visitors protesting against the ‘museum of others’
Ekaterina Golovko departs from the action by Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza, who dislodged a 19th-century African wooden funeral pole from its holder in the Musée du Quai Branly, taking it as an invitation to reflect on museums, the connection between institutions and the artefacts stored inside them, and what an anthropological museum could become if re-thought.
1. Visitors protesting against museums
In Paris on 15 June 2020 a group of visitors paid their tickets and entered the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacque Chirac (named after the former French President). Navigating among exquisitely illuminated artefacts from around the world the group started a Facebook live stream. They then transformed from regular visitors who follow the logic of the museum into people who contest the museum. One of them – Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese activist committed to the restitution of African heritage (well known, since the event here described, to the artistic world at large and in particular to European museums dealing with non-European artefacts) [ 1 ] 1. This action in Paris was followed by actions in Marseille, in Belgium, in the Netherlands and once again in Paris (at the Louvre): https://www.frieze.com/article/why-restitution-wont-happen-if-europe-controls-terms. – dislodges a 19th-century African / Chadian wooden funeral pole from its holder and explains to the camera that there is no need to ask permission to take back a stolen object from a thief. Speaking on camera, grasping the pole and walking towards the exit, Diyabanza makes various statements that he repeats again and again, mantra- or echo-like, regarding European colonization, the looting of objects and the urgent need to return them to the dispossessed communities. His action is a physical protest against the system that allows looted objects to be displayed in national museums, perpetrating colonial violence in its institutionalized form. Diyabanza points out that, by selling expensive entry tickets, museums are making a profit from the display of looted objects. The message is very straightforward: the objects need to be brought back to the communities that lost them. By physically taking the artefact Diyabanza highlights the huge divide between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ museums. Outside the museum colonization has technically ended, but inside the museum objects looted during the colonial era are still there. Diyabanza’s refrain is that this state of things must change, and by constantly repeating the same sentences, he emphasizes that his words fail to reach either the museum staff or the police, who are called by the museum administration to stop him doing what he is doing.
Diyabanza and his fellow activists are stopped at the museum exit. So the action and its message, diffused through Facebook and Youtube, went much further than the actual object, which failed to leave the building. Diyabanza’s words are not lost. They have been recorded and made available to the world. A few months later Diyabanza and other members of the group were fined for attempted theft.
The action by Mwazulu Diyabanza and his companions is an invitation to reflect on museums, the connection between institutions and the artefacts stored inside them, and what an anthropological museum could become if re-thought. This visitors’ rebellion can be inscribed within ongoing restitution debates and also within antiracist movements around the globe, such as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter. It amounts to a wide-ranging critique of white supremacy and the institutionalized racism that dominates all facets of Western knowledge production and institutions. Material and immaterial power structures are attacked in order to interrupt these survivals of violence.
2. The ethnographic museum as graveyard
In his essay ‘Those who are dead are not ever gone’, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung resorts to the metaphor of choking in order to illustrate the present state of the ethnographic museum. In the very first ‘act’ of his essay he writes: ‘The institution of the ethnological museum or world museum seems to be in the midst of a serious crisis of choking.’ [ 2 ] 2. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Those Who Are Dead Are Not Ever Gone. On the Maintenance of Supremacy, the Ethnological Museum and the Intricacies of the Humboldt Forum. Archive Books, 2019. Almost every act of the essay starts with the sentence: ‘The very strange thing about choking is that one can choke even while eating the most delicious of foods out there’. This metaphor adds up to a number of current critiques of the museum related to the understanding of museum collections and museum spaces as extensions and continuations of colonial violence.
The ethnological / anthropological museum or museum of world cultures – call it how you prefer – is a disturber. This museum is neither neutral nor unbiased. Museums are ‘sites of forgetfulness and fantasy’. [ 3 ] 3. Sumaya Kassim. The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized // Media Diversified, 15.11.2017. URL: https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/. Regardless of the person of the architect and how much glass and sustainable materials are used for the façade, it remains a ‘museum of others’. Even built ex novo, this institution cannot free itself from its legacies and the history of conceptualization of ethnographic museums through the lens of colonial science and exploitation.
The idea of the ethnographic museum as a place of death is not new. It was expressed and visually represented by many authors, including Alain Resnais and Chris Marker in their 1953 documentary, Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die). The museum was represented as a place of death for the African artefacts shown in the movie:
“When men die, they enter into history.
When statues die, they enter into art.
This botany of death
is what we call culture.” [ 4 ] 4. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Statues Also Die. URL: https://youtu.be/7tsJL59MMrw.
Resnais and Marker’s film clearly shows ethnographic museums – specifically the Musée de l’Homme in Paris – as places that display the material effects of colonialism: the military pillage, violence and dispossession of communities around the world. The artefacts stored in the museum are not only the material evidence of colonial actions but also of colonial thinking. But to portray the museum overcome by a fit of choking (the image used by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung) is to represent the situation from a different viewpoint: if the objects are not set free, the West will choke to death on its own violence.
The ethnographic museum is testimony to the production, justification and embodiment of ‘race science’. The vicious circle starts and ends with the European colonial mindset that was invented and kept afloat through the idea of superiority. This overarching idea takes roots in the dichotomy of ‘civilized’ and ‘non-civilized nations’ separated by a temporal gap. ‘Primitive’, i.e., non-Western cultures and their cultural production are placed somewhere ‘behind’, in both a temporal and a developmental sense. Even if Western and non-Western cultures exist simultaneously in time, they are not interpreted as contemporary.
