Breaking Museum Stereotypes Out of the Glass Box into the Open

Under construction: the Lesotho National Museum, to be opened in 2021.
Under construction: the Lesotho National Museum, to be opened in 2021. | © Jon Weinberg

The new Lesotho National Museum and Art Gallery, scheduled to be opened in 2021, will introduce a new chapter in museology in Africa. The first contemporary museum in Sub-Saharan Africa to include the collection disciplines of Natural History, Social History and Art under one roof will leverage digital technology to promote co-curatorship with museum visitors. Jon Weinberg, lead developer of the new museum, spoke to “Latitude” about implementing one of the continent’s flagship projects.

Traditionally, museums were spaces for specialists, conceived for and run by experts. What ought to be the vision of the modern museum?
 
The modern museum has undergone a complete metamorphosis and in other places, the process is underway. Due to the widespread use of digital technology, the visitor is more informed even prior to visiting the museum. The result is that the visitor is able to interact more with the collections and the museum space is no longer intimidating or alienating. The museum workers are also able to engage with other professional colleagues across the globe on a totally new level. There is more interaction across professional disciplines and the interdisciplinary engagement leads to more experimentation, innovation and development of new concepts.
 
How can museums be transformed into real community centres and places of self-discovery, attracting diverse audiences?
 
The transformation of museums into spaces of learning and interaction is a complex process that runs on two levels. On one level, you have the people who work in and run the museums. They ought to undergo a complete change of mindset in order to understand their work as a contribution to a greater whole – the museum is a cog in a larger wheel on the path of knowledge production and dissemination. The museum workers should embrace new technology and be willing to open up the museum space to greater scrutiny. In addition, they should abandon the perception that the curator has the monopoly of knowledge and perceive the visitor as a co-curator with the potential to add value to the output of the museum expert. On another level, the visitor can take advantage of new technologies to engage with the museum more proactively, offering expert advice, making proposals on how to improve the quality of services as well as contributing to the development of museum collections by providing additional information that may not be available to the curator regarding specific objects or collections.
 
  • Traditional round hut in Lesotho Photo: F. Scholz © picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH
    Traditional round hut in Lesotho
  • The rotunda picks up the typical house form of the indigenous Basothos © Jon Weinberg
    The rotunda picks up the typical house form of the indigenous Basothos
  • Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world Photo (detail): F. Scholz © picture alliance /Arco Images
    Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world
  • Entirely surrounded by South Africa: the mountainous country of Lesotho, the highest elevation of the Drakensberg measures 3,482 metres. Photo: Dirk Bleyer © picture alliance / imageBROKER
    Entirely surrounded by South Africa: the mountainous country of Lesotho, the highest elevation of the Drakensberg measures 3,482 metres.
  • AIDS is the main problem in today's Lesotho, the British Prince Harry supports the fight against HIV. Here in conversation with Lesotho's Prince Seeiso, his wife Princess Mabereng Seeiso and daughter Princess Masentle Tabitha Seeiso during a reception before a concert by the charity Sentebale at Hampton Court Palace in London, Tuesday 11 June 2019, which was founded by Prince Harry and Lesotho's Prince Seeiso to support children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS in Lesotho, Botswana and Malawi.  Photo (detail): Matt Dunham © picture alliance / AP Photo
    AIDS is the main problem in today's Lesotho, the British Prince Harry supports the fight against HIV. Here in conversation with Lesotho's Prince Seeiso, his wife Princess Mabereng Seeiso and daughter Princess Masentle Tabitha Seeiso during a reception before a concert by the charity Sentebale at Hampton Court Palace in London, Tuesday 11 June 2019, which was founded by Prince Harry and Lesotho's Prince Seeiso to support children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS in Lesotho, Botswana and Malawi.
  • The resistance against colonization began early: Attack of the indigenous Basothos 1880 on Fort Bell, since 1868 Basutoland colony Photo (detail): Liszt Collection © picture alliance
    The resistance against colonization began early: Attack of the indigenous Basothos 1880 on Fort Bell, since 1868 Basutoland colony
  • She already ruled during the time of the British crown colony Basutoland: Queen Elizabeth receives Rethabile Mahlompho Mokaeane, the High Commissioner for Lesotho, in Buckingham Palace in London in 2019 Photo (detail): Yui Mok © picture alliance /empics
    She already ruled during the time of the British crown colony Basutoland: Queen Elizabeth receives Rethabile Mahlompho Mokaeane, the High Commissioner for Lesotho, in Buckingham Palace in London in 2019
Because of technology, there is a window of opportunity for the museum visitor to become a co-curator. The production of knowledge should be centered more on co-creation, sharing and interaction rather than one-way production and dissemination. The new approach should be to move the objects from the glass box into the open to create room for more interactivity, which gives the visitor a claim to the objects that are on display. The visitor has an opportunity to re-author the knowledge based on their own experiences, perceptions and understanding of what the collections are all about.
 
What does the Lesotho National Museum plan to do differently from what other museums across the African continent have done before?
 
To begin with, Lesotho has never had a museum. There have been exhibitions in missionary centres and similar places whose concepts were far from participatory and visitor-centred. These collections were highly influenced by Western stereotypes about Africa and church doctrines. Therefore, this project gives the country a unique opportunity to start on a new slate and do things differently. Incidentally, Lesotho has a rich corpus of recorded knowledge. The challenge has been that people in Lesotho are not used to visiting museums because the museum as it has been perceived before was a completely foreign concept.

We finally have an opportunity to engage with the people of Lesotho directly to redefine a new museum for themselves, so that the agency can belong in Lesotho: Instead of having a building with old exhibits based on colonial stereotypes, there is an opportunity for the people in Lesotho to decide what they want to collect and display, and how they want to do it. In particular the museum collections will take into account local knowledge, anecdotal memory and stories. It would have been very difficult to introduce these new approaches to museology in an old museum that has existed for many years.

 
The interview was conducted by Eliphas Nyamogo, online editorial consultant, Goethe-Institut Munich.

You can listen to the whole interview here:
 
Interview with Jon Weinberg: The need for new museum concepts in Africa