Collaboration, digitization and sociomuseology Exploring new terrain

Historical tractor in front of the Phutha dikobo museum in Mochudi (Botswana), November 2000
Historical tractor in front of the Phutha dikobo museum in Mochudi (Botswana), November 2000 | Photo (detail): Juergen Sorges © picture alliance / akg

The concept of the museum increasingly coming into sharp focus globally. Faced with the dilemma of dwindling financial resources and critical questions about their contribution to the reappraisal of the colonial past, the institution must quickly embrace new technologies and develop strategies for sustainable collaboration.

By Winani Thebele

Museums are seeking both regional and international partnerships and collaborations focused on a shared responsibility towards the management, promotion and development of heritage. The scenario is not different in Africa where existing and new forms of cooperation aim at, among other goals, finding satisfactory solutions on how to deal with cultural collections from colonial contexts currently held in European Museums. It is important to note that restitution is not just a North-South phenomenon; there are also museums established on the African continent in the colonial era that hold collections from other African countries.  This calls for concerted efforts to establish and promote partnerships between museums on the African continent as well.

“There's already conversations going on with neighboring countries talking about collaboration, so that we share a responsibility towards the preservation of our heritage. And also to say, the UNESCO conventions that we've ratified: We are talking about the illicit trafficking of cultural property. So if you are not talking to your neighbor to say ‘If you see our things in your markets, please alert us’ then you don't mean anything.”

Winani Thebele in the interview

Botswana is a good example because its national museum was established after independence, in 1968. In the period preceding the establishment of the museum, objects of historical, archaeological, cultural and aesthetic value were taken to neighbouring colonial museums such as Livingstone Museum in Zambia, Bulawayo Museum of Natural History in Zimbabwe and the South African Museum in Cape Town. Some of these early museums date as far back as the 1800s.

Collaborative knowledge production

The partnerships initiated in this context are geared towards the repatriation of translocated cultural objects to their countries of origin after conducting collaborative research on their biographies and authenticating existing narratives.

“With objects that are still in Europe it's complicated. In some instances the best pieces of our culture are not even with us, some we don't even know. And the skills to make those is no longer there.”

Winani Thebele in the interview

There is also an emphasis on co-curation of exhibitions for the benefit of more communities and target groups. The partnerships also entail exchanging exhibitions, sharing research findings and publications, investing jointly in documentation, capacity building through workshops and seminars, sharing databases and organizing exchange visits. This is also in cognizance of the fact that today’s conversations emphasize on provenance and involvement of communities of origin.

South-South cooperation

There are also collaborations among African museums, which are primarily based on shared cultures, communities, histories and landscapes of the countries involved. The focus of these alternative partnerships also includes the development of relevant regulations to aid the restitution process. Additionally, regional and international collaborations continue to be established to develop and implement strategies for digitization of collections, exhibition design and collections management. The national museums of Kenya and Tanzania have, for example, been collaborating on the digitization of their collections.

“Most museums in Africa: We are now quite aware of all this technology and we we know how important it is for us and how accessible our collections and information would be to the international community because also that is what we are preaching: Sharing of our heritage. But it's a slow move, because of funding.”

Winani Thebele in the interview

Countries of the SADC Region, under their Heritage Association, also emphasize on collaborations for capacity building for young museum professionals in areas such as exhibition design, digitization and development of interactive formats. Nigeria has also entered into collaborations with a number of European countries over the repatriation of the Benin bronzes. The different forms of cooperation have yielded tangible results in the form of exchange exhibitions, workshops, staff exchanges and study trips to  Europe and America. A reference group, the Benin Dialogue Group, has also been established to facilitate exchange between Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden and partners from Nigeria as well as representatives of the royal court of Benin. At the centre of all these collaborations is the use of technology and investment in digital innovation which are key factors necessary for the enhancement of knowledge exchange regionally, continentally and internationally.

New vision

The concept of the museum we envisage today is a space for interaction, learning, celebrating culture and showcasing talent. The modern museum must address all issues that affect the society, including genocide, xenophobia, and gender-based violence. In this way, the museum becomes a focal point for the local and global community.  It opens its doors to both the young and the old and invites them as co-curators who are actively involved in the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of their respective communities. The interaction between generations ensures a continuous transfer of knowledge and skills. The focus is on “sociomuseology”.

On museums using technology to enhance knowledge exchange – an interview by the Goethe-Institut with Winani Thebele at the conference “Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020:

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