Museums are the new UN for the Museums Journal


Museums are the new UN,” claims Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London.

This comment alludes to a growing interest in cultural development as a way of contributing to developing nations. The usual model of overseas development is purely economic and maybe a change is needed the argument goes. Since the early 1980s, institutions like the World Bank and the IMF have been involved in promoting the importance of cultural development to the qualitative success and well-being of a nation.

Museums as cultural institutions are obviously key players in this as they can arguable act as a bridge, a conduit between western donor nations who originally built them and the developing nations who house them. Museums have often struggled to be relevant in post-colonial countries and promoting their use as nation builders and mediators in ethnic and social divides could give them an important new role.

Should international bodies interfere in the museums of other countries though? What is meant by cultural development? Discussions about the potential role for museums are now centred on nation building, conflict resolution, education and tourism. These have particular resonance in Africa. Jack Lohman speaks of a ‘window of opportunity in Africa’.

Alpha Konare, ex-president of Mali and a supporter of museums is chairman of the African Union. He is anxious for dialogue between cultural institutions in the north and south. It is sensitive ground however. The history of museums in Africa is one of colonialism and oppression, of grand scale looting and cultural abuse. As Dr Claude Ardouin who is in charge of the Africa programme at the British Museum says, ‘Museums are not innocent institutions in Africa’; they were built by colonising western powers for the amusement of the elite and as a way to dehumanise the local people. The idea of collecting and display is alien to many African cultures.’

Vincent Kolbe of the District Six Museum remarks, ‘much of the African population view their museums with suspicion and hostility if they think of them at all’. I was told by a visitor to the Museum of South Africa that everything he saw was about power and the abuse of it. That nothing in the museum should have been there, that the moment it was put in a box, it became nothing.’

Yet many of these museums hold national treasures, many have internationally important collections. These collections often languish in the shells of once great symbols of imperialist power; they should instead be an asset to the countries from which they came.

Museums are a tool” says Dr Claude Ardouin and where once they were used as tools of oppression may they not now be used as tools of development? The Apartheid government of South Africa understood this well. As part of a programme of control, they sought to undermine their Black African population’s spirit by denying them a history; it was taught that nothing had happened until the arrival of the White man that Black Africans had existed in limbo. African history was rewritten and in the museums, Black African objects were relegated to ethnographic or scientific curiosities. If neglecting African heritage was part of a plan to denigrate people, could not promoting it have the opposite effect?

Using museum collections to promote nation building is something the British Museum is very keen on encouraging. This is particularly important in Africa, a continent where nation states are mainly colonial constructs and tension between disparate ethnic groups often erupts into bloodshed. The national museum of Kenya for example, is keen to focus on Kenya’s image as the cradle of mankind and tries to find a common history to unify its many ethnic groups. Jonathan Williams who is in charge of international affairs at the British Museum believes that promoting relationships through cultural exchange also helps strengthen bonds between neighbours within Africa and with the UK. An internationally recognised museum can improve a nations international standing.

Britain has been involved in many of the recent changes in several african museums. The British Museum has been working for over a decade at improving the museum network in Africa, particularly in East and West Africa and many good things have happened as a result. Jack Lohman was instrumental in transforming the museum sector in Cape Town and many museums particularly in Kenya, Egypt, Mozambique the Sudan and Mali have gone through great changes. They have tried to become active participants in society. They have created schools and outreach programmes and exhibitions to help combat disease and poverty. Despite reservations of relevancy, these museums are trying to make a difference.

Trying to turn these museums and their collections into something more african is the next step. Alpha Konare has declared, “It is time, high time to “kill”, and I do mean kill, the Western model of museums in Africa”.Does that mean that the West cannot be involved? This is problematic, As Jack Lohman says, ‘We owe a debt to the African continent’ and cultural development seems an area in which we are well suited to contribute. Can we be involved without tired accusations of imperialistic meddling?

Despite much good work, the British Museum is still vulnerable to the accusation of cultural interference. It is a national institution, funded by the government and therefore has a political agenda or at least is often seen as having one. Their help is loaded with cultural and historical question marks and therefore it cannot always have the impact it would like. There is a limit to how much the British Museum, the government and other large institutions can do.

