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Les intraduisibles du patrimoine en Afrique subsaharienne

Danièle Wozny
Barbara Cassin

In English. Heritage Untranslatables in Sub-Saharan Africa

2. Museum

Texte intégral

Bamanakan : Fεnkɔrɔmarayɔrɔ
Fulfulde : resorde pinal
French : musée
Sukuma : mashigo/bujora
Swahili : makumbusho
Tsonga : swikumbusho

1The words “museum” and “musée” (French) are historically charged. They are defined by generic characteristics such as “collection” and “heritage or cultural properties”, alongside the services they provide to the public through their threefold vocation “to preserve, study, and exhibit”.

2Today, we are witnessing a genuine museum explosion. From national museums to community museums, and from art museums to ethnographic museums, archaeological museums and interpretation centres, museums are proliferating all over the world. The old “Temples of the Muses” are being reinvented. Encompassing everything related to the cultural, natural and intangible heritage, museography seeks to make the invisible visible and is a field in constant expansion.

3Beyond preservation, education and enjoyment, museums now also focus on the assertion – or indeed reconstruction – of identity and economic outcomes, because they have the power to reinvigorate failing regions (cf. the “Guggenheim effect” in Bilbao) and attract new categories of tourists. Museums are also political instruments used to signify modernity and national construction.

4The first museums in Africa were part of the colonial project. The Western concept of “museum” does not exist as such in African languages. Nevertheless, research conducted with various African population groups yielded a range of more or less equivalent terms once it was clearly explained, and also led to new proposals for different forms of museums.

In English and French

Official definitions

5Let us begin with official definitions of “museum”, as set out in international conventions written in French and English.

UNESCO’s definition

6Founded in 1945, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation is a specialised agency of the United Nations. UNESCO has 195 Member and 8 Associated Member States. UNESCO’s normative action is essentially based on recommendations and conventions adopted by Member States during General Conferences.

The term « museum » shall be taken to mean any permanent establishment administered in the general interest for the purpose of preserving, studying, enhancing by various means and, in particular, exhibiting to the public for its delectation and instruction, groups of objects and specimens of cultural value : artistic, historical, scientific and technological collections, botanical and zoological gardens and aquariums. (In Unesco Recommendation concerning the Most Effective Means of Rendering Museums Accessible to Everyone 14 November 1960.)
On entend par « musée » tout établissement permanent administré dans l’intérêt général en vue de conserver, étudier, mettre en valeur par des moyens divers et, essentiellement, exposer pour la délectation et l’éducation du public un ensemble d’éléments de valeur culturelle : collections d’objets artistiques, historiques, scientifiques et techniques, jardins botaniques et zoologiques, aquariums. (In : Recommandation de l’Unesco concernant les moyens les plus efficaces de rendre les musées accessibles à tous, adoptée le 14 novembre 1960.)

The International Council of Museums’(ICOM) definition

Established in 1946, ICOM a non-governmental organisation maintaining formal relations with UNESCO. It is committed to the conservation, continuation and communication to society of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, present and future, tangible and intangible. It establishes professional and ethical standards for museum activities and makes recommendations on sensitive heritage conservation issues. (article 1 of ICOM statutes)
The primary authority of ICOM resides through its Members (art. 9 of ICOM statutes), that is to say 30,000 museum specialists spread across 137 countries. However, the governance of ICOM is based on the election by the ordinary General assembly of the executive Council, which selects its President from within its ranks, and an advisory Committee composed, in particular, of the Presidents of the National Committees.
ICOM is a global community of museum professionals. It has a consultative status with the united Nations economic and Social Council.

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. In : ICOM Statutes, adopted during the 21st General Conference in Vienna, Austria, in 2007.
Un musée est une institution permanente sans but lucratif au service de la société et de son développement, ouverte au public, qui acquiert, conserve, étudie, expose et transmet le patrimoine matériel et immatériel de l’humanité et de son environnement à des fins d’études, d’éducation et de délectation. In : Statuts de l’ICOM, adoptés lors de la 21e Conférence générale à Vienne (Autriche) en 2007.

7ICOM’s definition of “museum” is closely related to the definition UNESCO adopted in 1960. Both refer to the same set of intentions towards the public when they describe the social functions of the museum : to preserve, study and exhibit. An unwavering commitment to the public is one of the defining characteristics of the museum. Although this commitment can take different forms depending on the functions of the museum, its core vocation “to preserve, study and exhibit” is bound up with notions of the public and social service. This principle underlies the “universality” of both ICOM’s and UNESCO’s definitions.

