Representation of Africa and the African Diaspora in European Museums

By Cain, Artwell | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Representation of Africa and the African Diaspora in European Museums


Cain, Artwell, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


I. INTRODUCTION

Any effort to assess the representations of people of African descent in museums must address a number of key issues and confront a number of problems. Museums in Europe have a tradition of marginalizing representations, images and narratives of people from Africa and the Diaspora. This is often evident in the (in)frequency of appearances and the quality of the presented work. Another point of interest is the manner in which these productions are offered. On one level the question arises regarding the representation of the African after the abolition of chattel slavery to this present age of emancipation. On the other level it has become almost commonplace to seek but find little or no positive images of the African Diaspora in these museums. Why has there been such a packaging over the years of the African Diaspora for viewing, displaying and the entertainment of white Europeans? Who gathers and presents African Diaspora cultural artifacts and other material? What criteria are applied during the collection and production of these presentations? And which kinds of museums are inclined to present the African Diaspora in their production?

The representation of persons from the African Diaspora in museums in Europe remains problematic. There are still too many narrow and one-sided representations, with distortions and misrepresentations. One of the major reasons that this is the case is that people of African Descent are not commonly employed as administrators, curators and other stakeholders in these museums. People of African descent are hardly consulted to participate in productions and presentations, even when these are dealing with their way of life or cultural practices. The main points of departure in this paper are the articulation and location of representation of the African Diaspora especially from the 19th century to the present day. Additionally I raise questions about the ways in which NiNsee (The National Institute of Dutch Slavery Past and Legacy) is developing its own distinctive image of the Dutch slavery past and its heritage and how it is attempting at the same time to foster an alternative representation of the African Diaspora.

In assessing the role of NiNsee, it is imperative to locate Ninsee in the context of museum, galleries and exhibits in the Netherlands. NiNsee is not a museum, but rather it has a gallery and exhibit space. This exhibit space is unique. In this respect it is not a classical museum, like those typically found in many of the cities in the Netherlands or for that matter any place else in Europe. European museums are commonly experienced and adept at displaying paintings, material artifacts, a range of physical items, as well as icons, illustrations and other objects which represent the glory of Europe in general or specifically a certain theme in relation to European history, culture, grandeur, taste, personalities, fancy and what else they choose to place on a pedestal. This is tantamount to a distortion of the real range of European societies and experiences. Eichstedt and Small (2002) offer a description of southern plantation museums and history. According to them, what becomes accepted as history is often what comes from the dominant group--whether it be dominance in the arena of class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality or something else (Eichstedt and Small 2002:16). For a long period of time in the modern age the dominant group not only wrote the history but also determined the content of the museums. This dominance has begun to change, especially with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe from the former colonies in the Caribbean and also from independent African countries. These groups and individuals have questioned the misrepresentations, challenged the assumptions and proposed more accurate representations.

Interest in Europe about Africa and the African Diaspora has always been partial, distorted or deficient. …

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