The logic of the ethnographic museum oscillates between national affirmation through the lens of Others and the violent encounter with the rest of the world. ‘The ethnological museum as an institution emerges from ideas of collection, display and learning with deep roots in Europe’s troubled encounters with those societies that were under imperial rule or came under some sort of Western sovereignty.’ [ 5 ] 5. Arjun Appadurai. Museums and the Savage Sublime // Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial (Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, Eds.). Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020. P. 45. The objects brought to Europe and then placed in the museum are physical testimonies of the controlled representation of societies through essentialization and categorization, produced ad-hoc by colonial thought. The analytical categories applied are not those of the societies to which the objects belong, but derive from Western thought and the Western intellectual tradition. Such subjective interpretation producing a narrative on behalf of these objects and origin communities is a crucial feature of ethnographic museums because it mixes up different ontologies and imposes an opportune interpretation of the artefact. As Appadurai states: ‘The misunderstanding of the Savage Sublime is thus a three-way misunderstanding between the disciplines of ethnology, natural history, and art history, each of which is in fact a product of the Age of Empire and has a different stake in the proper understanding of the objects of the Other.’ [ 6 ] 6. Ibid. P. 46.
Enlightenment ideas of knowledge and violent encounter with the other are closely interlinked in the ethnographic museum. The incongruity between the Enlightenment affirmation of the importance of knowledge and the production of knowledge that serves particular political, economic and personal interests is very striking. What we see is that the idea of Enlightenment and the production of tailor-made knowledge demonstrating the superiority of Europe over the rest of the world are actually not at odds. One is the cause and effect of the other. ‘Not to mention that the very duration, temporality, and meaning of these objects has been under an exclusive control and authority of Western museum institutions that decide how long one can have access to these objects.’ [ 7 ] 7. Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy. The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics, November 2018. Pp. 37–38. URL: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf. Speaking on behalf of others, ‘learning’ and ‘dialoguing’ with the rest of the world in the context of domination and exploitation, and diffusing this knowledge through institutions as museum, archive and university in fact silences those on behalf of whom the speaking is done and controls the flow of information.
– The museum as a site of temporal and spatial separation
Mwazulu Diyabanza extends his hand in a symbolic gesture and takes the funeral pole from its stand. The object is not physically separated from him, there is no glass or other obstacle between him and it. But the gesture is a symbolic abolishment of the distance that exists between the visitor and the artefacts. In this specific moment Mwazulu Diyabanza is not only a visitor to a museum but a representative of those who were dispossessed, those who no longer accept colonial narratives and colonial spaces. The gesture is a decolonial act against continuous separation and placing at a distance (visual, physical and ideological) within a museum.
The colonial legacies of ethnographic museums, expressed through the politics of separation, echo the seminal lines that Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth on the compartmentalization of the colonial world. The idea of the colonial world and colonial epistemology is based on separation:
‘The colonial world is a compartmentalized world. It is obviously as superfluous to recall the existence of “native” towns and European towns, of schools for “natives” and schools for Europeans, as it is to recall apartheid in South Africa.’ [ 8 ] 8. Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth (Richard Philcox, Trans.) New York: Grove Press, 2004. P. 3.
Dan Hicks further develops the idea of compartmentalization through the idea of the museum as a space of containment. This containment is linked both to the idea of dehumanization of Africans and at the same time to the ‘normalization of the display of human cultures in the material form.’ Hicks uses the term ‘chronopolitics’ that describes not only the denial of being part of the ‘contemporary’ world and being given a separate temporality, but also the collapsing of space into time: ‘It appeared that the further from metropolis the European travelled, the further back in time they went, until reaching the Stone Age in Tasmania, or Tierra del Fuego, etc.’ In museums and archives the conceptualization of time and space becomes very evident and also very significant. Both types of institution emphasize the temporal and spatial situatedness of the Other. In this they echo Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, where the narrator, Charles Marlow, tells the story of a steamboat journey up the Congo river, penetrating ‘the heart of Africa’. On a discursive level Conrad clearly shows how this journey into the continent, further from the coast, brings the European traders to a dark place, where the life of local populations seems to be ages behind Europe. And together with this gesture that Fabian has called ‘denial of coevalness’ – the verbal assertion that two living human groups were living in incommensurable time periods – there was a parallel process of material change, through which whole cultures were physically stripped of their technologies, had their living landscapes transformed into ruins, and had these moments of violence extended across time, memorialized, through the technology of the anthropology museum. [ 9 ] 9. Dan Hicks. The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. London: Pluto Books, 2020. P. 180. ‘Museums are devices for extending events across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the violence […] anthropology has been constructing its object – the Other – by employing various devices of temporal distancing, negating the coeval existence of the object and subject of its discourse.’ [ 10 ] 10. Johannes Fabian. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. P. 50. The objects brought from Africa, Asia or the Americas are part of the construction of temporal and spatial dimensions that negate coevalness to non-Western cultures. This negation is at the root of the conceptualization of ethnographic museums as places that display so-called ethnographic objects, which are not granted space in museums of fine arts. ‘Since the modern age the museum has been a powerful device of separation. The exhibiting of subjugated or humiliated humanities has always adhered to certain elementary rules of injury and violation. And, for starters, these humanities have never had the right in the museum to the same treatment, status or dignity as the conquering humanities. They have been subjected to other rules of classification and other logics of presentation.’ [ 11 ] 11. Achille Mbembe. Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. P. 171. Following this logic ‘ethnographic objects’ are disconnected from the present and left exclusively in the past.