8This principle is upheld by the virtues of “education” and “enjoyment” extolled by both UNESCO’s and ICOM’s normative documents. (In French, “enjoyment” was initially translated as “plaisir”, before this was changed to “délectation” in 2007).

9There is little variation in the material reach of the functions of the museum between these two definitions. Although UNESCO and ICOM adopt different terminologies – “groups of objects and specimens of cultural value” (UNESCO, 1960) and “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment” (ICOM, 2007) – the scope of heritage is identical in both definitions. ICOM’s definition takes account of the latest developments in international law by distinguishing between tangible and intangible heritages, this disjunction underlying some the serious problems posed by the risks of commodification and folklorisation. There is an implicit reference to this distinction in the contemporary understanding of “groups of objects and specimens of cultural value”.

10The wording of both definitions skirts around the issue of the status of the museum : is it public, private or community-based ?... Whatever the legal structure of a museum, it must be guided by the general interest as it fulfills its function “to preserve, study and exhibit”. Additionally, ICOM’s definition stipulates that museums should be non-profit. The pertinence of this assertion is debatable however, at a time when museums are claiming trademark rights over their labels in order to gain financial compensation when third parties use them, and when they market ready-made exhibitions, sell research and analytical services, and privatise their permanent exhibition spaces, renting them to private bodies outside of public opening hours. As a result, it would be worth explicitly defining the meaning and the scope of the notion of “non-profit” in this case.

A history of the word “museum” and the reality it describes

11Although the notion of museum owes its “universality” to a certain number of regularly invoked characteristic features, as in the definitions quoted above, it nevertheless has a complex history, starting from the Greek term mouseion.

Mouseion : Muses and museums
The term mouseion evokes realities which may only have a name in common. Museums are often linked to the notion of a heritage to be preserved and exhibited. Initially, the classical Mouseion had nothing to do with this. However, ancient Greek can lead to another meaning of the word.
It is well-known that “museum” comes from “Muse”. The Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Memory, who, according to Hesiod, gave birth to “nine daughters, all of one breath”, “a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow”. Their nine beautiful names referred to nine arts, including history, astronomy, dance, comedy, tragedy and all the different types of poetry. They inspired the poet, who depended on them for his voice, and they “knew how to speak many false things as though they were true”.
The “Museum” was first of all the place – site, hill – where the Muses played, sang and danced. It was located either in Pieria or on Mount Helicon, near the snowy peaks of Mount Olympus. It was also the temple that was erected for them on Mount Parthenon, and a grotto lined with “mosaics” – these rhythmic patterns of small variegated stones were called after them. Euripides refers to the place where birds sing as
It was of course also the famous Museum founded in Alexandria, Egypt, by Ptolemy Soter circa 280 BC. It was rebuilt after burning down in 47 AD, and only closed its doors for good in 391. yet even in this case, it would be wrong to think that conservation was a primary concern. The
Mouseion was still a space devoted to the Muses, where “music” was played and all the arts practiced. Timon of Phlius, a sceptic who was nearly contemporaneous with its foundation, scornfully remarked that “Many are feeding in populous Egypt, scribblers on papyrus, ceaselessly wrangling in the birdcage of the Muses”. Nevertheless, four centuries later Strabo praised it unreservedly : located within the walls of the immense palace, the Museum had porticoes, a conference room, and a great hall where the Museum’s learned philologists took their meals together. They formed an assembly and held property in common, managed by a priest formerly appointed by the kings and now by Caesar” (The Geography, XVII, I, 8). The Museum evoked a research institute, something in between the House of Wisdom, Silicon Valley and the Max Planck Institute, complete with astronomical observatory, botanical garden, zoo, laboratories, and dissection room. The Bible (the Septuagint) was being translated and it had around one hundred of the most eminent scholars – Euclid, for example – in residence, so they could work together and give seminars. However, the library, which housed the arts of memory, was probably even more praiseworthy. also located within the walls of the palace, it had a strictly-enforced policy of acquisitions and benefited from the invention of an efficient system of classification. It owned between 500,000 and 700,000 scrolls : every ship passing through the port of Alexandria had to loan the library its manuscripts so these might be copied. The Muses truly were “daughters of Memory” with this library. In contrast, the Museum itself was more concerned with using the past as a springboard for invention than with conservation.
The first Museum was also a school, in the Greek sense of the term : a place where people could talk, eat, and do research together “at leisure” (
scholê), that is to say without worrying about time or money. It would be interesting to find out to what extent the first meaning of this word can still inspire us today. Without necessarily seeking to establish legitimating lineages or genealogies, some antecedents to the development and characteristics of the modern Western museum can already be found in the cultural institutions of the renaissance. Princes and philanthropists, especially in Italy, were among the first to assemble archaeological finds into collections – of sculptures, vases, gemstones, coins and medals – to inform their taste for the antique and to demonstrate their humanistic refinement. These collections coexisted alongside two other foci of assembly and valorisation ; on the one hand, the painting gallery, furnished with portraits of sovereigns and biblical scenes, and, on the other hand, the cabinet of curiosity, which gathered within its microcosm a plethora of objects, both naturalia and artificiosa, sources of wonder and originators of scientific enquiry. The enlightenment contributed to reinforcing this tradition, leading towards the natural history museum, filled with mineral, vegetal and animal specimens from all over the world as encountered through colonial expansion. at the same time, the onset of the nineteenth century also fostered the emergence of the “national” museum, thereby renewing both the aims and publics of the museum institution.

