In this RevDem podcast episode for the Democracy and Culture section, RevDem assistant editor Karen Culver speaks with Clement Akpang about his research into European museums and how their displays can mitigate or exacerbate perceptions of social inequalities in post-colonial settings.
Clement Akpang is an associate professor of art, design, and art theory. He has written two books: Nigerian Modernism 1900-1965: Anti-Europeanization, Nationalism and Avant-garde Art (2019) and Analyzing Art: A Short Guide to Art Appreciation, Criticism and Research in Visual Arts (2020). Clement has also published numerous articles on modern and contemporary African art. He has delivered guest lectures in Germany, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. He is currently a GIAS Core Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, CEU.
Karen Culver: Your work looks at the colonial nature of European museums. Can you explain what you mean by colonization and de-colonization in terms of museums?
Clement Akpang: Thank you for that wonderful question. I think the first thing we have to look at is that ethnographic museums were part of the imperials project. In the same way that punitive expeditions depleted African material culture, ethnographic museums helped in the depletion of African culture. The essence of ethnographic museums is that they were designed to do actually this kind of cultural distortion.
So, to answer your question about what I mean by colonization within the museum context: The first is that museums help to create ‘otherness’ by hierarchizing societies, hierarchizing civilizations, so they used objects or material forms from other cultures to create a kind of cultural hierarchy that places western Eurasia at the top and other cultures underneath it. That is one part.
The second part is through the materialization of racism. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the likes of Friedrich Hegel argued that the black people or the Negro race lacks a consciousness, lacks a soul, lacks a history. Something that Louis Agassiz pushed in the 1930s and ‘40s to argue for segregation between blacks and whites. Museums were to use material objects from these so-called depraved peoples to create this hierarchy within the museum system.
Now the third way that museums implied coloniality is through the de-humanization other cultures by framing them as savages and as frozen in time. So, for example, if you go to a museum, you see the story being told of the primitive past of Africa, and the primitive past of India.
The last way that museums are implicated in coloniality is through objectification. You read about ethnographic objects, but there is no culture that creates ethnographic objects, the concept of ethnography is a disciplinary construction that is meant to use cultural difference as cultural hierarchy. So, these are some of the ways museums are implicated in coloniality.
Now what do I mean by de-colonizing museums? We can see that ethnographic museums retain both tangible and intangible legacies of colonialism and that doesn’t sit well with progressive thoughts in contemporary society, particularly in a post-colonial context. So, we need to do something about it. What do I mean by de-colonizing a museum? The first is by de-racializing museum practice, so we have to remove the racist undertones within museum scenography, narratives, and taxonomy. The second is by confronting imperial histories of objects in European museums. What I mean by confronting is that we need to talk about the histories, we don’t need to hide the histories, and we need to hear other voices from the colonized about those histories. And the third is by restaging African and all indigenous art in respected significance so that people can appreciate them as art as opposed to objects of ethnography.
I can remember being in the Albertina Museum in Austria at an exhibition of Modigliani’s art, including works of art that influenced him. There were some most beautiful dolls, I think from west Africa, with long necks and big round faces, and they were sitting next to many other kinds of art. I can now see what they were saying, if its art, it is art.
This is very important. One of the points I’ve also made in the context of post-colonial museology is that we have to move the object from ethnographic museums and into art museums. If the objects influenced Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Alberto Giacometti, what is the point of still keeping them in ethnographic sections when you have the work they influenced in art museums? So, you are absolutely correct.
You’ve said in your papers that removal of objects from their original location and context – and here you are talking specifically about Africa – and then putting them into an ethnographic museum and mislabeling them is epistemic violence, in that it attacks and destroys the knowledge base of the communities that made those objects. Can you explain this further?
