Representing Africa in British Museums – Rosalie Hans

Rosalie Hans

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, 8th June 2018

This one-day conference, organised to celebrate the newly renovated African displays at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), comprised of presentations by a great number of well-known curators of African collections in British museums. Organised in association with the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter and chaired by Professor Timothy Insoll, the day started with this introduction. It highlighted some of the criticisms students have made of African galleries in museums over the past couple of years like the challenged of displaying the geography of Africa, its supposed timelessness and the debate between presenting African artefacts as art or in a more contextualised setting.

Following this critical note, speakers such as Dr Zachary Kingdon, Africa curator of the World Museum in Liverpool and Dr Sarah Worden, senior curator of African collections at the National Museums of Scotland, detailed the history of their institution’s African galleries. They showed how the representation of Africa has radically changed from the colonial and racist mind-set of the late 19th and early 20th century to a more inclusive curatorial practice that tries to reflect the origins of the collections and its difficult colonial legacies and tell more accurate stories about Africa. Still, Malik Saako Mahmud, Senior Curator at the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board pointed out that there is continuing work to do to ‘decolonise’ African collections and their displays further.

Dr Malika Kraamer, curator of World Cultures at Leicester Arts and Museums Service, Professor John Mack of the Sainsbury Research Unit and Dr Chris Wingfield, Senior Curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, focused on how research into, and reconsideration of, certain types of objects can change the way Africa is represented in exhibitions. Kraamer’s plea for a rethinking of kente cloth in museum collections and Wingfield’s research into missionary collections from Southern Africa emphasised that the agency of African people needs to be considered when looking at and displaying collections. It is a challenge faced by many curators in British museums that the information available about collections is often limited to the European collectors and does not include information about the African people that were involved in the process. Tony Eccles, curator of ethnography at the RAMM, described how approaching the redisplay in Exeter through the theme of ‘commerce’ allowed him to circumvent some of these issues by presenting artefacts as products in processes of interaction rather than as hermetic works of art. Nevertheless, Professor John Mack argued that objects formerly described as ‘fetishes’, but more accurately called nkisi, are now considered in a more contemporary artistic manner which allows for their appreciation beyond a historical relegation to the realm of ritual and magic.

By reflecting on recent temporary exhibitions related to African collections, Dr John Giblin, formerly of the British Museum and now Head of Collections at the Royal Museums of Scotland, and Stephen Welsh and Campbell Price of the Manchester Museum, opened up the discussion to the perception of Africa by visitors. Giblin shared some of the findings of the evaluation of a South Africa exhibition at the British Museum and how the British public responded to a more critical approach to the British role in South Africa’s history. Welsh and Price emphasised the museum’s work with diverse local communities and advocated for a move from a multicultural vision of the museum to a poly-vocal one, stimulating dialogue and participation from diverse audiences.

All in all, the conference enabled many fruitful conversations during the day and provided much food for thought for the future. It is clear that, apart from practical constraints, the representation of Africa in British museums is an on-going process of rethinking that needs to be reflected upon with many stakeholders, not in the least with those people whose culture and history are presented in the galleries.

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