12Here, evident concerns over identity have been superadded to aesthetic propensities. Following the French Revolution, the undermining of hereditary monarchy and the geopolitical reshaping of Napoleonic Europe, the subjects of the Ancien regime became citizens of the nation-state, member of an aspiring and voluntary community (Ernest Renan) whose material substrate and memorial relics were accumulated and displayed in the museum. From the Copenhagen National Museum, where the Three Ages system (stone, bronze and iron) was elaborated in the 1820s, in the shadow of their Prussian neighbour, through to the Musée des antiquités nationales established near Paris in 1862 by Emperor Napoleon III, a keen reader of Caesar who searched for the founding site of Alesia, the museum became a national institution, the anchorage of shared memory and legitimised power. This development has not been without its abuses, of course, from historical over-interpretations to retrospective ethnic narratives, and the systematic looting and dubious acquisition of objects enlisted to reinforce national prestige (the Greek marbles, Egyptian and Oriental antiquities) or to bolster territorial claims on the basis of ancient expansions and contacts between civilisations.

13These new objectives of the museum were all the more achievable that it was only at the turn of the twentieth century that international law formally prohibited the practice of looting and spoliations by campaigning armies – practices which benefited the victorious parties’ museums, as they integrated the vestiges of the vanquished into their collections (Convention II Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, The Hague, 29 July 1899, Convention IV Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, The Hague, 18 October 1907).

14At the same time, the museum took root in the urban landscape, including purpose-built edifices. These veritable temples combined monumentality and architectural allusions (cf. the Berlin Museuminsel) to impress visitors drawn from a far wider spectrum than the erudite nobility of yesteryear. The museum now mainly greeted the middle classes, members of the bourgeoisie whose professional occupations left them enough leisure and ambition to allow them to instruct and cultivate themselves. This was especially the case during the period of social, technological and economic upheavals known as the Industrial Revolution : next to the beautiful and the memorable, the museum also showed the progress of industry and the marvels of science, thus opening up a “horizon of expectation” to Western societies often burdened by anomie and class struggles. Since the turn of the twentieth century, this broader message has been one of the key roles of the modern museum, whose entry fees are often waived and opening times adapted to the needs of the public. This message can be perceived everywhere, from the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, where panoplies of anthropological and archaeological objects were meant to confirm to the English working classes that nature makes no bounds and that progress accepts no revolution, to the Musée de l’homme in 1930s Paris, where the ethnographic displays of technical objects and the distributions maps of cultural traits contributed to overcoming an essentialist approach founded on ethnic or even racial belonging with one based on civic participation.

15Notwithstanding the promotion of a universalist discourse – a tendency reinforced by the adoption in 2002 of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums – some museum collections also retained a form of predation over extra-European cultures, notably over their archaeological and ethnographic objects. This phenomenon lasted at least until the 1970s and the adoption of deontological principles regarding museum collections, at the initiative of the International Council on Museums (ICOM).

The colonial museum

16In addressing the fate of museums in Africa, it would be remiss of us to overlook the phenomenon of the colonial museum – and this for several reasons.

17To begin with, and notwithstanding their material contents and ideological orientations (more on which below), it is noteworthy that some museums in Africa have been in existence for over a century. By whatever means, these museums have become part of their urban environments, as well as of the cultural or scientific landscapes of their town or country of implantation. Has this long term presence (sometimes more continuous or lasting than with many European museums) left traces on the city’s residents or the country’s citizens ? Can links be drawn to specific museum practices surrounding an institution that is visited and revisited again, a site of cultural events (concerts, openings), or a pedagogical tool for schools or universities ? What about the opportunities for the linguistic or conceptual appropriation of the museum in the discourse or the representations of local populations ? The Cape Town Museum, for example, was established in 1825 (and has since opened to the population as a whole) : would this not have some impact – which can be specified – on the perception of the museum by local residents, and on the creation and consolidation of new institutions ? What to do, in short, with the museum’s colonial genealogy ?

