It’s about the people

01.10.2019 - Article

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, highlights the positive and mutual interest in questions surrounding postcolonial museum work in his speech at the opening of the Museum Conversations conference in Windhoek, writes the Goethe-Institute.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, during his keynote address in Namibia.
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, during his keynote address in Namibia.© CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

The South African painter Ernest Mancoba, who died in 2002, said during a conversation, “Despite our science, with everything we think we know, we do not know the future, we do not know tomorrow. But artists and poets, these people who do not just think mathematically, could bring us closer to the future.”

Connecting the past and the future

Museums are suited for enabling this cultural dialogue in and with society, for connecting the past and the future, for acting as educational and learning places, communicating across generations and fulfilling social functions. However, their character must always take specific account of their social and historical environment and they must be independent in their work. Only then are they part of society and credible.

Future plans for Africa must be created in Africa

At a very early stage, the Goethe-Institut and its partners around the world carried out major projects on questions about the museum of the future and its role in society, in South America with the Museum Episodes, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific with Transitioning Museums in Southeast Asia and in India with Museum of the Future. Africa belongs in this big context. In addition, the institute organised international conferences in Germany, which also addressed the role of museums in connection with restitution due to colonial history. All of these activities were shaped by the extended perspective of treating the past not as a closed chapter, but as an historic obligation for the future. This also applies to the political and economic asymmetries and injustices that continue to exist from the colonial era.

Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
Impressions from the final conference of the Museum Conversations in Windhoek.© CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

Future plans for Africa must be created in Africa. With 47 countries, more than 650 million inhabitants and more than 1,000 languages, sub-Saharan Africa is a very heterogeneous region, but at the same time it is a culturally rich region due to its diversity. The Goethe-Institut has an intensive network and is presently working in eleven institutes as well as in other different manifestations. For the Goethe-Institut it’s a fortunate circumstance to be able to work so closely in this network with African colleagues, scientists and artists. For example, we were able to organise local and regional meetings in seven different locations – in Kigali, Windhoek, Ouagadougou, Kinshasa, Accra, Dar es Salaam and Lagos – in advance of this final conference of the Museum Conversations 2019. They were dominated by the voices of Africa, also increasingly in the context of global issues and an overarching conceptual discourse on museum work in Africa. Although there had already been an exchange of views in the past on issues of museums related to Pan-Africanism, Négritude and pre-colonial reality, as well as the bilateral relations between African and European museums, this project has a particular approach and yield. For one thing, due to its intensive regional forerun, the complex questions of the topic could be well focused and thus used for the final conference. For another, the networking of the African and European discussion on questions of restitution and the significance of cultural heritage allows the latest state of the debates to be consolidated for the first time so that proposed solutions can also be elaborated. Overall, the approach was suitable for expanding the circle of participants and thus understanding the cooperation across borders as an opportunity.

Challenges of globalisation, modernisation and digitisation

Talking about the museum of tomorrow.
Talking about the museum of tomorrow.© CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

These regional museum networks with independent expertise and our main conference are so important right now because African cultural infrastructure is at a turning point. This is especially true for museums. A number of the existing museums in Africa were created by Europeans from an ethnological point of view. For example, the colonial powers established six museums in South Africa between 1825 and 1892, followed by two museums in Zimbabwe in 1900 and 1901, one each in Uganda in 1908, Kenya in 1909 and Mozambique in 1913. Experts from across generations, but in particular curators and a young, educated elite are now critically examining existing collections and their presentation in their countries. Rightly so! They were an expression of the prevailing ideology intended to scientifically legitimise unjust and unequal relations in times of colonialism. They served European hegemony. History doesn’t happen; it’s made. Therefore, it’s about a fundamental change of meaning of the museum in Africa that facilitates the recovery of African history.
A second group of museums was founded at the end of the colonial era directly on the independence of the states. National narratives for the formation of identities often played a role here. Both the first and the second category convey a closed topic and do not react to the social developments of today; they are fixed on the past. In order to position the museums with the questions of our time, more of a mobile, flexible and dialogue-capable type is needed.
At present, large-scale museum projects are being worked on in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, or have been completed as in Rwanda, Chad or Tanzania. Some of the museums, such as the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, are being founded with the support of foreign countries. Even where museum construction is funded from the outside, the museums work impressively independently. Intellectual colonialism has come to an end here. That must be the approach in the present, the central position of African experts in the exploration and presentation of their own culture.