There are however examples of new, small, grassroots museums that have made a large impact. Museums like the District Six Museum in Cape Town and the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali, Rwanda. These are museums that were built with the express purpose of helping with specific desperate circumstances. The fact that local people, using their own initiative turned to museums to help them, is an interesting indication that museums can have a relevant place in African society and that they can genuinely help with conflict resolution.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town is a grassroots museum with a specific agenda. It has become the place that visiting dignitaries to Cape Town go to, as it is emblematic of the new South Africa, a place where the voice of the ordinary people can be heard. It holds an exhibition commemorating an area of Cape Town known as District Six, an old Coloured area, which was razed to the ground by the Apartheid government to make way for a Whitesonly building development. Families and neighbourhoods were split up and people were forced to move to townships. One of the men charged with its physical destruction collected street signs secretlyand these eventually were put on display and became a focus point for District Sixers who gathered to share memories and to trace where they had lived on a huge map of the district laid out on the floor of an old church.

It is an interesting museum, run by and staffed by people who had once lived there and is an authentic voice expressing what Apartheid actually meant for the people who suffered through it. People have come together because of this place, made peace with what happened and told their story. It also wields some political power. Under pressure from the museum, the South African government has given most of the land which used to be District Six back to the original inhabitants and has started a building campaign to re-house them. This museum has been instrumental in helping forgotten people and has served as an example for other museums to follow. Although it now accepts foreign donations, for a long time it had no help from outside save a few committed volunteers. It is important to the self-dignity of those involved and therefore the resurgence of the grass roots movement here that it flourishes without too much external interference.

The experience of the Aegis Trust (a British based anti-genocide trust) in Rwanda has also been very interesting. Survivors in Rwanda, neglected during the genocide and ignored ever since, collected bones of those murdered during the genocide. Instead of burying them, they kept and often displayed them. James Smith of the Aegis Trust tells of visiting a local church and seeing piles of bones laid out on the floor. When asked why they were not given a dignified burial, the man standing watch over them, answered there was no dignity in the way they died, they were ignored then and to bury them away was to ignore them again. The need and desire is clear – look at this, look at what happened, don’t ignore us. The authorities did not know what to do with the bones. Then the Rwandan culture minister and the mayor of Kigali attended a seminar on surviving genocide in Cape Town which the Aegis Trust also attended. There everybody was made aware of the commonality of suffering. Holocaust museums have contributed to the on-going discussion around Holocaust survivors therefore maybe something of this nature was needed in Rwanda. The Kigali council had already built a memorial building in Kigali on the site of a burial ground and after visiting the Aegis Trust’s Holocaust Museum in Nottingham, the Rwandans asked the Aegis Trust for help in finishing it. They wanted to make it a place of commemoration, a place where healing might take place, where understanding would be fostered and to serve as a reminder to what happened for an international audience.

It has not been without its detractors, but the Rwandan Genocide museum in Kigali and the other memorial sites set up by the Aegis Trust throughout the country have given survivors a place and a voice and that has been enormously important. The fact that there is very little material evidence save for bones and the instruments of death, photos of the slaughtered and their murderers has meant that the problem of collecting treasures is avoided, its agenda is straight forward, difficult to achieve, but clear. The western voice is unimportant here, there are no concerns with other people telling the story; the Aegis Trust accepted an invitation.

The Rwandans went to a Western organisation to help them. The fact that the Aegis Trust had no other agenda in Rwanda was important. They are a charitable organisation, an NGO, in a sense they could be trusted. Maybe the experience of the Aegis Trust could be the key to cultural development in Africa. This is surely an example that proves that African museums can contribute to healing and that western expertise can help.

These issues are particularly pertinent at the moment as Tessa Jowell is rumoured to have appointed an advisor to look into the viability of promoting relationships between the DCMS and various overseas museums. Although the DCMS has funded most of the British Museums projects in Africa and has already been involved directly with funding other overseas museums, this would be a more direct and committed involvement. The government is interested in cultural development and although there are suspicions that it would use this interest in cultural institutions covertly in its own interest, there is still a chance that funding museums that can contribute to nation building and act as mediators in social divides could be of great help.

The Aegis Trust found it very difficult to raise funds for their original Kigali museum. James Smith told me that nobody thought it was a good idea, ‘they told me that it was better left alone, don’t make things worse by stirring up bad memories’. They were eventually helped by the Clinton foundation and other international bodies, but maybe next time they could approach the government directly and maybe next time without any strings attached the government would help.


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