Opinions

Cultures butchered in a foreign land?

  • Posted on June 4, 2014

{image_1}With the changing dynamics of museums, the definition of what a museum is has also transformed over time. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of the society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity for the purpose of education, study and enjoyment. By this definition, museums are important destinations in the cultural landscape as sites of knowledge production, and one key issue is that they are embedded in the lives of the people. Museums turn objects into a cultural past worthy of preserving as a symbol of its time, and this cements why they are referred to as cultural data banks of society, made up of material remains of the past, and the theatres of history’s reconstruction. This very notion lifts museums from mere repositories of objects, according them a deeper function.  Museums have also been valorised for their architectural designs. Both of these perceptions are outdated: for contemporary societies the significance of a museum lies in its collection and the representation thereof.

Among the many museums that Paris boasts is the Musée du quai Branly – “a meeting ground for cultures of the world”. This museum opened its doors in 2006, with the objective “...to provide a place for the dialogue between cultures, to pay rightful homage to the peoples whom, throughout the ages, history has all too often done violence. People injured and exterminated by the greed and brutality of conquerors. People humiliated and scorned, denied even their own history. People now still marginalized, weakened…people who nevertheless want their dignity restored and acknowledged”. The museum also offers another aim: “…to reject the ethnocentrism of the West that destiny of humanity is borne only by them as indeed there is no hierarchy when it comes to arts and culture”. It was on the basis of the belief that equal dignity should be accorded to all of the world’s cultures that Musée du quai Branly was founded, and the museum was considered to be at the frontline in breaking these past injustices. The museum takes visitors on an expedition to discover the cultural diversity of Oceania, Asia, Africa and the Americas, and this geographical itinerary of the collection showcases around 3,500 works.

Irrespective of the eloquently tabulated mission and objective of the museum, a number of criticisms have been levelled against it, especially regarding the provenance of the collections it houses. Some critics argue that the museum’s stated objectives simply legitimise the possession of the cultural heritage property that has been ‘stolen’ from elsewhere. It is on this basis that this museum is regarded as being built on a deep and painful paradox: the source communities of the cultural heritage it celebrates will seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to come into contact with the museum and its collections.

Other critics argue that it perpetuates a notion of ‘otherness’, because it showcases the talents and creativity that Europeans have always labelled ‘primitive’, and this ethnographic gaze continues to cement racial binaries. It is not surprising to find that the tourists flooding the museum are mostly French. A very low proportion of the visitors are people whose cultures are showcased within its walls.

The museum has also been cited as a symbol of cultural conquest because it has enriched its own cultural landscape at the expense of the peoples from whom cultural property has been removed. Its collection, like many others, includes objects that may have been obtained through pillage, seizures, military conquest and ethnographic expeditions. However, critics may not know that in the 19th century objects were often sent willingly by far-off nations wishing to be represented on the ‘world fairs’ of the time. We see this, for example, in items from my country, Lesotho, which were collected and sent Morena Moshoeshoe I, founder of the Basotho nation, to the London International Exhibition on Industry and Art of 1862 and were eventually donated to the British Museum.

It is unfortunate too, that when objects are removed from one culture and put on display in another, as with the objects in this museum, meaning is lost. In the African context, objects are often considered to be spiritual catalysts or vehicles that transcend the physical realm. When these objects are displayed merely for their aesthetic appeal or curiosity value, they are robbed of their spiritual capital and significance.
Musée du quai Branly has also been condemned for the way in which the pieces are displayed, the amount of information available (as well as the absence of reflections by the producing societies), and the low lighting and unstructured setting, which all contribute to a loss of significance.

ICOM recommend that visitors be informed about the precise status and the way in which objects were brought into museum collections. However, this does not happen at Musée du quai Branly. On a recent visit, driven by the inquisitive approach, as I always am when visiting museums, I asked the curator leading our tour about the provenance of the objects on display. She was enraged, telling me that if I wanted to get into that kind of political discussion, I should have notified the museum before my visit and arranged a meeting with the museum manager! She also suggested, rather rudely, that as I seemed to be more knowledgeable about the collection (than she was, I presume) I should lead the tour! In my opinion, this was a very inappropriate response to a professional question. Could this have been because she is aware that for many the collection is associated with colonialism, seizure and slavery, and the illicit removal of cultural property – questions that the museum seems to shy away from addressing? Although she failed to address the problematic acquisition of the objects on display she nonetheless told us that it was remarkable that they had been brought to Europe because, if left with their original makers and users, they might have been destroyed and lost forever. I found her implication that the museum might be a better custodian of the objects than the people who produced them deeply insulting.

This perpetuates the idea that heritage is an invention and not fossilised in the past and draws on a nexus of different interests, since the identity of the objects is an invention because it lacks the intrinsic value (or identity in the eye of the producers) as the objects are far from the voices of the original makers. It is no doubt that Musée du quai Branly represents partial knowledge.
Some critics have declared it clumsy, misguided and even racist for museums, like this, to display objects without consulting with the producers. Museum collections and their interpretation imply a set of social relations - consultations and involvement with relevant parties are considered key and core for an unbiased representation.

Many people share my view that source communities of cultural heritage have an essential role to play in making museum content relevant. It is therefore of paramount importance that the museum makes meaningful connections with these communities, particularly if they take their role as agents of social inclusion seriously. The participation of the people who have shaped, produced and interacted with cultural objects, and so imbued them with cultural, historic, symbolic, aesthetic and authentic values, is key to fruitful dialogue and authentic representation. In the absence of this engagement, for me, the Musée du quai Branly, representation is lacking in authenticity while at the same time distorting the image and identity of the producers.

To make heritage a mobilising resource in this era, planning of culture should always be linked to its relationship with people. Therefore meaningful community involvement is required to link the producers with the heritage enterprise, because without them the presentation and representation lack truth of the unprocessed collection of facts. Community engagement is essential to reveal deeper truths and for genuine valorisation of cultural wealth. While I, and many others, feel that it is imperative that collections such as these are returned to their source communities, this kind of engagement with the owners and producers of cultural heritage will sit more easily with the museum’s stated objectives.

Sebinane Lekoekoe is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Lesotho. He is currently reading for a Master in World Heritage and Cultural Projects for Development at the University of Turin, Italy.

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