The makers of the film Statues Also Die deal with the ‘imprisonment’ of African masks behind the glass of Western museums. This spatial separation between the visitor and the artefact, but also between different artefacts, is clearly shown. The spatial appropriation and imprisonment of African objects is musealization. It is made possible by two processes related to the ontological misunderstanding of such artefacts. First, the misunderstanding of the roles and functions of the masks (or other objects) in the societies that produced them. Second, the use of the same explanatory grids for different environments and cultural settings. [ 12 ] 12. Pierre-Philippe Fraiture. Statues Also Die // Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 24, No. 1, 2016. Pp. 45–67. Transforming socially relevant objects into museum artefacts deprives them of their original meaning, significance and larger context, and thereby silences them. At the same time, it allows the insertion of the artefacts into the Western canon of categorization. ‘Whereas museologization is a western stance that deals with alterity in time as history, ethnologization deals with it in space as distance. The combination of “ethnographic” and “museum” that assimilates African artefacts which are still attached to living people, points at the putting into the past of the distant. The imagery that museologization and ethnologization produces, appropriates the other as something primitive, barbarous or exotic.’ [ 13 ] 13. Matthias de Groof. Statues Also Die – But Their Death is not the Final Word’ // Image and Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2010. P. 31.
The physical divide between the inside and the outside of the museum is another dimension of separation. The action by Mwazulu Diyabanza underlines this dimension because he embodies a visitor who enters from the outside and contests the epistemic logic of the museum. The building is clearly delimited from the outside world by its built structure. The walls of the museum preserve the colonial temporality inside the museum, safeguarding an uninterrupted continuity since its creation. More locally, the separation is operated by the glass boxes or any kind of physical obstacle between the objects and the viewer.
The action at the Quai Branly museum in Paris underlines in a very clear way how different levels of separation can be overcome, how the external and internal dimensions of the museum can start communicating. Mwazulu Diyabanza enters from the outside – an outside, which, in this context, represents a space of protest and contestation of colonial legacies, opposed to the inside of the museum. ‘Outside’ is the space where the Rhodes Must Fall protests took place and it is the social space of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mwazulu Diyabanza symbolically brings the struggle inside the museum. His action can be read through the lens of separation and chronopolitics as contesting spatial and temporal dimensions of separation by actively challenging the structures of the museum. It can also be an invitation to build bridges between the outside and the inside. The attempt to bring the object outside the museum is an attempt to create a different epistemic context for it. The question that simultaneously arises is whether it is possible to keep the objects inside, but to re-create the museum environment around them.
3. Creating a different network of relations between visitors, museum institutions and artefacts.
The realization that something is wrong with the ethnographic museum is not new. Besides clear feelings of ‘malaise dans les musées’ experienced by many visitors and described by scholars, the debate has moved into the political sphere. In the recent past, the speech by Emmanuel Macron at Ouagadougou University in 2017 was an important milestone. Macron affirmed that all looted objects in French museums should be restituted. This speech was followed by the report commissioned by Macron in 2018 from two eminent scholars, Senegalese Felwine Sarr and French Bénédicte Savoy.
Their report ‘Restituer le patrimoine africain’ (‘Restitution of African Heritage’) is a landmark contribution to public discussion on the restitution of African artefacts. It starts by questioning what ‘restitution’ of African objects might mean in the current context before discussing concrete steps on how to proceed. Sarr and Savoy define restitution through the verb ‘to restitute’, that ‘literally means to return an item to its legitimate owner’. [ 14 ] 14. Sarr and Savoy. Op. cit. P. 29. The authors point out that ‘this term serves to remind us that the appropriation and enjoyment of an item that one restitutes rest on a morally reprehensible act (rape, pillaging, spoliation, ruse, forced consent, etc.). In this case, to restitute aims to re-institute the cultural item to the legitimate owner for his legal use and enjoyment, as well as all the other prerogatives that the item confers (usus, fructus, and abusus).’ [ 15 ] 15. Ibid. The act of restitution would acknowledge the illegitimate actions of the past but would also contribute to the rupture of colonial survivals in museums today. The Sarr-Savoy report is an important step towards the institutional understanding of the ethnographic museum as a place that must restitute pillaged objects to the communities that were violently deprived of their material heritage. ‘To openly speak of restitutions is to speak of justice, or re-balancing, recognition, of restoration and reparation, but above all: it is a way to open a pathway toward establishing new cultural relations based on a newly reflected-upon ethical relation.’ [ 16 ] 16. Ibid. This report has contributed to the discussion of how to move from the present reality of the ethnographic museum, full of the products of colonial violence, to a new type of museum that would be free from such violence. What will these museums become when the objects finally find their way back?
Although, for the moment, the artefacts remain in the museums and massive restitution has not affected museums in either France or other European countries, critical approaches to ethnographic museums and ways of re-thinking colonial legacies are being experimented with. Radical reassessment of history and social struggles against the persistence of colonial histories and heritage may lead to different solutions or responses.