Again, this is one of the things that the advocates of repatriation ignore. Let’s look at it from this perspective, traditional African art were visual codifications of the peoples’ cosmologies, ideologies, belief systems, and philosophies. They were also visual documentation of the historical development of certain civilizations and cultures. As each culture or civilization unfolded, material forms relative to their experience were added, so you ended up having accumulated African objects, not just sculptures. That is why when you see a particular piece of African art, you can see males, feathers, and pieces of cloth, so each civilization adds to those objects, so you have accumulated sculpture. So, if this object were documentation, codification, and visual identification of ideologies, by removing the objects or facilitating their destruction, Europeans facilitated the destruction of the knowledge and ideologies embedded in the object.
Let’s take, for example, the Benin plaques; if you look at the plaques as objects, you just see them as ethnographic objects, but in reality, these plaques were documentation of dynastic historiography. As each dynasty unfolded, the plaques reflected what each dynasty achieved. By carting away all these objects or destroying them, you are taking away the historical documentation of the knowledge, the histories, of the achievements of several dynasties.
Again, if you look at something called Ofor of the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria, Ofor is a staff of office; a symbol that is given to a chief as part of his authority. Now if you look at it as an object, you will see an ethnographic object, but in reality, it is the documentation of social structures among the Igbos. What that means is that the Ofor represents the sectioning of the society, the structures that govern the society, and what powers each ruler holds by having that Ofor as a symbol of authority. So that in itself becomes a documentation of the structures of the development of the people, so by taking them away, objectifying them, and placing them on shelves in museums in the West, you are actually taking away part of the people’s history. That is what I mean by epistemic violence.
So, the current typical display of objects and the information about those objects within European museums conscientiously emphasizes and perpetuates inequality. Can you give some examples of why and how this is done?
What ethnographic museums do – those I have visited and from the critiques I have read about
ethnographic museums display other cultures to provide contrast to western civility and civilization.
So how is this achieved within the museum? I’ll give you some examples. The first point is simplification. If you go into ethnographic museums, you will see how African and other ‘indigenous’ art is crammed onto shelves. And that is carefully planned because it simplifies and reduces the artistic quality. So, for example, if you come into a hall and see one shoe in the middle of the hall on the top of a pedestal, and the hall is painted white, it draws your attention that there is a certain importance and significance to that shoe. But if you see objects simply stacked on shelves, they are being simplified. That is one way of showing inequality.
The second way is what I call “dehumanizing” African art. What that means is that they take away the individual agency. Has it ever occurred to you that if you go to an ethnographic museum, you don’t see the names of the African makers (artists)? You can trace this back to Descartes’ philosophy of I think, therefore I am when individuality became central to the definition of European modernity. Since African were bounded into tribes and communities, it was believed that they lacked this individual quality. Bringing that individuality within the museum context would become antithetical to the imperial ideological framing of indigenous people as banded into tribes.
The third context in which museums create inequality is through selective forgetfulness in telling the colonial histories in ethnographic museums. Museum histories are carefully designed in such a way that the narratives you find about indigenous objects in Europe are told through what Teju Cole called the White Saviour Industrial Complex; so, we (Europeans) went to civilize those people (Africans), we saw them doing barbaric things, and we helped them by taking the objects away and giving them Christianity.
So, these are all aspects of inequality that you find within museums. The narratives don’t detail the level of barbarity that involved the collection of those objects from Africa.
With these obvious problems that you have well identified in European museums, would employing non-European curators make any difference, would it help?
That is a very loaded question, and I am going to give you two answers. Yes and No. I’ll begin with the No part. If it is approached through diversity, equity, and inclusivity, then it will lead to colorism. By colorism I mean the employment of people of color to be able to tick political boxes, and that is not really diversity. If that happens, it will address staff inequality, but it will retain the representational inequality within the museum system in which coloniality is embedded. I will give you a good example with Eunice Belidor, who is a Black Canadian, and some years ago, she was employed as the first Black curator of the Canadian and Quebec Contemporary Museum – in the 161-year history of the museum, she was the first Black curator and it was celebrated all over. After three months or so, she resigned. In her own words, she was the ‘Black Lives Matter hire,’ that she was only hired as a political stunt, and she realized that the museum was not ready for any change but just using her to appear less colonial.
