Museum cooperation From the vision to the practice of restitution

Provenance: The Makonde mask was purchased by the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva in 1985 and was later identified as an item that had been stolen in Dar es Salaam and as a result, the mask was handed back to the National Museum of Tanzania in 2010.
The Makonde mask was purchased by the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva in 1985 and was later identified as an item that had been stolen in Dar es Salaam and as a result, the mask was handed back to the National Museum of Tanzania in 2010. | Photo (detail): Philippe Wojazer © picture alliance/REUTERS

There are as many challenges and opportunities in restitution debates as there are discrepancies between those discussions and the actual implementation of resolutions passed. Flower Manase, curator at the National Museum of Tanzania, sees chances for sustainable cooperation between ethnological museums in Germany and her country's national museum.

By Flower Manase

The wave of debates on restitution of cultural objects translocated from former colonies to Europe has gained momentum following the release of the Sarr-Savoy Report on the restitution of African cultural heritage in 2018. In Tanzania, conversations around restitution have been restricted to a few political leaders, representatives of some communities of origin and museum professionals and academics. Sadly, the discourse has been characterized by a lack of a clear collective strategy, including the absence of concrete proposals for cooperation with museums from the global North. There is therefore little tangible progress as far as the return of cultural objects taken away from Tanzania in colonial contexts.

Paradigm shift

As museums in Africa and those in the global North explore new ways of cooperation and addressing issues of mutual interest, there seems to be some light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. Experts from Africa are insisting that the ongoing debates should focus on deconstructing colonial and racist narratives, and the discussions should not only be centred around cultural or ethnographic collections but also on other aspects of natural history, including human remains. For instance, for a long time, ethnological museums in Europe holding human remains have treated human body parts as museum collections, while in real sense those human body parts belong to the creators of the collections being considered for restitution. How can the return of cultural objects be discussed if the creators and their ancestors are still missing or they’re locked up in museum basements? This is the question that must be addressed and resolved in the first instance. There should be no room for endless debates on the restitution of human body parts (human remains).

“To deconstruct colonialism, we must focus on more than just collections. We need to first address the issue of human remains and to come up with proper and ethical ways to deal with them. Because at the moment, these museums are still treating the human remains as collections.”

Flower Manase in the interview

It is also important that Africans write their own narratives. This is a crucial step towards deconstruction of prejudices against other cultures that have formed the basis of curation practices in museums in Africa and in the global North.  A key component of the cooperation between African and European museums should be the active involvement of the communities of origin in research projects to establish the true biographies of cultural objects. Most of the objects in ethnological museums in the global North have been presented on the basis of colonial ideologies and racist studies conducted under the pretext of "civilizing primitive races from the dark continent". Because African museums inherited structures that characterized African cultures and ethnic groups based on Eurocentric interpretations, the museums have been alienated from the local populations for a long time. There is need for a radical shift to sociomuseology, so that local communities are invited to co-curate their cultural heritage in museums.

Future of museum cooperation

Collaborative projects between African and European museums should be conducted on an equal footing. The practice of using African experts to meet the objectives of European museums, for instance, is a form of intellectual imperialism that has no place in the 21st century. Every sustainable cooperation should be geared towards forging new relationships between equal partners. They should be made inclusive and transparent at all stages by involving all partners at all levels.

“Now that for the first time, we are engaging in collaboration with German museums, there is an opportunity for Tanzanian experts to bring in new narratives and perspectives, especially with the input of indigenous and local communities, with regard to the collections.”

Flower Manase in the interview

The cooperation between the National Museum of Tanzania and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin is a step in the right direction. It will help Tanzania bridge the long-existing knowledge  gap between the old and the younger generations and to rewrite the history that was wiped out  by colonial brutality. The focus of the cooperation is to retrace the history and understand the nature of collections that were taken away from Tanzania, conduct provenance research and rewrite narratives that reflect the true cultural heritage and the history of the people of Tanzania, which includes the horror of colonialism. The ultimate objective should be the   restitution of the cultural collections back to the communities of origin.

On the best way to deal with restitution and provenance research – an interview by the Goethe-Institut with Flower Manase at the conference “Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020:

Play the Interview as audio:
Audio wird geladen