The options are multiple and the possible remedies are various. First of all, there is the attempt to critically approach the museum and its legacy through decolonial practices. These may consist of rebranding and revisiting the collection and trying to establish a different type of interaction between the viewer, the objects and the institution. The second task is to bring down the statues and monuments of colonialism. The third and most challenging task is to find alternatives to museums or monuments as we know them at present, alternatives based on different epistemologies and different forms of knowledge production, which have been ignored or silenced by Western culture.
– Rebranding ‘world culture’ museums
In recent years a number of institutions have started to engage in decolonial practices that involve a rebranding of ethnographic museums. One example is the work carried out by Clémentine Deliss who was director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt between 2010 and 2015. The challenge of the ethnographic museum, as formulated by Clémentine Deliss is ‘knowing how to come to terms with the hiatus between the narratives of then and now, the different geopolitical and associative identities, and their relation to crises and war, epidemics, and anonymity? Moreover, how to do this with a collection that had been brutally extricated from its original referentiality?’ [ 17 ] 17. Clémentine Deliss. The Metabolic Museum. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2020. P. 96.
Deliss wanted to transform the museum from an end-point, a static frame of the past, and for it to be perceived instead as a process, a living organism. The final step in her re-thinking of the museum would be what she calls the ‘post-ethnographic museum’. ‘If we want to discuss the post-ethnographic museum, however, the necessity for new experimental research into these collections is paramount,’ she says. [ 18 ] 18. URL: https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/456_occupy_collections_clementine_deliss_in_conversation_with_frederic_keck_on_access_circulation_and_interdisciplinary_experimentation_or_the_urgency_of_remediating_ethnographic_collections_before_it_is_really_too_late#footnote-1. The post-ethnographic museum is an ethnographic museum that has been profoundly reworked and rethought at all levels, starting from its architectural structures to its modus operandi as an institution in the cultural field. Deliss took steps to overcome the idea of temporal, spatial and epistemic separation in the museum by imbricating interventions from contemporary artists, writers and thinkers with the objects of the museum collection. She criticized the idea that only ‘ethnologists’ or other professionals working in museum depositories can assign and define the meanings of the objects. She invited new people to interact with them. The space of the Weltkulturen Museum organized ‘encounters’ between the objects – often labeled as sacred or ethnographic – and contemporary art. These steps suggested a radical change in the way a European ethnographic museum creates meanings. ‘The Weltkulturen Museum is about people, objects and their trajectories. For objects, too, are migrants, and embody partial or incomplete knowledge. The design for the new building should reflect the inherent tensions of our societies, recognizing that the museum offers less a static endpoint than a dynamic moment of connection in an ever-fluctuating assemblage of identifications between people and things.’ [ 19 ] 19. Deliss. Op. cit. P. 38.
During her directorship Deliss worked on and elaborated the idea of a museum-university – a hybrid proto-institution that makes formal and informal university-level inquiry flow into former ethnographic museums, basing all new research on the potentiality created by assemblages of artefacts, documents, and photographic archives. [ 20 ] 20. Ibid. So the museum would be perceived as a space of learning, of knowledge production, and not of an imposed and controlled narrative.
– Bringing down the statues
The option of bringing down monuments to coloniality is compared by Achille Mbembe to demythologization of history and putting it to rest. [ 21 ] 21. Achille Mbembe. Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, Africa as a Country. 2015. URL: https://africaisacountry.atavist.com/decolonizing-knowledge-and-the-question-of-the-archive. As Preciado writes for Artforum: the statues ‘stand for the values of virility, racial purity, wealth, and power, affirm the victory of the patriarchal-colonial discourse that commissions and installs them and occludes undesirable narratives.’ [ 22 ] 22. Paul B. Preciado. When Statues Fall // Artforum, December 2020. URL: https://www.artforum.com/print/202009/paul-b-preciado-84375. When protesters tear down the statues, sometimes they are replaced with alternative heroes, as for example a Black woman or Darth Vader. Preciado underlines at the same time that a fallen statue opens up ‘a possible space of resignification in power’s dense and saturated landscape.’ But when the statues fall – and they must fall, as Preciado writes – their pedestals that remain empty continue to bear the symbolic value of a monument. The empty pedestal, according to Preciado, is also a symbol of something. He suggests leaving the pedestals empty as a free space of expression. ‘Let the museums remain empty and the pedestals bare. Let nothing be installed upon them. It is necessary to leave room for utopia regardless of whether it ever arrives,’ Preciado writes. This take on statues and their pedestals echoes with the opinion of Dan Hicks on museums. He underlines the importance of anthropological museums if they can successfully ‘transform themselves by facing up to the enduring presence of empire, including through acts of cultural restitution and reparations, and for the transformation of a central part of the purpose of these spaces into sites of conscience.’ [ 23 ] 23. Dan Hicks. Op. cit. P. 4.
Dan Hicks suggests re-thinking museums, their anthropological display and what exactly the museum should evoke: pride or shame, etc. The visitors’ rebellion is a clear request for restitution, but, as Dan Hicks suggests, rather than being seen as an attempt to efface the anthropological museum, it is a call to recreate it as a site of consciousness. ‘In case of restitution the space of the museum can be re-worked and re-thought. Restitution is not subtraction; it is refusing any longer to defend the indefensible; it is supporting African institutions, colleagues and communities; addressing western museums’ roles as sites of conscience and remembrance, tackling the ongoing effects of racial violence, paying a debt, rebuilding a relationship. No museum can stop the world from changing around it. Dialogue is giving way to action. We don’t know how this ends for the ten thousand objects looted from Benin.’ [ 24 ] 24. Ibid. P. 234.