Now, I also said Yes, because if it is approached as a genuine, ethical, post-colonial project then it will help to liberate and bring change to the museum, because
diverse voices will help to de-racialize museology, diverse voices will help de-hierarchize museum presentation and move towards greater pluralism where we see all cultures as equal.
So, you are saying we don’t start by hiring someone of color, we start by changing our mindset?
Yes, absolutely. We have to change the practice within the museum, and then change the mindset as well. Mind you, color is not commensurate with competence, we cannot say that because someone is black that automatically that person qualifies as a fantastic curator of African art, it doesn’t really work that way. It’s not just about employing anybody, first, change the system, then employ someone with expertise that can make some changes that is how we can get close to any kind of ethical decolonization of museum practices.
And by saying – we will take a curator of color – or even someone from Africa, assumes that Africa is a single culture, and having lived there myself, the difference between west Africa and east Africa is the difference between Budapest and Beijing.
Clement, there is a very deep paradigm within the European mind, that the way we do things is the way things should be done. We acknowledge that there is room for improvement, but the way we do things is the right way. How do you suggest that we break that paradigm, so that Europeans and people from Africa can see that each other’s ways are equally valid, potentially better, different. Here I am thinking specifically of heritage, and the protection of heritage?
That is a very deep question, and I’m not sure I can give you a complete answer, but I will try. One of the big problems is the idea that decolonization is for the colonized, but on the contrary, decolonization is both for the colonized and the colonizer.
What I think we can do to bring changes, first we have to decolonize the European mindset, and I know we touched on this just a few minutes ago.
To do this doesn’t have to happen just around the museums, but universities and colleges as well. What we learnt about Europe and what we’ve learned about the Other, we have to decolonize that thinking within ourselves. To do that, we have to debunk the idea of the universal, by that I mean to question the notion that the epistemologies that come from the global north are general epistemologies that can be applied everywhere.
Let me give you some examples. Nelson Maldonado-Torres wrote Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality, and in one of the frameworks for decolonization he says we have to start making epistemologies from the south visible. The problem with the universal is that it debunks the particular, which means it takes away the idea of context, but we have seen that context is key in understanding, you have just mentioned that now with your experience in Africa, Africa is not a homogenous whole, but each country has a context in which you can understand their culture.
Finally, Europe must stop pontificating as the self-validating authority of the other, as if they know more about the other than the other, so we have to stop doing this. Europe has to move away from such pontification so that Africa and other cultures can speak. I think that is one way that we can start thinking about, even in heritage studies.
It shouldn’t be what Europe defines as heritage that remains as heritage globally. What other cultures define as heritage can be different, it can be the same, but we have to listen to those diverse approaches and voices.
Yes, you’re right, we do. You make some really good points about the knowledge and culture of Africa being lost and destroyed during colonial times by the colonists. How could this be re-found or found and used as the basis for museum displays? And as part of that question, I lived in east Africa for about 5 years and I found the richness of the intangible culture was profound, it was amazing, the songs, the stories, the way people worked, everything was so rich. But the artefacts were quite limited, they didn’t have much stuff. Maybe because this was the post war settings, but they didn’t have much stuff. European museums focus on stuff, they collect and display stuff. How would you square this circle of showing the richness of the African cultures that I knew, without having much stuff to display?
As you rightly point out, intangible cultures were not completely destroyed, and many cultural practices are still there, which means some part of the material culture can still be recovered. To achieve this, I will talk on three points. Number one is that we have to engage in retrospective research with communities and find individuals within those communities, remember Africa practices a lot of oral history and so individuals will still have much of this knowledge passed down and stored up within themselves and we can learn about this knowledge. We can then use this knowledge to codify them into the creation of reprises. It is part of African culture to create reprises, to reproduce cultural forms. We can do that to populate both European and particularly African museums.
