On Participation and Collaboration in Museums Don’t Do It For Me Without Me!

Museum Forum der Völker, Ethnological Museum of the Franciscans, Werl; Benedictine monks maintain a training school for art carvers in southern Tanzania, the commissions mainly focus on Christian motifs
Museum Forum der Völker, Ethnological Museum of the Franciscans, Werl; Benedictine monks maintain a training school for art carvers in southern Tanzania, the commissions mainly focus on Christian motifs | Photo (detail): Uta Poss © picture alliance/Presse-Bild-Poss

There is an urgent need for museums in Africa to redefine their role as centres of learning and dialogue in line with the traditions, aspirations and expectations of the communities they serve. Professor George Abungu, renowned archaeologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya, talked to Latitude on the need for new museological approaches in the global South.

It has been argued by some African ethnologists and historians that the concept of the modern museum is alien to Africa and that museums in Africa were a creation of colonial governments whose motives were not to safeguard local cultures but to profile indigenous communities so as to divide them and govern them easily. What is your take on this?
It is true that the first museums in Africa and the concept of the museum as we know it today were a colonial creation meant to serve the interests of the colonizer. After independence, in a number of African countries, some museums were established and given specific mandates, such as safeguarding the memory of colonial liberation or cultural elements of certain communities. However, these were isolated cases and the work of such museums was often subjected to political influence. The major museums continued to operate under a framework designed in a colonial dispensation and they had little consideration for the interests of the local communities. Their collection policies were non-participatory and the visitors felt alienated from the programmes and activities of the museums. The museums were seen mainly as spaces for exhibiting “the other” – the natives, who had absolutely no say in how they were portrayed and what was written about them. Many of the museums operated like ivory towers, providing space for scientists from the global North who came to conduct research on exhibits collected earlier by explorers, ethnologists and travelers from the colonial era. It is notable, however, that a lot of effort has been made by museums in Africa to redefine their role and image but there is still a long way to go.
Cultural property can lose its value in the absence of defined meaning and context. Some of the cultural artefacts translocated from former colonies and displayed in museums in the global North are displayed there out of context and without regard for the meaning attached to the objects by the communities of origin. What, in your view, needs to be done to change this?
The exhibition of cultural objects from former colonies in museums in the global North is a very contentious issue. In my view, the question of how to deal with this matter does not have one answer. In the North, the curator is very powerful. The curator interprets the meaning, exhibits the objects and opens the doors for the public to come and see what is on display. This approach has not gone well with most of us in the South. We have been exhibited without our participation. The answer in this regard is very simple: Don’t do it for me without me. If you do it for me without me, you are against me. If you want to exhibit me and my heritage, there is need for consultation! The short answer, therefore, is: co-curation.
Still related to the subject above: There have been calls for cultural objects looted or illegally acquired from former colonies and now displayed in Western museums to be returned to their countries of origin unconditionally. Those opposed to restitution argue that there’s no proper infrastructure in some countries of origin – that the safety of the objects cannot be guaranteed. Who should determine the conditions for restitution?
The question of restitution, in my view, has been misunderstood. I would like to be very clear on this. Restitution or “return” does not mean emptying museums in the global North and returning all objects illegally acquired to their communities of origin. The calls for restitution are justified, but there are certainly other ways of dealing with looted cultural objects as well. We, however, maintain that it is our right to ask for those objects to be returned. Consider this: If someone came to your home and took your property using force or without your knowledge and you later locate the items and the person keeping them admits that they belong to you, what is the right course of action? Is it not to return the items? It is a simple as that! The truth of the matter is that no museum in the global South is asking for all looted items to be returned. They are only asking for the return of objects to which they have a spiritual attachment or objects that have a deep symbolic or cultural meaning to the communities of origin.


The argument put across by those opposed to restitution – that African countries and museums in the global South have no capacity to take care of these cultural objects should they be returned, is totally misguided. When the objects we taken away, the communities had been taking care of them and they were in good order. How can it be that when the communities now demand for their objects to be returned, they are told that they lack the facilities to take care of those same objects? This is the height of dishonesty!
Because of globalization, intangible and tangible cultural heritage will continue to move across borders and continents. In view of this, are there aspects of cultural heritage that are threatened by extinction? What would be the ideal model for cultural heritage preservation?
Cultural heritage is dynamic, not static. If it is static, it dies. It is changes all the time. Therefore, I prefer to us the term “safeguarding”, rather than preservation. Of course, there are some objects that have to be preserved because they have to remain in a certain state, but from a point of view of conservation, safeguarding is a better term to use. Take music, for example: As people move from one place to another, their songs and styles of music may adopt new elements and interpretations. Therefore, as conservationists we see no threat to cultures due to globalization. As a matter of fact, interactions between cultures promotes their growth. We encourage people involved in cultural production to continue to produce more so that their cultures may grow.
You mentioned earlier that there are other alternatives to restitution or other museological approaches that would enhance the role of museums in the society. What are some of these alternatives?
Restitution is just one element in the larger discourse about the role of museums and new approaches to museum work. In my view, we have spent a lot of time on restitution because of fears from the global North that they would lose what they have had for many years. The central element that I feel would have a greater impact is cooperation. Restitution is a small element of cooperation between museums in the global North and those in the South. The most important element should be the sharing of ideas. We should aim at going beyond the tangible and also focus on the intangible by asking ourselves: How do we share the knowledge? I would like to encourage even stronger cooperation among museums in Africa and other parts of the global South. These museums have a lot in common and they can benefit from sharing their experiences and ideas and developing joint strategies that benefit the African continent. My dream is to have museums as spaces for interaction and dialogue, providing platforms for cultures from different parts of the globe to meet. And museums in the global North should lead the way because they have more resources to do that.
You can listen to the whole interview here:
Prof. George Abungu: New museological approaches in the global South