Is colonialism still alive in African museums?

AFRICAN HISTORY, Uncategorized

MANY post-colonial African museums share a common history as derivative by-products of colonialism.
In colonial times, local indigenous populations in pre-independent Africa were sidelined from museum activities, discouraged and prevented from visiting these institutions, except on selected days.
Despite the fact that our material culture was on display, indigenous people were neither consulted nor involved in the acquisition and interpretation of the archaeological material on display.
Decades after colonialism in Africa, some museums have only witnessed a cosmetic change of administrators, while the system has remained intact.
It comes as no surprise therefore, that museum curators, although indigenous, have remained in a colonial frame of mind and continue to be estranged from the general public.
In order to fully understand the persistence of colonial administration of African museums, we need to go back in history.
The first museum established in this country came as a result of the pioneer settlers’ concerted effort to discover and extract gold and other precious minerals from the land.
This resulted in the construction of The Rhodesia Museum in Bulawayo in 1901 under Rhodes’ administration. It was built to establish a centre to house the growing collection of mineral specimens which were being accumulated in the country to give advice to early colonial prospectors and miners.
There are currently 10 Museums in Zimbabwe, namely:
l Bulawayo Railway Museum
l Gweru Museum
l Mutare Museum
l National Gallery of Zimbabwe
l National Mining Museum, Zimbabwe
l National Museum of Zimbabwe
l Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe
l Queen Victoria Museum
l Zimbabwe Military Museum
l Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences
Four of these are major museums, one in each major city as well as four site museums and three interpretive centres
Today, one needs to visit Europe to see the glory of Africa, where thousands upon thousands of stolen arts objects as well as historical artefacts are displayed and kept in private collection and public museums in Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Portugal among other countries.
The Zimbabwe museums house an official listing of 150 proclaimed historical monuments and sites.
Originally, two separate bodies were established for administrative purposes; the National Museums, which was set up in 1936 and the Commission for the Preservation of Natural Historical Monuments and Relics, usually known as the Historical Monuments Commission, established in 1937 in Southern Rhodesia.
These bodies were amalgamated in 1972 to become a statutory body named the National Museums and Monuments of Rhodesia, now called the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe.
This national administrative entity is attached to the Ministry of Home Affairs and is governed by a board of trustees with its activities integrated and administered at a head office based in Harare, under the control of an executive director.
The four major museums are: The Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences, the Natural Museum of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Military Museum and the Mutare Museum.
The four site museums are the Great
Zimbabwe Museum, the Khami Ruins Museum, Utopia House Mutare and the Gold Mining Museum at the Globe and Phoenix Mine in Kwekwe.
The interpretive centres are found at Nswatugi Caves in the Matobo Hills, Tsindi Ruins near Marondera and at Domboshava Caves near Harare.
The function of each museum is the collection, preservation, investigation and interpretation of the material pertinent to its discipline, so that a better understanding of the natural, scientific and human evolution of the country may be achieved.
This information is made available to the public by means of exhibition gallery spaces within the museums and by the publication of scientific papers and journals.
Today, there is need, however, to embrace the digital age to further disseminate the knowledge locked up in these institutions.
What is disconcerting; however, is that indigenous communities are still to impart their opinions and stories on the significance of cultural sites and the manner in which their heritage is presented and interpreted.
The oral traditions, myths and legends associated with many archaeological sites in Zimbabwe have not been comprehensively communicated to the public, re-discovered or shown by way of exhibitions and publications in the correct indigenous context and language.
The colonial question of using English as the language for communication limits the indigenous inter-activity and often distorts the philosophy and meanings intended.
It is time local communities are involved in the public discourse of their heritage, which had been removed from African societies through long periods of colonisation.
Our oral traditions, rites and religious practices that colonial Western scholars previously despised and excluded from their findings and discourses, should now find their way into a broader definition of heritage from an Afro-centric perspective, because heritage is intricately intertwined with indigenous peoples’ lives and is in fact, a vibrant and dynamic living legacy of our cultural landscape.
By using the language of the colonisers to identify indigenous objects, we are excluding the majority of the public from enjoying their archaeological and cultural heritage.
Upon the attainment of political independence by Africa in various former colonies, one would have expected post-colonial curators to challenge use of the language of colonisers, be it English, French, Spanish, Flemish, etc., to interpret indigenous archaeology and re-empower the formerly dispossessed indigenes of their archaeological heritage.
It is a pity most indigenous people still regard museums as ‘white’ spaces or venues for tourists.
Zimbabwe is still presenting the archaeological material through a colonial lens, to satisfy the curiosity of the ‘other’.
Efforts need to be made to communicate and engage the general populous and the educational sector on the importance of archaeological heritage, the need for its conservation and preservation in order to understand ourselves as a people.
The academic ‘barbed-wire’ barrier created by the technical archaeological colonial jargon prevents the common man from accessing the archaeological knowledge of his/her heritage.
Regrettably, over three decades after colonialism in Zimbabwe (longer for some other African countries), our archaeology museums are still buried under the elitist colonial strata.
What is of greater concern is the need for the reclamation and restitution of African archaeological artefacts still in the custody of colonial museums.
In fact, up to date, in order to witness the glory of Africa, or study our origins, one needs to go to America or Europe, where thousands of our stolen objects, material cultural and archaeological artefacts are in private collections and public museums in Belgium, UK, France, Holland, Germany, Portugal and Spain, among other countries.
What efforts have Zimbabwean curators made to reclaim what belongs to us?
Is colonialism still alive in African museums?
Art consultant, artist and lecturer Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate of Business Administration) in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant.

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