In terms of exporting the intangible culture you found in Africa to Europe, we have to proceed differently. We have to tell the stories of African objects within the museums from different perspectives, and to achieve this, we have to extend the tangibility of African art with the context from Africa.
I’ll give you an example, you talked about Akuaba dolls that influenced Modigliani. If you see Akuaba dolls in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or the British Museum, they are just objects, but if you see the object within the context in which they were created, pregnant women were supposed to gaze on these objects, every minute of the day so that the baby in their womb becomes beautiful like the object. We can recreate this cultural practice or cultural display through augmented reality, extended text or using short video clips embedded in this object in the west, so when visitors come, they can use these facilities and learn about the intangible culture that you have just spoken about. That way, they can expand their understanding of African art from just objects. That individual connection, that embedded experience is very critical. So even if it comes as audio/visuals or audio alone, someone can look at the object, and put on an audio piece within the museum, and hear the stories about the object. This will expand their understanding of the African cultures through both the tangible material and intangible cultures.
You spoke about some of the massive collections of African art, and yet you have said that repatriation is not the main objective. Please can you explain?
I’m not saying that repatriation is insignificant, what I am saying is that repatriation is not enough to bring about restitution, repatriation is just an aspect. I don’t want to go deep into the politics of restitution because a lot of people have talked about that. There’s a politicization around restitution, and if you follow the narratives that are going on, resituated items are not really going to the indigenous owners of the objects, they are simply going to national governments, and that will just constitute another kind of looting. Of course, I am sure that you heard the news that came out that the Nigerian government has handed over the ownership of the Benin bronzes to the Oba, which is the correct thing to do because it is not the Nigerian government that owns the objects, it is the Benin kingdom that owns them. But you can see hear the outcry from Germany because there was a private and secretive agreement to loan these objects back to Europe, which this has now exposed. There is too much politics around restitution, and I don’t think the simplification of object return can help restitution, but we need to embrace other forms, and look at other ways we can decolonize African art.
Mind you, some African communities, like the Bamun kingdom in Cameron, don’t want their royal stool in the Humboldt Forum back. If you read the text of the statement by the Director of cultural affairs of the Bamunn Palace,
Nji Oumarou Nchare, he says the royal throne should stay in Berlin as an ambassador of the rich cultural heritage of the people of Cameroon.
What they ask for is a new kind of cultural relationship between Germany and Cameroon, not object repatriation, and that is what some cultures want.
That is an interesting comment from the Cameroon government.
It was a shock for me to see that, but I also discovered that he had a point. Yes, it was a shock to see that comment, but if you read some of the dialogues around restitution Patrice Nganang is seriously against restitution because he says there is no point in returning objects to an authoritarian government in Cameroon because you will just be amplifying the authoritarianism. He argues brilliantly that restitution is the use of a very French tradition of using debates to cover up for the atrocities of the State. He argues that France, for example, is being criticized for ongoing imperialism in Francophone African countries through Francafrique Policies, and because there is a lot of criticism towards France, they bring up the issue of restitution and commission the Sarr and Savoy report to keep the minds of people occupied.
To come back to what we really wanted to focus on which is perceptions of inequality between different peoples, do you think that decolonizing museums, as you have suggested, will change perceptions of inequalities. While framing this question, I checked out how many people in Europe go to museums, and apparently it is 43% of the population go to some form of cultural center or event once a year. How important is this going to be in reducing perceptions of inequality?
I think my proposal of postcolonial museology as a framework to decolonize ethnographic museums will play a small part, I’m not saying it will do too much, but it will play a small part outside the museum space. Because the point is this, if we move somewhat outside the museum space, we have to decolonize the history of art curriculum as well.
What that means is instead of studying African art as objects of punitive expeditions or as objects of ethnography, you begin to study them as art forms, you begin to understand the artistic quality of their production.
That will encourage those who study them to begin viewing view them in a different perspective, and as you know, the stories will spread, one person will tell another person.