Bringing down a monument, as in the Rhodes Must Fall protest, is only a first step in the decolonial approach to archives, museums and institutions. The same goes for Mwazulu Diyabanza’s seizure of the funeral pole in the Museum Quai Branly in Paris. The first gesture of active protest needs to be followed by global rethinking of how museums could exist outside the relationship of categorization imposed by the Eurocentric modern vision of the world, ceasing to control the narratives of the objects exhibited there.
– Finding alternatives
So what alternative can be found to the ethnographic museum? How can a part of the building be re-built if the rest remains intact? Can we keep the building but destroy its foundation? How can the foundation of the museum be rebuilt but the rest of the building be kept?
If colonial thought and colonial ideas are at the basis of the museum of Others, how is it possible to get rid of the colonial part but keep the rest?
4. Alternative forms of archiving for sound
‘Each time an individual moves an object from one place to another, they participate in the changing of the world. Who is to tell us that the leaf that falls from the tree is not our sister? An object is charged with history, with the culture that produced it originally and, as such, it is a constructed object […] Objects do speak, but they speak their own language. Like the wind speaks. Like birds speak.’ [ 25 ] 25. Issa Samb interviewed by Antje Majewski regarding her work La Coquille, Dakar, 2010. URL: http://www.antjemajewski.de/portfolio/la-coquille-conversation-entre-issa-samb-et-antje-majewski-dakar-2010-2010/.
The Western materialistic approach to culture and knowledge is based on possession and storage of objects or documents in the museum or in archives as a physical proof of their existence. Such an approach is opposed to that of so-called oral cultures, which do not depend on written matter for transmitting and conserving knowledge. Obviously, the way knowledge is conceptualized is also directly related to the form of its transmission and conservation. ‘African societies have produced original forms of mediation between the spirit, matter, and the living. […] these societies generated open systems of mutual resource-sharing concerning the forms of knowledge at the heart of participative ecosystems, wherein the world is a reservoir of potentials.’ [ 26 ] 26. Sarr and Savoy. Op. cit. P. 34. European ethnographers used the Western understanding of knowledge and categorized the world accordingly, without taking account of different epistemic systems.
The only possible direction in thinking about objects coming from the African continent is to turn for knowledge and inspiration to African and diasporic creators. As stated by Chakrabarty, Europe should be provincialized. This approach to re-imagining museums would go further than re-branding: it would involve turning to different epistemic bases. One example is Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s Kiosk Museum, a mobile form of museum that proposes flexibility, inclusivity, participation and consciously goes beyond ‘apartness’. As Ayim says, referring to mainstream contemporary museums: ‘This apartness can create gaps between their representation of the stories they tell and the lived experiences of those stories.’ [ 27 ] 27. Drew Snyder. The Kiosk Museum: A Space of Exploration & Inclusive Representation. 2016. URL: http://accradotaltradio.com/2016/09/the-kiosk-museum-a-space-of-exploration-inclusive-representation/. Her mobile museum contained in a kiosk – a structure known to anyone in Ghana – was presented in several different cities around Ghana and also gained high international visibility at the Festival Chale Wote in Accra in 2015. The mobile museum project represents a critique of the idea of a stable, fixed museum space. It also overcame the controlled narrative proposed by the museum, using more egalitarian interaction between the museum, its visitors and the objects. ‘Visitors spontaneously assumed the role of curator or tour guide with lively accounts of their own experiences in the festivals. These moments helped to invert the typical institutional hierarchies of contemporary museums and contributed to the richness of the information generated in the kiosk.’ [ 28 ] 28. Ibid. The Kiosk Museum became a space generating knowledge through interaction instead of controlling knowledge. The question Nana Oforiatta Ayim asked was: what would be a suitable display of objects in the African contexts? Her practice shows how to draw inspiration from the realities of the continent instead of subjugating them.
It is crucial, in rethinking museums and archives, to emphasize the epistemic divide between material and immaterial. How can the immaterial and intangible be stored? Should it be stored at all? Are there alternative ways of addressing this problem other than materializing the immaterial?
It is inspiring to look at ways in which immaterial knowledge and oral heritage can be stored and transmitted. The Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye addressed this question brilliantly in her film Fad’jal, in which she shows her native village in the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal. The feature-length film reveals the life of the village through its agricultural and spiritual activities. Her decision to represent her own village is quite natural. The village is the archetypical place of ‘authenticity’ and ‘tradition’, a place which ethnographers and anthropologist are particularly interested in. If ethnographic museums want to represent the African environment, the basis of the representation would definitely be a village. It is interesting, therefore, how Faye frames her visual narrative.
