EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Museums, anthropology and the representation of the colonial past

Location Queens Pugsley LT
Date and Start Time 20 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Gareth Griffiths (British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) email
Boris Wastiau (Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève) email
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Short Abstract

What importance do ethnographic museums and anthropologists give to the representation of the colonial past? Assessing current research and exhibition practice, papers will address the various ways in which European museums and anthropologists practically tackle or avoid addressing the issue.

Long Abstract

Ethnographic museums, curators, historians and museum anthropologists often find themselves at odds in their attempts to represent the colonial past. About half a century after the independence of most European colonies, very few museums account for the period in their exhibitions. Most sensitive issues, like the various aspects of colonial violence, are carefully kept at bay. The role of colonial anthropology and collecting practices in the period are also ignored. Pressed to increase visitor figures and improve public image, museums tend to gloss over this era in spite of ever-critical research being produced independently. The workshop will attempt to assess museum anthropology in this context, but also to look at the contribution of ethnographic museums to the development of European identities through the making and diffusion of images of, and concepts about, non-European cultures and societies. To what extent is post-colonial image-making any different and who controls it? We will also look at the various collecting practices from the earliest colonial period. Even the most critical perspectives on colonial museum practice were most often confined within the realm of one nation or empire, as unified and unique. The way colonial issues have been approached in recent exhibitions and in the media also tend to be limited to the historical bond between former coloniser and former colonised. Comparative perspectives are rare, even though collectors and museum curators since the late 19th century have often been involved in international networks and collaborations. The role of institutions and individuals will be contrasted and the role of individuals within or independent from institution will also be compared. We would particularly welcome papers addressing the various ways in which European museums have practically addressed or avoided addressing the colonial past in the last few years or how they anticipate addressing it in the years to come.

Chair: Boris Wastiau and Gareth Griffiths


'Traces of Congo': challenges in developing a Nordic travelling exhibition on our forgotten contribution to the colonisation of the Congo (DRC)

Author: Espen Waehle (National Museum of Denmark)  email
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Long Abstract

In the Nordic countries it is somehow recognized that Denmark-Norway was a significant player in the transatlantic slave trade, that Denmark colonized Greenland while Sweden's, Norway's and Finland's policy towards the Saami people should be regarded as internal colonization. There is currently, however, hardly any public knowledge regarding the many individuals from our countries who took service for the colonial powers. A most striking case was the Congo Freestate, later Belgian Congo. The exploration, colonization and exploitation of the Congo were major media and public events in the Nordic countries from the 1880'ies to after 1910. Yet, it is largely forgotten that between the 1870'ies and the 1930'ies some 1500-2000 individuals from the Nordic countries played significant roles in both the colonization and the exploitation of the Congo. Most of the Nordic were military officers, sailors, ship's engineers and missionaries while a few lawyers and medical doctors also signed up. A number also worked for concessions companies, mainly on the riverboat fleet and in company stations and outposts. At least a quarter of those working in the Congo contributed to museum collections in the Nordic countries, the Congo collections in museums currently includes more than 32,000 inventory numbers.

In 2003 the Nordic Cultural Fund of the Council of Nordic Ministers awarded a prize for the proposed exhibition "Kongospår. Norden i Kongo - Kongo i Norden" (Traces of Congo - the Nordic countries in the Congo, the Congo in the Nordic countries) to the ethnographic museums in Copenhagen/Denmark, Helsinki/Finland, Oslo/Norway, Stockholm/Sweden in cooperation with Riksutställningar/Swedish Travelling Exhibitions, Stockholm. The exhibition opened November 19th 2005 in Stockholm and with some six months intervals the exhibition will visit Helsinki, Copenhagen (2006), Oslo (2007) - and possibly also to another two Swedish cities. A 96-page catalogue, a number of public events and a series of public and scientific workshops accompany the exhibition. The organizers behind the exhibition intend wrap up the project by editing a substantial volume of Nordic research on the colonization of the Congo, traces of the colonization in the Nordic countries and Congolese and international contributions on both the Congo and the Nordic role in its colonization.