18There are also lessons to be learned regarding the contents and orientations of the colonial museum. Very frequently, the military and administrative undertakings of colonial conquest were followed by attempts at organising knowledge. Caught between the metropolitan centre and the exotic terrain, between the cabinet and the bush, their challenge was to inventory, classify and above all evaluate the potential of local resources. For the most part, then, colonial museums originally had naturalist and pragmatic vocations : maps, herbaria and suchlike taxonomies served “pure” knowledge, but also the “enhancement” of local resources for the benefit of colonial residents. Such knowledge could help avoid tropical diseases, and also better exploit minerals and exotic plants. It could also improve interactions with local indigenous populations, in fuller awareness of their specific customs, languages and spatial distribution, and help to grasp the political constellations and economic practices that promoted adhesion or on the contrary revolt. Knowledge of Africa, and even more so its transmission and consolidation, constituted a major challenge for the colonial museum, all the more so that it has become amenable to reappropriation by local communities.

19However, it was also in this context that early conservation and protection measures for Africa’s archaeological and ethnographic heritage were developed by the colonial powers. In 1938, at the initiative of the Front populaire government, the Institut français d’Afrique noire (IFAN) was created in French West Africa. After independence, it became the Institut fondamental d’Afrique noire. As part of its project to enhance knowledge of Africa, the institute included a social and human sciences department, alongside its scientific department (botany, biology, geology). Encouraging archaeological and ethnographic research, and providing it with logistical support and publication outlets, IFAN contributed to the emergence of a patrimonial consciousness across West Africa. In East Africa, interactions around the Nairobi Museum (the Croyndon Museum) led to the creation in the 1940s of the Pan-African Congress of Prehistory and related studies, which has since contributed decisively to the consolidation of archaeological research throughout the continent, including its heritage and museum dimensions.

Museums and heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa

20“We must kill” the Western model of museum in Africa to allow new modes of heritage conservation and promotion to develop”, so declared Prof. Alpha Oumar Konaré in a memorable address, intervening in a long-running and still relevant discussion on the types of museums needed in Africa [ICOM conference, “What Museums for Africa ?”, 1991].

21This question seems just as urgent a quarter of a century later, when the longed for “killing” is yet to take place. Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, new variations on the “Western” museum keep resurfacing in modern institutions more or less inspired by fashionable models. Yet, the Louvre Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Musée du quai Branly, the British Museum, as well as the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, and the many eco-museums supposed to be closer to lived experience, always seem too singular and Other to allow duplication.

22It is thus important to realise that plurality is intrinsic to museological models, in a domain which mostly arises from processes of social production and the diversity of cultural expressions. Just as there is no specific model for European museology, there is no specific African model. This is in fact what Konaré implicitly suggested in his speech.

23Yet there certainly is a need for change, if only because of the reductive perspective adopted by the museal discourse inherited from the colonial era. Presenting condensed versions of the colonial exhibitions, it could not and never did attract Africans. The model must be rethought, articulating the semantic constructions of the different cultural areas of the African heritage – which does not mean “killing off” the previous model.

24Drawing attention to the intangibility of the borders that we inherited from the colonial era, should the national museum not in fact be sacrificed on the altar of the cultural continuities which really bring the people of Africa and the world together in plural unity ? Does the brand new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM) not confirm this obvious phenomenon, underlined by Fernand Braudel ? There is no doubt that “As long as lions don’t have their own historians, history will continue to honour the hunter”. Africa must therefore make the effort to invent its own discourses, celebrating its plural unity and crossed destinies, and accepting that its differences are complementary.

25Whatever their orientation, African museums can neither ignore the place of the African continent in the human odyssey, nor its role in the creation of its technical, social, and political heritages, not to mention the painful episodes of the slave trade and colonisation. They must also fully account for the ups and downs of Africa’s recent political history. The new Africa must cultivate self-esteem in order to promote a generation of young people rooted in its values and capable of participating fully and uninhibitedly in the global culture.

26Although rife with new opportunities, globalisation is nevertheless guilty of something akin to a “cultural genocide”, which uses homogenisation as a weapon of mass destruction. Culture is the antidote to this danger, and museums are in the frontline, because they must be the first to promote the diversity of cultural expressions. “And why not imagine that the African museum might have a new economy linked to the resources of the population ? And we must find a solution together with those who created our cultural properties and traditions, the elites of our villages and rural communities” [Konaré, Le Monde, 2 February 1993].