Faye manages to mix ethnographic filmmaking with an insider’s meditation on familiar events. She shows how villagers work in the fields, produce salt, give birth and bury their dead – various regular activities that characterize the cycle of the year. At the same time in Fad’jal Faye interrogates and re-creates the history and memory of the village from a very personal point of view. Faye who studied ethnology in Paris and was a long-term collaborator of Jean Rouch, delivers a personal and at the same time distanced take on the reality that she is extremely familiar with. ‘Distance (chosen by Faye) is not detachment. Faye’s ambiguous position which unites alienation and rootedness, employs an aesthetic of distance rather than a Rouchian participatory style, which would have its basis in the desire to bridge the outsider’s position.’ [ 29 ] 29. Matthias De Groof. Ethnographic Film’s Relation to African Cinema: Safi Faye and Jean Rouch’ // Visual Anthropology, 31 (4–5), 2018. P. 431. Faye’s ability to mix documentary and fiction is also very suggestive for the discussion of museums and archives. Faye’s gaze goes beyond separation and the politics of ‘putting at a distance’ that is typical of ethnographic cinema. Faye uses her distant mode of representation to show that her characters can only be accessible in their inaccessibility – this is her way of reconciling empathy and inaccessibility. Through long fixed frames she creates a new stance that goes beyond the ‘outside vs. inside’ dichotomy. Faye’s observational mode is a way of bringing opposite poles closer, mediating and finding a new visual discourse.
The film starts with a scene in the French-speaking school. The scene is evocative of the type of education delivered in former French colonies. The school as an architectural unit separates the space of formal learning from the space of living, of daily life, of spoken language, of stories and memories. The scene in the classroom shows children going over their homework – a mechanical repetition of the same sentence dealing with the 17th century King of France, Louis XIV. This scene is the only representation of formal education and its role for the people of the village. The manner of speaking and postures of the children as they repeat the lesson show that there is no way they can relate to this obscure historical figure: ‘Louis XIV était le plus grand roi de France. On l’appelait le roi Soleil. Sous son règne fleuraient les lettres et les arts.’ [ 30 ] 30. ‘Louis XIV was the greatest king of France. He was called the “Sun King”. During his reign letters and the arts flourished’. The scene ends with the end of the lesson. Shot from the inside, we see a fixed image of children flowing from the classroom into the school yard, leaving the space of imposed and constricted knowledge behind them.
Faye never takes us back to the school during the remainder of the film – it does not seem to be a productive place for her narrative. The colonial history is not Faye’s main interest, but it cannot be disregarded if an overall picture of village life is to be attempted. The school and the church are two closed spaces and built environments that can be contrasted with the other, mostly open, locations of the film. Showing the lesson in the formal school at the beginning contrasts with the rest of the film and builds a discursive comparison between different ways of transmitting history.
Faye focuses in the film on oral history and in particular on its transmission and appropriation. The film starts by citing the famous dictum of Amadou Hampate Ba: ‘In Africa when an old man dies, a library burns’. The oral history and its social and cultural form and role is foregrounded by the filmmaker. It is shown as a crucial interaction between different generations and their continuity through time and space. This thematic thread is focused onto a group of young boys – mostly adolescents – who gather around their maam (‘grandparent’ or ‘elder’ in the Wolof language) and ask him to tell the history of Fad’jal, the place they belong to and inhabit. The story is divided into several parts and alternates with the other visual scenes of the film. Finally, in order to close the discursive circle of the film, Faye shows how the children gather around the kapok tree and start re-telling the story (Images 6 and 7).
This polyphonic narration shows how it feels to belong to this history not only as listener, but also as narrator. In the final scene the elder is no longer present. He has accomplished his role. The young boys are now bearers of the village’s history and will take it further with them. We observe how a young generation enters into the possession of knowledge and its embodiment through the voice. There is no longer just one storyteller: each of them takes part in the story, telling it in small parts. This approach to history seems playful, but it is also an overt recognition of simultaneous belonging. The alternation of those who are listeners and those who are storytellers is shown as natural and vital. At the end of the film the boys have been entitled to speak. This does not happen in the classroom but under the tree. The children leave the classroom and step into their cultural and social world. The distance between formal knowledge and the places of their lives and their stories is not overcome.
The way in which Faye presents different modalities of knowledge transmission is highly suggestive for thinking about archives and museums. Her magnificent images establish a poetic connection between oral histories (oral forms of knowledge transmission) and trees. She shows trees and the vicinity of trees as spaces of oral history and knowledge sharing. The storytelling experience takes place under large trees that offer shadow and protection to the elder and the boys. The first scene shows them gathered under a large baobab tree (Image 8 and 9). On other occasions they are under a kapok tree, or in places where several trees stand close by one another. This ‘under-the-tree’ space marks a central point of knowledge transmission. It is simultaneously protected and open, a place where anyone who is interested can ‘walk in’. This is a place where the sounds and events of village life commingle with the narration of history, in contrast with the closed spaces of containment. For example, in one of the scenes, the elder stops speaking because the sounds of music reach them. He pauses and listens to the sounds coming from the village. Here Faye shows how the present and the past of the village are in communication, they are not separated from one another, but are interwoven.
The image of the tree as a place of knowledge, a place of transmission and protection is epistemologically opposed to the spaces of the school or the museum. The surrounding environment naturally embraces the ‘under-the-tree’ space, which serves as a symbolic and metaphoric archive of immaterial and intangible knowledge production, preserved within village society. The openness of the tree and its ability to embrace everything that is told and shared among listeners is quite different from the world of closed, classified and categorized archives, access to which requires special invitation or authorization. Faye’s image of the tree presents the idea of alternative archives: open, shared, and unrestricted by the walls and constrictions of buildings. The discursive space of the tree is an alternative to the space of containment, which Faye herself depicts in other episodes of the film in order to draw this contrast and defy the politics of separation.
