Sophia Sanan on the pan-African project which makes clear African museum workers and stakeholders are best placed to define and create their own cultural change
Museums in Africa consist of a heterogenous mix of new and old: some museums date back to late colonial periods, some are the outcome of post-colonial nation building projects and others are freshly under construction in the 21st century. What is arguably common to most African museums is a shared struggle to remain mobile, reflective, and responsive to rapid change within their contexts. Projections about the African continent present visions of a future that is hotter, drier, younger and even more tech reliant than today. How will museums of the future respond to these projected changes? What practices of museuming are most meaningful in African contexts today?
“Contrary to persistent assumptions in the museum world that expertise is located in the Global North, this project assumes African museum workers are best suited to define and respond to their own sets of challenges”
These are some of the questions that motivated the creation of MuseumFutures Africa: a pan-African, people-centred cultural project that works with museums across the continent to “test, explore and study potentials for new formats of African museology”. Spearheaded by the Goethe-Institut and a team of practitioners from the art and museum fields, the project was conceived in culmination of a series of ‘Museum Conversations’ in 2019, as a means of mobilizing museum driven processes of innovation, transformation and adaptation across the African continent.
Contrary to some persistent assumptions within the museum world that professional museum expertise is located in the Global North, this project assumes that African stakeholders and museum workers are best suited to define, map out and respond to their own sets of challenges. Hence, the project is centred on the formation of localised study groups as the key agents of institutional change. The study groups, who commit to meeting every two weeks for the period of a year or more, consist of individuals who occupy diverse roles within a particular museum — from director to security staff — who are joined by external stakeholders such as community members, artists, and teachers.
This group works through a curriculum provided by the project (designed by African practitioners: Abiti Nelson from Uganda, Tatiana Page from South Africa, and Rebecca Corey from Tanzania), that encourages experimentation with new ways of collecting, researching, mediating, and engaging society. The group, through an extended period of reflection, action, and experimentation, comes to define their own blueprint for institutional change and then map this out into the future planning of the museum. As one of the project participants Catherine Ajiambo, Research Officer at the Uganda National Museum reflects: “MuseumFutures Africa gives us an opportunity to go back in the past, be in the present and visit the future to analyse our histories. From there, we can interact with our museum communities who are usually on the periphery of everyday museum work — thereby rewriting our stories the way we know how and want to”.
The steering committee consists of Flower Manase (Tanzania), Molemo Moiloa (South Africa) and Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja (Namibia) as well as Asma Diakité (Goethe-Institut South Africa), Rainer Hauswirth (Goethe-Institut Côte d’Ivoire) and Nadine Siegert (Goethe-Institut South Africa). After an Africa-wide call for applications in 2020, the steering committee selected six museums that are characterized by their drive to innovate and their commitment to cooperation. The selection also geographically and linguistically reflects the diverse museum landscape on the continent, and includes art, ethnographic, cultural, and social history focused museums. The six participating museums are:
• Musée Théodore Monod IFAN Université Cheikh Anta Diop — Dakar, Senegal: IFAN was founded in 1938 as the “Institut français d’Afrique Noir”. After independence, IFAN established itself in Dakar as one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for research into African culture.
• Musée National — Conakry, Guinea: The National Museum of Guinea houses a collection of local objects that represent the country’s different ethnic groups. Religious artifacts as well as art and everyday objects are exhibited.
• National Museums of Kenya — Nairobi, Kenya: The National Museums of Kenya bring together many organizations that combine a considerable number of exhibitions, from art to natural history and ethnological museums.
• Steve Biko Centre — King Williams Town, South Africa: The Steve Biko Center in South Africa is dedicated to the life of the activist and intellectual Steve Biko who founded the Black Consciousness movement.
• Uganda Museum — Kampala, Uganda: As Uganda’s largest museum, the Uganda Museum has a variety of different exhibitions that mainly deal with the various ethnic groups of Uganda from an anthropological point of view.
• Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University — Lekki, Nigeria: As part of the Pan-Atlantic University, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is dedicated to the African arts and houses a large selection of works of art from Nigeria.
The six study groups have spent the last seven months working through the curriculum, dealing with self-defined questions such as: “What do we want to exhibit and how?”, “How do we want to work together?”, “Who is our museum for?” and “How do we tell our own stories in our own ways?”. The museums are working in pairings to exchange ideas through monthly workshops. The museum pairs are Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noir in Senegal and Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art in Nigeria; Musée National in Guinea and National Museums of Kenya; Steve Biko Centre in South Africa and the Uganda Museum. Partners work across linguistic barriers and come together regularly to provide critical reflection and imaginative support to each other’s’ ideas, challenges, and strategies.
“Museums find themselves in contexts that are more unsettled and unequal than ever before. They have been forced to consider what their role might be within societies in urgent need of social and psychological repair”
It almost goes without saying that the challenge for museums to be nimble and ready for change has intensified over the past one and a half pandemic-stricken years. Many of our museum partners find themselves in contexts that are more unsettled, more unequal, and more online than ever before. They have been forced to fast track their ways of connecting virtually to both audiences and their extended partners and networks, as well as consider what their cultural role might be within societies in urgent need of social, economic, and psychological repair. Hence, besides imperatives to decolonize museum spaces and practices and the restitution of African cultural patrimony, issues that have gained status in global conversations, our museum partners are also compelled to think about immediate contextual pressures. To this end, museums have asked some of the following questions: how do we engage with school communities on pressing issues like climate crisis and post pandemic life, how do we find ways to make historical material available and appealing to youth audiences, how do we retain relevance in the physical space of the museum as well as consider how our collections can be brought to life online (especially given how travel and leisure have transformed through the pandemic)?
“Besides imperatives to decolonize museum spaces and the restitution of African cultural patrimony — issues that have gained status in global conversations — our museum partners are also compelled to think about immediate contextual pressures”
The MuseumFutures Africa project structure has also pivoted in its roll-out, relying on the creation of meaningful spaces of engagement online rather than extensive travel engagements. It has enlisted the support of various critical practitioners within the African cultural field to support the online program: Patrick Mudekereza (Lumumbashi) and Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja (Windhoek) hosted a workshop with museum partners in which they collaboratively imagined new formats for African museum practices through poetry, writing and drawing. The talented Chao Tayiana Maina (Nairobi) has worked with museum partners to hone their strategies for digitization. Heeten Bhagat (Cape Town) and Francis Burger (Johannesburg) have joined the team as visual harvesters and facilitators of experimental practices.
MuseumFutures Africa is a work in progress, a tentative and experimental map of cultural change being written for, about and within the African continent by diverse participants. A map being charted in uncertain times, guided by optimism and collaboration.
Project Manager, MuseumFutures Africa
All images provided with permission of museum partners