One of the key things that I believe that European museums should do is to de-mystify African art, because what European museums and ethnographers did was to over-amplify the supposed mysticism of African art. What that creates in the minds of those who visit museums is the vision that these are traditional, religious, fetish things that were used by ancient people, so there is no point in having them at home. But if we de-mystify them by maybe commissioning reproductions or getting new forms of the traditional art displayed in the ethnographic museums and making them available for people to buy, they will begin to appreciate them as public art that they can keep in their houses. That way their minds become more open.
And I want to say that 43% is a very big percentage and that can bring change.
Yes, I suppose it is, I had thought it was so low.
Well, compare that to African museums!
I do remember seeing museums, I can remember the one in Sierra Leone which is right in the center of Freetown, but I never saw it open.
And this is the point with restitution. The Sarr and Savoy report of 2018 creates this wonderful story as though Africans are waiting at the airport for the return of these objects. But if you go to Africa, as you pointed out, you don’t find people in museums because of one thing, ongoing iconoclasm. The form of Christianity sold to Africa was through material distancing. The further you are removed from indigenous practice for which artefacts were used as frameworks for those practices, the more religious you are. So many Africans don’t go close to those objects because of religious tenants.
That is an interesting point. I had assumed that the whole psychology of museums was simply European, and my colleagues in Africa would ask why would you go to a museum ? It just wasn’t their way of life, it’s a European thing.
Another point here is that museums in Africa are more problematic than museums in the west because they export the same colonial distortions of history.
And museums are very alien institutions in Africa because the artefacts were not created for that kind of display. If we must have museums in Africa, we have to rethink them.
Unless we do that, we will continue to see museums as deserted as you saw them in Africa.
You mentioned earlier the concept of the Universal Museum, that being a museum that collects and displays art and artefacts from all over the world and not just its immediate or national location. Given what you have said about the lack of contextualized display, and the frequent hierarchization of displays that give the impression that African or other non-European art is less important, do you support the ‘Universal Museum’? Or should all museums focus on their own regional or national context?
Now, do I support the concept of the universal museum? Yes, because I believe that universal cultures should be available to all cultures all over the world, especially in our transcultural contemporary world. But that being said, the representation of other cultures in universal museums has to change. What sort of change do I mean? I’ll give you two examples, number one, they have to be de-anthropologized, so we have to stop looking at them (objects from other cultures) through anthropological gazes. We have to start looking at them as art and then add those explanations that you are talking about and how the artefacts contributed to the social, cultural, and political development of different civilizations.
Number two, museums must be de-hierarchized. The representation within the museum should not be about hierarchizing societies but towards what Enrique Dussel calls trans-modernity, and Ramon Grosfoguel calls universality. We should create a situation where we look at cultures and cultural development as parallel unfolding civilizations instead of putting them into categories of one coming after another for the sake of debasing the Other.
The National Museum of Scotland did a very wonderful exhibition of world cultures. In that exhibition they took objects and artefacts from all cultures and put all of them in one hall. They did not separate European or African, that was brilliant because when you went there, you saw horizontal history; you don’t see hierarchized history.
Finally, museums should commit to presenting the unfolding advancement of these civilizations. Africa did not end with the carving of calabashes, Africa did not end with the carving of masks. How come we don’t see other aspects of African development within museums? So outside adding explanations about the objects in the museums, there should also be a commitment to collecting contemporary works, modern works, and nationalist artworks, so we can have a wholistic history of these civilizations when we go into a museum.
And that could make us, as Europeans, see that other people are simply other people, not ‘the other’ and less equal than we are, everyone has the right to a voice and a very, very important voice.
Clement, on that interesting point, I’m afraid we must finish. Thank you for an inspiring discussion.
 Some say the Germans stole the crown. Others say it wasn’t a gift, or if it was one, a forced gift. We think the Bamun People maintained a marriag e of convenience with the Germans. We hope that those ties will be revived through more significant cultural corporations. The Germans will appreciate the mutual benefits of helping preserve our cultural heritage. The throne in Berlin is an ambassador of our rich culture – Nji Oumarou Nchare.