As Western museums are to categorizing and classification, oral cultures are to sound. [ 31 ] 31. This comparison is inspired by that suggested by Dan Hicks in his book Brutish Museums: ‘As the border is to the nation, so the museum is to empire’. It might be said that, for Black African and diasporic cultures, the central concept for the understanding of generative forces and their functioning is ‘sound’, as theorized by Louis Chude-Sokei in his seminal essay ‘Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber’. [ 32 ] 32. This essay by Chude-Sokei has been reprinted in various journals. It is available, for example, at URL: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/304658651.pdf. Chude-Sokei starts out from the idea of ‘word-sound’ as it exists in the Rastafari conception. ‘Sound becomes its own realm of meaning, of discourse, of politics where the word is necessarily tied to a cultural specificity that must always contend with its other, its sound. And a sound must in turn […] struggle with the implications of its echoes and the cultural practices of those far enough away to make their own local meanings out of the echo before it decays and is swallowed by infinity.’ [ 33 ] 33. Ibid. P. 47. The echo chamber is a metaphor of the movement of sound, of diffusion of knowledge through sound waves that link places and cultures. Chude-Sokei refers in particular to the culture of reggae and dub music as it developed in Jamaica in the 70s. Based on the idea of echo and reverberation, dub music was a way of spreading sound and the information contained in it. This principle is also at the basis of oral cultures, as shown by Safi Faye in her film. The story is told by the maam and is then polyphonically echoed by the young boys. This telling of history and transmission of knowledge is the epistemic contrary to the idea of categorizing and containment of knowledge, which is standard in Western museums and archives.
The dictionary defines sound as ‘vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear’. Turning to sound as a tool for communication and memorialization is particularly relevant in the West African context. Through sound, its echo and reverberation, stories are told and re-told through times and spaces. Oral accounts are not fixed, but change over time and also have a significant relationship with the present. The nature of this knowledge is ‘elliptical and resonant’, [ 34 ] 34. Toby Green. A Fistful of Shells. West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. P. 36. non-fixed and variable.
Louis Chude-Sokei’s discussion, in his approach to reggae music, of culture and sound from a materialistic viewpoint also seems very relevant to the analysis of oral culture and knowledge transmission as demonstrated and analyzed in Fad’jal. The circulation of knowledge is a complex intersection of sound and culture and their echo through temporal and spatial distance. For Chude-Sokei, echo is also the sensation of a restless searching for roots and the never-ending tensions of dispersal. In the case of oral history, as shown by Faye in her films, there is no technology involved, but there is a clear centrality of the sound.
While, in Chude-Sokei’s analysis, the technological component is crucial, I look at orality through the pattern of echo and reverb without technological innovation, focusing on the crucial role of ‘sound’ for culture, its transmission, its diffusion and its conceptualization. Sound is linked to orality, to diaspora, to the echoing of knowledge and culture through time and space. ‘Sound in Jamaica means process, community, strategy and product. It functions as an aesthetic space within which the members of the national or transnational Jamaican community imagine themselves. This is an imagined community which, unlike the one mapped out by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, operates not by the technologies of literacy, but through the cultural economy of sound and its technological apparatus which is distinctly oral.’ [ 35 ] 35. Chude-Sokei. Op. cit. P. 49.
Repetition and echoing of sounds and their reverberation in the under-the-tree space allows the diffusion, conservation and transmission of knowledge through sound. While more in-depth research on connections and intersections between orality in West Africa and diasporic sounds remains to be done, the essay by Chude-Sokei has already illuminated the connection between oral history and knowledge transmission in the ‘under-the-tree space’ and its relation to echo and reverb. These practices can all be linked by what Chude-Sokei calls the ‘technology of orality’: ‘For those descended from oral traditions and whose dependence on it is due to the exclusive and racialist structure of Western literacy, a sensitivity to sound must exist in a way that it does not for the children of Prospero.’ [ 36 ] 36. Ibid. P. 51. Colonial histories and histories told in the classroom do not echo in the children in Fad’jal, as do the stories that the maam tells. The scene in the school is focused on history and its telling, but although the children all repeat the same sentence, it is clearly visible that there is no connection between them and the information they repeat.
Thinking about ‘sound’ and the images of Safi Faye’s film, the question naturally arises: Why can a tree not be considered an archive? Why can an archive not be imagined under the tree? Safi Faye shows us this space of spreading knowledge, echoing through time – from generation to generation – but also through space, overcoming physical distances with sound. Polyphonic voices, elliptical histories, accessible knowledge and travelling sounds are all features that both Faye and Chude-Sokei put forward. So, if knowledge and heritage are sound, if they are shared by people through their voices, why should this knowledge be attached to a physical support? How can such an archive be looted? And how can it be preserved? Only those directly involved in these processes can decide how, what and where they want to preserve.
5. Dissemination, dispersal and giving away…
‘Museums have of course assimilated post-colonial critique, and they are often good at dealing with asymmetries of power; but they are very bad at dealing with asymmetries of epistemology; […] So long as “ethnographic” museums do not deal with cultural difference in a more symmetrical manner, they will remain “colonialist” institutions.’ [ 37 ] 37. Anne-Christine Taylor. On Decolonising Anthropological Museums: Curators Need to Take “Indigenous” Forms of Knowledge More Seriously // Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial (Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, Eds.). Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020. P. 103.