The proposed paper will give a short presentation of the exhibition concept, and relate this to the preparatory discussions between museum staff members and a Nordic reference group of researchers that contributed to the conceptualisation of the exhibition. The journalist and Congo specialist Peter Tygesen and the social anthropologist and Congo specialist Espen Wæhle wrote the manuscript for the exhibition.

Among the exhibition choice issues and discussions I will discuss are the following. How to understand our fellow Nordic contribution to a colonial past and write it up and present it as an exhibition? And how should we handle the limited memory and public knowledge - mainly inspired by Adam Hochschild's successful book (available in both English all Nordic languages) on the horrors during the rubber economy era in the Congo? We saw a certain challenge in regard to the recent received "knowledge" based on Hochschild's book, which actually focused on a limited period of the colonization and was largely relevant in certain regions of the country. And what about the many attempts we saw to generalize from the overall colonial history and apply this as if it was valid for any Nordic individual who had been to the Congo, irrespective of their position, role and responsibilities? Could one possibly talk about both nuances and positive contributions within one of the darkest chapters known in colonial history? How to present contrasts among and between military officers, sailors, explorers, traders and missionaries? Could we approach the Nordic role more directly and more relevant than the Belgian exhibition "La mémoire du Congo. Le temps colonial", Musée d'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren in 2005? Could we manage to make it known that not all our ethnographic collections resulted from violent military expeditions? How could we depict the historic background and context of both the Congo and the Nordic countries as the major colonial encounters took place? How to handle existing traces and relations, the Congolese Diaspora and questions of guilt and responsibility?

African material culture at the Austrian Museum für Völkerkunde: revealing multiple histories and representations of objects

Author: Barbara Plankensteiner (Yale University Art Gallery)  email
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Long Abstract

At the Museum für Völkerkunde (museum of ethnology) in Vienna, there has been a tendency since the 1970ies to exhibit African objects mainly as artworks with little contextual information regarding their original function and use. Such presentations in the manner of art museums, focussing on the formal qualities of the historic objects avoided the need to deal with other implications. If collection history was ever touched upon in exhibition projects it was an uncritical overview of collection building, honouring the early collectors.

In the late 1990ies the need was felt to break with this tradition and address the complex connotations of the ethnographic material. Questions why these objects resided in Austria and how this happened should be told to the public in the first place. This determined a focus on the transformation of these objects into museum material and art works, and how this displacement and shift of meaning took place.

The exhibition exCHANGE. Art from Southern Africa around 1900 in 1998 was a first step in this direction. It gave an overview of the main areas of African material culture represented in the collection of the museum by focussing on the particular circumstances of their "acquisition". The title exCHANGE reflected the specific contact situation between the collectors and the people they met at the eve of colonialism and how it was determined by trade goods and trade interactions. The specific selection of early artworks showing traces of this contact deconstructed the widely spread notion of so-called "authentic" African art, not yet contaminated by European influence.

In an upcoming large exhibition on Benin royal art and culture planned to open in May 2007 the artworks will be presented in reflecting two conceptual frameworks, on the one hand their view as extraordinary masterworks on the other their original value in Benin as historical documents and ritual implements. The project aims to combine Euro-American scholarship with local interpretations and meaning. The tragic history of the seizure of the thousands of artworks, their transferral to Europe and the following distribution throughout the world will be openly addressed. The zeitgeist determining those actions, the scientific and medial reception in Europe, as well as local remembrances regarding the loss of the cultural heritage will place these important artworks in a broader context of history, a history not just of political but also of intellectual hegemony and conflict.

The new permanent showrooms planned to open in 2008/09 will present highlights of the Africa-collection along thematic lines. An introductory section will place them into a framework in which their collection history will be addressed along with their history of representation and interpretation, and their contemporary meaning for an African community residing in Austria.