And because the museum work in African countries is currently heavily influenced by the discussion about the return of cultural assets, the colonial and postcolonial issues between the former colonial powers and the countries of the objects’ origins must be negotiated together. The decolonisation of thought must be the stated goal. It’s about more than restitution of the objects; it’s about the loss of self-esteem through colonial rule and its consequences to this day. It’s not enough to simply return objects; it’s about the people. Notwithstanding this, stolen art is stolen art and must be declared accordingly. Arguments against legitimate returns due to inadequate institutional facilities should lead to strengthening African museums rather than cementing the Eurocentric view of the world.
Finally, it’s about the challenges of globalisation, modernisation and digitisation. It’s not about keeping a huge knowledge machine running; there must be an understandable instruction manual so that the museums as part of civil society do not complete themselves but so that their collections each find a continuation and depict their society and make it capable of discourse. Equal cultural participation is of social relevance.

Opportunities for an effective new start

The African continent must find answers for itself and in a global context, not as a defensive recipient but as an offensive source of ideas. Africa not only has a future, it will also shape it decisively. In the present situation, I see opportunities for an effective new start in museum planning in Africa, on the one hand in the redesign of existing museums, and on the other in the redefinition of museum structures and tasks.

The performance “Display Cases” during the Museum Conversations.
The performance “Display Cases” during the Museum Conversations.© CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

While the european museum was strongly influenced by the enlightenment, as a temple of art, as a mausoleum even, the African museum can be a child of emancipation; a place of dialogue, action and liveliness, a museum without walls, which includes the street and its people with their questions and their experiences – a social space that takes up specific cultural techniques and brings them to life. Thus, the museum not only can become an integral part of society, but at the same time be fruitful for the debates in Africa and beyond. It’s worth rethinking the canon.

Strategic alliances between different disciplines

With its possibilities and expertise, the Goethe-Institut wants to contribute to the common process of knowledge and planning in order to initiate developments, discuss alternatives and build and expand international relations.

-It can help to create suitable conditions for planning groups that independently define the African discourse on museum planning.
-It can facilitate strategic alliances between different disciplines.
-It can organise training to provide good information for curators, planners and government agencies.
-It can create connections between artistic production and museum presentation.
-It can initiate public debates, especially taking into account young people, schools and government agencies.
-From its experience with its own past, it can provide a forum for a common examination of German colonialism.
-It can link the current intense discussion in Germany about the future role of museums in society with the formation of opinion in African countries.

Decolonisation of thought

There is a direct link between colonial events and current issues. For this reason, restitution is and will remain a key issue in the structural themes discussed here. It has to find answers in civil society and cultural initiatives. For this reason, for the Goethe-Institut, promoting provenance research, opening archives, exchanging experts, recognising injustice and shared responsibility belong in this context. It’s about the decolonisation of thought. So far, the colonial heritage debate has been conducted primarily among intellectuals, politicians and activists with European educational backgrounds. The Goethe-Institut wants to hear the voices of those whose experience, knowledge and self-image have been shaped in the countries of origin. To facilitate encounters, networks and platforms is therefore an important initiative.

Offering a space for thought

The Goethe-Institut can offer a space for thought, a space for discourse and resonance. It has engaged in dialogue with state and civil society cultural actors for decades and enjoys their trust. It can support or facilitate structurally without interfering with social self-assurance. It’s aware that decolonised relationships must be the basis for any cooperation. The experiences we’ve had so far in our various activities with African partners are very positive and marked by mutual interest, be it in the field of education, support for the development of cultural infrastructure or the reappraisal of colonialism. This directly benefits the new focus on museum conversations and museum planning. 


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