Changing Role of Museums in Africa

Main photo credit: Alternative Museum of Sudan, Amado Alfadni

Africa Museum Brussels, Photo Jmh2o

The concept and reality of a designated Museum in Africa are largely associated with the colonial legacy, subject to passionate and intense debate. For many people living in African countries, the museum was, and in some cases, is often seen as a foreign establishment, brought to the continent by the Europeans. Although the intentions of the white colonialist appeared noble – to study, exhibit, and preserve local art and related artefacts in dedicated spaces, the act of collecting important cultural objects and locking them away in a building, seemed akin to imprisonment, contradictory and harmful.

Many Africans showed little interest in the displays within the glass cases, unless they were directly related to their ethnic heritage. Consequently, museums were perceived as the white elephants, run by eccentric colonialists with the assistance of some Africans seeking employment, and primarily visited by the foreigners. Numerous cultural history museums in Africa continue to grapple with the inherent issue of their colonial origins. However, it is important to note that today’s museums in Africa are not merely stagnant repositories of colonial history and collections, predominantly curated by Europeans and seemingly out of place.

Africa Museum Johannisberg, Photo Darren Sacks, Openverse

The concept of the Museum has experienced a significant transformation in Africa in recent years. A new generation of scholars, museum curators and professionals has emerged, re-evaluating these institutions dedicated to preserving cultural heritage and imbuing them with fresh perspectives and functionalities. Through their efforts in fostering a sense of identity (whether on a national, regional, or local scale) and promoting social and socio-political responsibility and interest, they actively engage with local communities and contribute to the global production of knowledge. The understanding intertwined with these endeavours is crucial for ensuring the widespread acceptance of the objects’ significance and their reconnection with the respective population groups, in many forms.

Today, it might even be said that museums there are characterized by a broader range of social roles and functions. They serve as spaces for interaction and dialogue, rather than mere contemplation and aesthetic appreciation. Their focus extends beyond their physical boundaries, reaching out to the wider community and connecting with locals. In numerous cases, they have implemented extensive outreach programs and established regional branches, some of which are specialized in areas such as archaeology. This approach enhances their local presence and impact, aligning with specific interests and local needs.

Another evolving aspect of the Museum in Africa is to highlight the cancelled, forgotten and often erased culture of the indigenous population by the colonialist. Oral history is an integral heritage of Africa and is now utilised in African museums as a means of empowering Africans to be the co-creators, holders and owners of their history as well as the proprietors of specific legacies. One example is the ongoing Memories de Lubumbashi project of the Congo that is part of the National Museum of Lubumbashi.

In 2000, the Memories of Lubumbashi project was established with the aim of collecting oral sources, pictorial sources, and objects that are connected to the history of this mining city. Being the second largest city in Congo and capital of Katanga, it sought to present an alternative narrative to the written colonial sources. The main objective of the project was to construct a comprehensive history of the city, by adopting an inclusive and participatory approach that involved the city’s residents.

The collection encompassed various elements, including: the life stories of workers from the Mining Union of Haut-Katanga during the colonial era, the stories of their companions and daughters (often overlooked in historical investigations), family photographs, and popular theatre productions. These were to depict the experience of everyday life during colonization, adding a collection that featured a repertoire of popular songs. The project’s goal was to be collaborative in approaching the history, so that the local actors, for example, could begin to include and document the lives of those who were historically silenced.

Contemporary African artists, both those living on the continent and in the diaspora, have been utilising the concept of museums in their work more recently, as a means of deconstructing history and memory, rewriting an alternative narrative; instead of the colonial one initially provided. They are not only querying the history, the past and society, but facing themselves in the mirror and challenging the coloniser too. Kader Attia and Amado Alfadni, for example, are two artists who have consistently produced works that continually question cultural memory.

Installation Kader Attia, Photo Najlaa Elageli

French / Algerian Kader Attia’s artistic journey has predominantly revolved around critically examining the politics surrounding Western museums. In the 2019 exhibition, “The Museum of Emotion,” hosted at the Hayward Gallery, Attia presented a collection of sculptures and installations that drew inspiration from classical ethnology and natural history museums.
Through his artwork, Attia brought to attention the historical misrepresentation of artifacts from non-Western cultures within these institutions, as well as the fantastical portrayal of animal life in former Western colonies. Notably, pieces like “The Scream” (2016) and “Mirrors and Masks” (2013) highlight the often overlooked influence of African culture on Western art history.

