The controversy regarding the right of appropriation and exhibition of African collections in Western museums is pretty common in Western countries, and the Netherlands is no exception. The claims are based on the idea that those museums, as they currently stand, are a mere continuation of the colonial western culture of the past. Consequently, curators, institutions, and experts had to come to terms with this issue. Among those, the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, near Nijmegen, is working in order to improve its exhibitions ethic.
Changing perspective through language
Despite the tensions caused by the controversy, when passing through the museum’s external area which is often crowded with kids playing and exploring African houses and villages, you perceive a warm atmosphere. In the gardens there are actual houses, except for the fact that no one is living there.
“Look at those houses” said Maud Heldens, Head of Education at the Afrika Museum, referring to the outdoor exhibition. “Kids generally name them ‘huts’ or ‘tents’ because in our perspective this is what they are, but, actually, for the people who lived in there or that are still living in there, those are their houses. So, why should we call them huts or tents?”.
According to her, language plays a key role in the effort to raise awareness towards post-colonial art collections: “if we use a specific word we have to explain why we chose that over another one and why we can’t use the other one anymore”.
Clearly, changing the language could be really fruitful, but is that enough to redeem the museum from its historical background? “In those museums this dark side of history is there and you can’t pretend otherwise” she stated. Despite this, Heldens strongly believes that being transparent and self-critical is another way through which these museums should take responsibility: “We need to know what we’re not representing well and be open about it. I think that’s the most important thing.”
A taste of Africa
The houses in the gardens are life-size reproductions of old-fashioned and traditional African villages, designed between the 50s and 60s by museum’s founders. The idea behind this project was to give ‘a taste of Africa’ and especially of African architecture to those Dutch who never had the chance to go there.
Despite a long time has passed since those houses were first designed, no kind of update has been put in place. This, from both a technical and a social point of view, it might be controversial.
“The museum definitely knows that the way in which the art is presented here, especially in the open area, is outdated, old fashioned”, says Maud Heldens. According to her, the real problem is that people in Africa, or at least the majority of them, are not living like this anymore, and museum intentions can be misunderstood.
In fact, that specific part of the museum is seen as a problem by some African organizations that find it offensive and think that is missing context.
“I see what they mean” goes on Maud Heldens, “but I also think we could make it better”. However, organizations from the diaspora are already tightly involved. A good example could be the Keti Koti festival, planned for the next 22 June. That is in fact a collaboration between the Afrika Museum, Suriname and Caribbean organizations, and several musicians, artists, designers, intellectuals, and cooks.
The other side of history
The questions risen by museum’s collections are felt by many; Afrika Museum is aware of it and things are due to change: “we are looking for new ways of representing the dynamics of the continent, and to do so we need more context. We need to show clearly that in Africa it’s not only like this, but there’s a lot more”. With the help of the RCMC, the Research Center for Material Culture that deals with the methodologies of representation of sensitive art, the Afrika Museum is planning to make substantial changes in the gardens by next year.
But that’s not all: “We will open two new rooms in the internal exhibition ” that, interestingly, they’ll use to “illustrate the history of the continent and the ways this has developed, including difficult topics such as the colonial era and the history of slavery”. In fact, the topics that visitors will see exposed when entering the museum will be those of “colonialism, the resistance, the stories of the freedom fighters and of the big African leaders who contributed to the change”, Mauds said.
“I think that we are doing our best with money, resources, and collections we have and that with the new exhibitions we are going in a good direction” she concluded. And, even if the changes are not there yet, it is nice to think that from next year the Afrika Museum’s walls will tell us the often overlooked stories of African fighters and leaders.