Any attempt to decolonize needs to be inspired by non-Western voices and ideas. This means listening to voices like that of Mwazulu Diyabanza. When Diyabanza and his comrades are surrounded by the police and museum staff in the museum hall, it becomes very visible that his voice and his words, repeated an infinite number of times, flow freely, but his ideas are not captured. Through his actions and words Diyabanza highlights that, in the context of Western management of ethnographic and anthropological museums, the ideas of theft, of heritage, of right and wrong, are much more complex than a simple dichotomy of legality and illegality. For so long as Mwazulu Diyananza can be condemned for theft, and for an offense against law and order, the colonial principles of containment and separation will continue to reign. Visitors who protest against museums by physically engaging with the institution are a response to the continued existence of the epistemologies of classification and categorization. Diyabanza really speaks the same language as the creators of the museum. He comes and takes as if asking all those who hear him: is it possible to steal from a thief?
Several conclusions can be drawn from the action in the Quai Branly Museum. First of all, there is an urgent need for restitution of looted artefacts. Second, the action is the physical and visual proof that the ethnographic museum has failed. Recourse must be made to different epistemic systems, new language and new images for critical rethinking of the museum. In this context, the image of tree-as-archive can work as a space of immaterial, oral culture, open and flexible. It is dynamic, it is not static, it does not ‘freeze’ the picture of the past, but reverberates between present and past. It can be a place of engagement, of joint work, it is pluralistic and open-ended. The museum space needs to become ‘museum in reverse’ based on dissemination and dispersal, on giving away rather than accumulating. [ 38 ] 38. Deliss. Op. cit. P. 93.
- This action in Paris was followed by actions in Marseille, in Belgium, in the Netherlands and once again in Paris (at the Louvre): https://www.frieze.com/article/why-restitution-wont-happen-if-europe-controls-terms.
- Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Those Who Are Dead Are Not Ever Gone. On the Maintenance of Supremacy, the Ethnological Museum and the Intricacies of the Humboldt Forum. Archive Books, 2019.
- Sumaya Kassim. The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized // Media Diversified, 15.11.2017. URL: https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/.
- Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Statues Also Die. URL: https://youtu.be/7tsJL59MMrw.
- Arjun Appadurai. Museums and the Savage Sublime // Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial (Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, Eds.). Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020. P. 45.
- Ibid. P. 46.
- Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy. The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics, November 2018. Pp. 37–38. URL: http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf.
- Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth (Richard Philcox, Trans.) New York: Grove Press, 2004. P. 3.
- Dan Hicks. The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. London: Pluto Books, 2020. P. 180.
- Johannes Fabian. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. P. 50.
- Achille Mbembe. Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. P. 171.
- Pierre-Philippe Fraiture. Statues Also Die // Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 24, No. 1, 2016. Pp. 45–67.
- Matthias de Groof. Statues Also Die – But Their Death is not the Final Word’ // Image and Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2010. P. 31.
- Sarr and Savoy. Op. cit. P. 29.
- Clémentine Deliss. The Metabolic Museum. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2020. P. 96.
- URL: https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/456_occupy_collections_clementine_deliss_in_conversation_with_frederic_keck_on_access_circulation_and_interdisciplinary_experimentation_or_the_urgency_of_remediating_ethnographic_collections_before_it_is_really_too_late#footnote-1.
- Deliss. Op. cit. P. 38.
- Achille Mbembe. Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, Africa as a Country. 2015. URL: https://africaisacountry.atavist.com/decolonizing-knowledge-and-the-question-of-the-archive.
- Paul B. Preciado. When Statues Fall // Artforum, December 2020. URL: https://www.artforum.com/print/202009/paul-b-preciado-84375.
- Dan Hicks. Op. cit. P. 4.
- Ibid. P. 234.
- Issa Samb interviewed by Antje Majewski regarding her work La Coquille, Dakar, 2010. URL: http://www.antjemajewski.de/portfolio/la-coquille-conversation-entre-issa-samb-et-antje-majewski-dakar-2010-2010/.
- Sarr and Savoy. Op. cit. P. 34.
- Drew Snyder. The Kiosk Museum: A Space of Exploration & Inclusive Representation. 2016. URL: http://accradotaltradio.com/2016/09/the-kiosk-museum-a-space-of-exploration-inclusive-representation/.
- Matthias De Groof. Ethnographic Film’s Relation to African Cinema: Safi Faye and Jean Rouch’ // Visual Anthropology, 31 (4–5), 2018. P. 431.
- ‘Louis XIV was the greatest king of France. He was called the “Sun King”. During his reign letters and the arts flourished’.
- This comparison is inspired by that suggested by Dan Hicks in his book Brutish Museums: ‘As the border is to the nation, so the museum is to empire’.
- This essay by Chude-Sokei has been reprinted in various journals. It is available, for example, at URL: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/304658651.pdf.
- Ibid. P. 47.
- Toby Green. A Fistful of Shells. West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. P. 36.
- Chude-Sokei. Op. cit. P. 49.
- Ibid. P. 51.
- Anne-Christine Taylor. On Decolonising Anthropological Museums: Curators Need to Take “Indigenous” Forms of Knowledge More Seriously // Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial (Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, Eds.). Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020. P. 103.
- Deliss. Op. cit. P. 93.