In ‘The Museum of Emotion’, Attia delved into the concept of repair, which has been a recurring theme in his work. Unlike the Western approach to repair, which aims to erase any physical traces of damage, Attia’s art embraces the idea of accepting and even emphasizing the marks and scars left by trauma. His approach aligns with non-Western cultures that recognize the transformative impact of difficult to emotionally digest experience.

Amado Alfadni, an artist hailing from Sudan and currently based in Cairo, also explores the notion of repair and reappropriation. His artistic role has transformed into that of a social archaeologist, as he unearths and investigates neglected and uneasy episodes in history. In his 2022 project, titled the ‘Alternative Museum of the Sudan’, Amado focused on significant events such as the complex slave trade that affected the Sudanese population. His objective was to safeguard and exhibit various artistic works dedicated to shedding light on the exploitation endured by Sudan. Through the utilization of postcards, photographs, and oral archives, Amado skilfully uncovered the intricate relationships that have emerged as a result of the interplay between colonial dominance and its consequences on Black Africa. Furthermore, this conceptual museum delved into the intertwined histories of the individuals residing in the landscape where Sudan meets Egypt and North Africa.

Askari Soldier, Print by Amado Alfadni

Within the alternative Museum of the Sudan, notable exhibits such as the ‘Askari Soldiers’ series, ‘Ace of Spades’, and ‘Black Ivory’ were featured. Amado’s approach involved deconstructing the overarching colonial narrative and its representation of the Sudanese people. Through the re-appropriation and contextualization of these artworks, he created a sanctuary that celebrated the honour and dignity of the men portrayed, leaving a lasting impression of respect on the viewers.

In his “Black Holocaust Museum” from 2016 to 2023, Amado reappropriated the concept of the museum. This museum focuses on bringing attention to the overlooked African colonial archives and preserving the memory of the Herero genocide, which took place during the German second Reich’s colonization of South-West Africa in the early 20th century. Through his Museums, Amado initiates a discourse that prompts a deeper understanding of the subject matter, much like Kader Attia’s museum of Emotion.

Through their artistic expressions, Alfadni and Attia delve skilfully into the complexities of colonialism and the shared human experience. By utilizing visual metaphors, they underscore the importance of acknowledging the cultural heritage of the community. In this context, the museum evolves beyond a mere physical space and assumes the role of a sanctuary, facilitating healing and reconciliation with the memories of the past.

In juxtaposition to the artistic expressions revolving around the concept of a “Museum”, museums in Africa, notably the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, have undergone a significant transformation. They have become immersive settings that effectively re-enact the harsh realities of segregation and oppression. By fulfilling their purpose as spaces of acknowledgement, archival preservation, and cultural identity, these museums play a crucial role in capturing the essence of the lived experience.

In Africa, the notion of a museum has shifted dramatically over the past two decades, driven by a decolonized perspective that seeks to redefine the museum’s role by challenging and deconstructing colonial ideas and practice. This evolution has made “decolonization” a complex and meaningful process. The National Museum of Kenya and the Museum of West African Art in Nigeria exemplify this transformation, aiming to enhance their relevance to local and international audiences alike.

The National Museum of Kenya (NMK), established in Nairobi by colonial founders in the early 1900s, initially focused on natural history and prehistory. Since the early 21st century, NMK has embarked on a decolonization journey to redefine its priorities and values, distinct from its colonial origins. Historically excluded, the visual arts gained prominence when the museum, now known as the Nairobi National Museum (NNM), introduced the Creativity Galleries and The Discovery Room in 2008. These additions underscore the museum’s commitment to decolonization by engaging Kenya’s cultural diversity and utilizing Kenyan art history to preserve memories and narratives. Today, NNM boasts a permanent art collection and hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions as mediums for decolonization and cultural enrichment.

The Museum of West African Art (MOWAA) in Nigeria represents a unique approach that aligns with local practices, incorporating elements of Benin City’s historical walls, moats, and innovative structures that blend past, present, and future. MOWAA aims to function as an active museum that facilitates research and conservation, serving as a hub for cultural artefact repositioning and social memory preservation.

In summary, redefining the ideological stance of African museums is a complex endeavor. Originally established during colonial rule, these institutions have significantly influenced postcolonial culture and society. Today, African museums are pivotal for research, education, exhibition, and community engagement, amplifying diverse voices and perspectives. By promoting collaborations, they underscore their role in cultural development, embracing diversity, and safeguarding living heritage.