Assembling the canon of 'African art': the Hutchings acquisitions of West African sculpture at the World Museum Liverpool

Author: Zachary Kingdon (National Museums, Liverpool)  email
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Long Abstract

The paper concerns a collection of West African sculpture from Francophone countries purchased for the Liverpool Museum in the 1960s, as well as a series of memos relating to the purchases addressed to Mr Hume, the Director of the Liverpool Museum, from the Curator of the Ethnology Department, Richard Hutchings. All the memos were written between 1965 and 1968 and were evidently part of the requirement for the Museum's governing body to approve new acquisitions for the Ethnology Department. The Museum was bombed and severely damaged in 1941 and about 24 years later was given a War Damage Fund by the government in order to help rebuild the collections. A large portion of the fund was spent on Papua New Guinean and on Francophone West African and Central African pieces purchased from dealers in London, Paris and the Netherlands and at Sotheby's auctions in London.

In this paper I focus on the historical discourses that can be said to have shaped Hutchings' perception and understanding of 'African art' and how they helped determined his acquisitions policy. I show how a work of 'African art' is created through a process of denial or forgetting of the original significances of the object in order to confer upon it new, supposedly universal, aesthetic values based on a Western view of art. I go on to look at the way understanding distorted his reading of the existing African collections of the museum, whose strengths lie in their holdings from coastal western Africa and strongly reflect Liverpool's longstanding links with this strip of the continent and its prominent role as Britain's second most important gateway to the Empire. Finally, I draw some conclusions about wider issues at play behind Hutchings' project.

Engaging with complexity: museums and the diversity of the European colonial encounter

Author: Chris Wingfield (University of Cambridge)  email
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Long Abstract

Many of the concerns and issues addressed in the recent literature on museum anthropology emanate from 'settler societies' - communities of largely European descent for whom museums are a site of negotiation with local indigenous groups. While some of these concerns reach back along lines of colonial connection to the origins of these settlers, many European museums are faced with a situation of greater complexity.

Rather than specialising on a particular local area, European museum anthropologists may have a brief that includes most of the non-western world. In addition, collections were made by people with a variety of engagements with the parts of the world they visited. Some may have been settlers, but others were missionaries, travellers, administrators, traders and even anthropologists.

The paper shall consider the collections of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and the ways in which efforts have been made since the establishment of new anthropological displays in the 1990s to engage with the diversity of their origins. In particular current work dealing with missionary collectors will be addressed.

Material punctum: Congolese objects in Swedish sceneries

Author: Lotten Gustafsson Reinius (Stockholm University)  email
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Long Abstract

The Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm houses approximately 12 000 objects from areas, within the boundaries of today's two states of Congo. Most of them where acquired and brought to Sweden by missionaries and military officers, active within the badly reputed Congo Free State (1885-1908). The collections bare witness of a part of Swedish history that for long remained rather unknown by most Swedes. Recently, the travelling exhibition Kongospår (Traces of the Congo), a cooperative effort of four major Nordic ethnographic museums and the Swedish Travelling Exhibitions, challenged this collective oblivion.

Kongospår attempts to break with former exhibition conventions in several ways. Avoiding the vague and static temporality, that Johannes Fabian (1983) has called "the ethnographic present" it contextualizes collections by focusing on their acquisition in a specific - and troublesome - point in time. Consequently, far from being hid, the roles of individual collectors as well as of contemporary museum institutions are brought into light.

This presentation discusses how collections may be analyzed when approached, not primarily as tokens of Congolese material culture, but as traces of Swedish cultural history and European expressive conventions. Through case studies of individual collections, created by male and female Swedes with differing roles in the colonial process, I focus on the ways in which objects have been selected and joined to form new meaningful entities. My points of departure are single artefacts that, analytically, have worked as what Roland Barthes (1980) calls punctum: the detail that disturbs and fascinates by force of seeming ungrammatical in relation to the larger context of which it forms part. Paradoxically, it is by focusing on such seeming oddities - as a pair of worn out slippers among pompous military trophies or an industrially produced window opener in a traditional lukobe box - that unspoken significances of the collections as a whole may be read. I will exemplify how Congolese objects, while entering the scenery of Swedish collections, could change their meaning and function in order to serve as the collector's individual and collective expression of self.

