Decolonising Research and Knowledge Production New Ethics for Museums

Restitution – An exhibition room of the permanent exhibition “Where is Africa” in the Linden-Museum. At a press conference in February 2020 the Linden-Museum Stuttgart presented perspectives and ideas for an ethnological museum of the future.
An exhibition room of the permanent exhibition “Where is Africa” in the Linden-Museum. At a press conference in February 2020 the Linden-Museum Stuttgart presented perspectives and ideas for an ethnological museum of the future. | Photo (detail): Tom Weller © picture alliance/dpa

The return of both human remains and cultural objects held in Western museums back to the communities of origin must be on the same agenda, says history professor Ciraj Rassool. He spoke to “Latitude” on new ethics for museums.

By Ciraj Rassool

How would you assess the ongoing discussions between museums in the global North and those in the former colonies regarding restitution and provenance research on cultural objects and human remains?
Let me start by saying that restitution of human remains has come into focus from the perspective that it is not possible to return the human remains on their own. In the case of Germany, one of the major sticking points in the negotiations is the fact that German museums fall into different categories and the collections were segregated into different museums, even in cases where the human remains and cultural artefacts had been collected together. The museums with collections of human remains are willing and ready to return those remains. The ethnographic museums, on the other hand, are pursuing a different approach. They want to begin with joint provenance research and are more inclined to the principle of loaning as opposed to restitution. In my view, this approach is not helpful. In the short term, we can work within this framework because provenance research gives the communities of origin access to the collections and the inventories. In the end, the idea of sharing has to give way to restitution. The restitution of human remains, cultural artefacts and cultural documentation – sound recordings, films and photographs – must be on the agenda collectively.
How important is collaborative research in resolving unanswered questions about returning human remains and cultural artefacts back to the communities of origin?
Collaborative research should be geared towards restitution and not merely improving the quality of collections management or seeking authentication. The objective should be the creation of a new ethics of historical relatedness around the collections and their history. It should be about returning the collections, be it to museums in the former colonies or to the communities of origin. We must also be cognizant of the fact that communities are not without history. You cannot expect the communities today to be exactly the same as those of the past. In fact, the term “source community” is not an ethnic term. We must appreciate the dynamic nature of communities.
How can joint research projects and cooperation between museums in the global South and those in the global North be conducted on an equal footing?
I think European museums need to be open to various forms of collaboration in order to implement restitution satisfactorily. They should collaborate with communities in open-ended ways that do not reinforce or reproduce the ethnic and tribal constructions into which those artefacts were placed.
How can local communities be more actively involved, both in matters related to provenance research and restitution as well as in knowledge production and safeguarding of cultural heritage?
Long before there was a new definition of museums, when ICOM (International Council of Museums) was still opposing new museology, new approaches to museum practice were emerging in South Africa, Kenya, Brazil and other parts of Latin America. The new approaches focused on the gathering of people to contribute to the work of commemoration, to enhance the work of memory without necessarily dealing with collections. The focus was on social museology. Consequently, we now live in an era where the museum is the exchange of knowledge between people – it is not the building or the collections but the greatest enabler of participation. Real social empowerment comes when the authority of knowledge production is removed from the academic spaces and placed in the museum itself.

You can watch the whole interview by the Goethe-Institut with Ciraj Rassool at the conference “Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020 here.

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