
  • At present, large-scale museum projects are being worked on in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, or have been completed as in Rwanda, Chad or Tanzania. Some of the museums, such as the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, are being founded with the support of foreign countries. Even where museum construction is funded from the outside, the museums work impressively independently. Intellectual colonialism has come to an end here. That must be the approach in the present, the central position of African experts in the exploration and presentation of their own culture.
  • And because the museum work in African countries is currently heavily influenced by the discussion about the return of cultural assets, the colonial and postcolonial issues between the former colonial powers and the countries of the objects’ origins must be negotiated together. The decolonisation of thought must be the stated goal. It’s about more than restitution of the objects; it’s about the loss of self-esteem through colonial rule and its consequences to this day. It’s not enough to simply return objects; it’s about the people. Notwithstanding this, stolen art is stolen art and must be declared accordingly. Arguments against legitimate returns due to inadequate institutional facilities should lead to strengthening African museums rather than cementing the Eurocentric view of the world.
  • Finally, it’s about the challenges of globalisation, modernisation and digitisation. It’s not about keeping a huge knowledge machine running; there must be an understandable instruction manual so that the museums as part of civil society do not complete themselves but so that their collections each find a continuation and depict their society and make it capable of discourse. Equal cultural participation is of social relevance.
The performance “Display Cases” during the Museum Conversations The performance “Display Cases” during the Museum Conversations | © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

Opportunities for an effective new start

The African continent must find answers for itself and in a global context, not as a defensive recipient but as an offensive source of ideas. Africa not only has a future, it will also shape it decisively. In the present situation, I see opportunities for an effective new start in museum planning in Africa, on the one hand in the redesign of existing museums, and on the other in the redefinition of museum structures and tasks. While the European museum was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, as a temple of art, as a mausoleum even, the African museum can be a child of emancipation; a place of dialogue, action and liveliness, a museum without walls, which includes the street and its people with their questions and their experiences – a social space that takes up specific cultural techniques and brings them to life. Thus, the museum not only can become an integral part of society, but at the same time be fruitful for the debates in Africa and beyond. It’s worth rethinking the canon.

You can read the complete article on The Latest at Goethe.