10 February 2019

British Museum: Exploring narratives and community engagement in African museums.

Last Saturday the British Museum hosted an afternoon of events relating to the development of African museums. Sam Nixon, head of the Africa section, explained the events were part of a wider series of closed workshops and discussions that had been happening at the BM over the previous two days. He placed the events in the context of … The events included Hartwig Fischer in conversation with David Adjaye and a panel discussion on  Exploring narratives and community engagement in African museums.   

The Panel discussion was particularly interesting with three excellent speakers all addressing the theme in their own way.  Professor Kodzo Gavua (Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Ghana) described how he felt that Ghanaian museums had become dysfunctional.  He argued that this was because a western concept of museums had been imposed, one that reflected the interests and aims of the political elite.  As a result of this they had failed to effectively connect the past to the present and many people did not feel that the museums were relevant to their lives.  He called for a new paradigm that counteracts the persistent ‘dark continent’ stereotypes and goes beyond the national and ethnic narratives that museums currently represent to connect the past to the present more meaningfully.

Seun Oduwole (Principal Architect: SISA, Lagos) spoke about the development of the JK Randle Centre forYoruba Culture and History, Nigeria which is due to open later this year.  He explained the history of the site and the role of Dr J.K. Randle (1855-1928) in building a swimming pool for the people of Lagos Island which later fell into disrepair.  The new project involves creating some shared green space, renovating the pool and visiting the cultural centre.  It is due to open later this year. The cultural centre will include four sections – Creation, Custom and Practice, Modern Yoruba and Future Yoruba.  A series of presentations across Lagos haves seen a very positive response to the project.  Seun Oduwole was at pains to emphasise the project was for the local community in Lagos but the glossy promotional video emphasised the centre’s role in attracting tourists.  It will be interesting to see how competing demands are balanced, a problem that I’m sure will be familiar to many working in museums in the UK.

Professor Paul Basu (SOAS) talked about how new museum projects in West Africa were providing an opportunity to rethink answers to the question ‘what is a museum?.’  He argued that museums should be thought of as collections of relationships between people that are mediated through objects and stories.  This focus on relationships is at the heart of his current research project ‘[Re]-entanglements  Re-engaging with ColonialArchives in Postcolonial Times’.  He spoke about the potential that digitising objects and archives had to ‘liberate’ collections and reconnect them to places and people they had come from. He spoke movingly about being able to take photographs and sound recordings back to the places they had been collected and share them with the descendants of those recorded. 

It was an interesting and enjoyable session with much food for thought.  However, it was a shame that there was no opportunity for questions from, or discussion with, the audience.  Questions of repatriation, sohotly debated at the moment, were notable by their absence although apparently were being raised behind closed doors. 

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