Cited references:

Barthes, Roland 1980 La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie. (Paris: Gallimard).

Fabian, Johannes 2002 (1983) Time and the Other. How anthropology makes its object. (New York: Colombia University Press).

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum of Bristol: contesting historical representations from a postcolonial location.

Author: Giuseppina Muzzopappa (Università L'Orientale Napoli)  email
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Long Abstract

Based on a research carried out in Bristol and focused in particular on its museums, this paper aims at analysing the place that the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum occupies not only in this specific urban context, but also on the wider background of a country that, quoting Paul Gilroy, has been going through a lenghty and still unresolved phase of "postcolonial melancholia". A museum which explicitly aims at representing the controversial history of the British empire places itself in a problematic space. How is the history of the British empire told (or not told), who tells it (or chooses not to tell), how specific narrative strategies are used in order to convey an interpretation which appears to be strongly political, while openly rejecting any political engagement: these are the main points addressed in the paper, drawing upon theroretical suggestions coming not only from the field of museum anthropology, but also from the ambiguous and often disturbing area of postcolonial studies. Bristol is a city which has witnessed, in the last years, a process of self-redefinition in relation to its past involvement in the transatlantic slave trade: in this problematic process, museums play a pivotal role, constituting the most evident locations of discussion and conflict about the heritagization of the city's past. Rethinking the history of British empire through a museum in a city like Bristol is significative, but it can hide some snares in the very medium chosen to represent this history: the neutralizing aura strictly associated to the museum as institution in the Western culture, even if widely rediscussed and revisited, concurs to objectify this specific narration, crystallizing into a fixed shape a history that is still contested and far from being neutrally accepted. In this perspective, the analysis of the narrative strategies employed in this museum have much to tell, not only about the history of empire, but also about how this history casts its shadows on contemporary, postcolonial Britain.

The Exhibition 'Namibia − Germany: A shared/divided history. Resistance, violence, memory' (Cologne, Berlin 2004/2005)

Author: Clara Mayer-Himmelheber (Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum)  email
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Long Abstract

The year 2004 was the centenary of a tragic event in Namibian history: the outbreak of the colonial war between the African population and the colonial power of Germany. During that war about 35-80 % of the Herero-speaking population of German South West Africa and up to 50% of the Nama-speaking population were killed. In historiography the war is described as genocide. Although of crucial importance for Namibian history, the war has never really entered public memory in Germany. In close co-operation with historians and social anthropologists of the University of Cologne, the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum therefore developed an exhibition, which aimed at presenting this history to a broader German public.

With the title 'Namibia − Germany: a shared/divided history' we tried to look at the historical and the contemporary relationships between the two countries. The historical part of the exhibition dealt with the beginnings of colonisation up to the war of 1904-1908. The contemporary part showed different aspects of every day life in Namibia which are strongly linked to the consequences of the war. We included the latter part after discussions with Namibians who stressed that an exhibition not relating the past to the present, would give a wrong impression.

The exhibition layout aimed at showing a 'shared history' and a 'divided history' at the same time (see Conrad and Randeria 2003). Consequently, we re-constructed the past from two different points of view: from the perspective of Germans and German-speaking Namibians on the one hand, and from the perspective of Namibians of African descent on the other hand. These two points of view were contrasted in every section of the exhibition, with an intersection of common themes and objects in the middle. At the end the two perspectives branched out into a multiplicity of views. This arrangement was also a result of our co-operation with Namibian institutions and individuals of different political, cultural and social backgrounds.

The exhibition has been visited by approximately 80.000 people. The comments in our visitor's books showed that the exhibition touched many people and stirred a lot of thoughts. Moreover, it has been covered extensively by German and Namibian media. After initial problems of our use of the term 'genocide' expressed by interest groups in both countries, the exhibition has created a public debate which certainly supported the initiative of the German Minister of Economic Co-operation and Development to deliver an apology to the Herero and Nama people at the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the colonial war in August 2004 in Namibia.