African Museums on a Meet-the-People Mission

By Guttman, Cynthia | UNESCO Courier, April 2000 | Go to article overview

African Museums on a Meet-the-People Mission


Guttman, Cynthia, UNESCO Courier


Cynthia [*] Guttman

Plagued by low visitor attendance, African museums are breaking out of their rigid colonial moulds and courting local communities

I Since he started teaching aspiring curators in the early 1980s, Emmanuel Nnakenyi Arinze has advocated a hands-on approach that even comes with a dress code. "I tell my students that 'the African curator does not come to work in a tie because you are going to be working with your hands, on objects that are dirty, in storage, in galleries or outside, or with children who will pour ink over you.'"

It's a small detail that nonetheless points towards deeper currents of change running through African museums as curators and their colleagues seek to define a model that makes sense for Africans today. The process, initiated in piecemeal fashion in the 1980s, received a galvanizing thrust forward after Mali's Alpha Oumar Konar[acute{e}], the first African to preside the International Council of Museums, sounded the alarm by declaring in 1991 that "it is time, high time [ldots] to kill the Western model of museum in Africa."

A crisis had been brewing for years. Besides acute cutbacks in financing and training, excessive bureaucracy and political interference in museum leadership, the most glaring sign of trouble was simply that African people, just about everywhere, were shunning their museums. In many cases, they were discarded as "places for tourists or museums for whites" as Alexis Adand[acute{e}], director of the West African Museums Programme puts it.

All museums, even those founded after independence, were forced to address the crisis. Across the continent, directors have started to shake up their institutions, develop more outward-looking attitudes and tune into the lives and concerns of local people. This starts with a novel approach to exhibitions that involves consulting communities from the outset--not only to spark their interest, but also because they own objects deemed of higher symbolic value in their eyes than those gathering dust in museum showcases.

In Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), the local community was asked to bring in old photographs for display in the local art gallery. "The exhibition proved very popular as it rekindled past memories of people's lifestyles," recalls Francis Musonda, chairman of SAIDCAMM, an association which groups museums from the southern Africa region.

In an experimental-style exhibition in Ouidah (Benin) in 1985, families were encouraged to display objects relating to local festivals and family heritage. The exhibit, staged with artifacts ranging from portraits and masks to statuettes representing female divinities--which until then had been passed down within the same families for several generations--was warmly greeted by the population who for the most part were viewing these precious pieces for the first time. It created such interest that a small family museum was eventually opened in the city.

Appealing to an elite

In Nigeria, Arinze, who has held a number of prominent positions in the field of museum development, organized a crowd-drawing exhibition on drums, during which musicians from selected villages were invited to a city museum to share their know-how and traditions with visitors. "People in our communities must be part of the process of exhibiting objects that come from them. We should give them a chance to talk to us about those objects and how they want to see them shown to a wider audience," he says. "When an object is put here in isolation from its true meaning, communities feel distanced from it and slightly offended."

All these types of initiatives enhance communities' pride in their heritage and stimulate awareness about the value of safeguarding objects, while often shedding new light on local history. They break the Western stereotype of a museum as a place where people come to look at objects on display. With some rare exceptions--such as Niamey's "arts and crafts" style concept with architectural models linked to the country's ethnic groups, parks explaining the country's fauna and flora, and pavilions presenting different dress styles and customs--African museums were created to satisfy the curiosity of 1an elite, almost to the total exclusion of the locals. …

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