Equivalents to musée and museum in the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa

27When the target language does not have a concept, word, or term for, let alone any conception of, the thing to be named, a neologism must be created or a term borrowed from the source language. This was the case with the notion of, and word, “museum” in the languages of all the communities interviewed.

28The terms museum and musée have been widely adopted in the legislation of African states. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa the normative landscape varies depending on the type of legal system in place. Legal models inherited from the colonial era are still widespread in institutions such as “museums”. In African states with territories which used to be part of the British Empire during the colonial era, museums are managed with trust structures which also have a specific legislation – such as the National Museum and Art Gallery Act (1967) in Botswana ; the National Museums Act (1983) in Kenya ; and the National Commission For Museums and Monuments Act (1979) in Nigeria. There is no similar appetite for legal norms in francophone Africa. Most of the francophone African states which were once touched by French colonisation have adopted a legislation to protect their cultural heritage, without making any specific legal provisions for, or giving a specific legal framework to, museums. Ivory Coast is an exception, having passed a law in 1987 giving museums the task of preserving and illustrating the national heritage.

29In the end, whatever the legal definition of the term “museum”, its outline and content ultimately are directly indebted to notions originally shaped by Western traditions. There is no description of the use, scope, recognition, and conditions of appropriation of the term by local actors in African laws. The fact that the concept of museum is not described on the terrain of its appropriation by local communities tends to foster the impression of its legal artificiality and to provoke weariness towards this imported model.

30It is not always easy to translate a word from one language to another. Whether one is using one’s native tongue or not, it remains necessary to consult either with a member of the community where the language is spoken or with a specialist in that language, in order to check the translation of a word. As well as requiring some research and access to documentation, this often takes longer than expected. In spite of these challenges and cultural differences, once all the characteristics of a new phenomenon or concept are well understood in a given source language, it must be possible to translate it into any given target language. UNESCO’s thesaurus was compiled in this way, defining the concepts and key words of its various Conventions through dialogue and consensus. What matters is disseminating the outcome of these discussions in order to promote languages and intercultural dialogue.

31This exercise in “translation” and/or “adaptation” in an “inter-language” generates two frequent scenarios, when one goes beyond looking for equivalences in common usage to enter the field of a specialised domain, such as that of UNESCO’s Conventions.

32In the first and most widespread scenario, the concept in question is unknown in the languages of the relevant communities. This was the case with the term/concept “museum”.

33This leaves a choice between opting for a simple borrowing, allowing the term to remain obscure for local communities who don’t have any idea of what it suggests, and the possibility of exploiting the natural lexical creativity of languages in order to coin a neologism which must be as easy to understand as possible, while also respecting the rules governing the morphological structure of lexemes. This was the option chosen to translate the term “museum” into the four languages mentioned below.

34In the second scenario, the new concept has a rough equivalent in the language and culture of the communities in question, even if they are not always perfectly matched from a semantic point of view.

In Fulfulde : Resorde pinal, “culture conservatory”

35In order to translate the term “musée” (“museum”), which refers to an entity that is unknown to the community, it was first necessary to give a clear account of what we meant by this word in French, our source language. We then listed the basic semantic characteristics of this notion, in order to define it better :

  • the notion of place or locale ;

  • the notion of conservation (as in keeping things and objects) ;

  • the notion of culture or civilisation : cultural elements are preserved in this place so they may be visited and examined ; contact with these artefacts simultaneously allows people to develop their culture.

  • the notions, therefore, of observation, admiration, information and delectation.

36We came up with, and rejected, a large number of proposed terms, either because they tended to be limited to the notion of admiring observation (as in yeeɓirde, “the place where one admires things” <= from yeeɓ- “to look at with admiration”), or because they were not specific enough and could have been used in other senses (as in galle pinal, “house of culture”, or suudu pinal, “room/hall of culture”, which was coined by analogy with suudu defte, “library”, but was even more reductive). We also rejected the idea of borrowing the original French word, phonetically adapted as miisee, since this word was unknown to, and meaningless for, the local population.

37Working with the natural lexical creativity of the language, and taking into account the first three basic semantic characteristics of place, conservation, and culture, we came up with a very clear neologism : resorde pinal.

38Native speakers find the term resorde pinal perfectly easy to understand for three main reasons :

  1. All the morphemes (lexical base, derivatives, noun class indicator) of the term resorde are clear and their respective meanings are obvious to speakers ;

  2. The formation of the word follows the traditional structure of nominal lexeme formation in Fulfulde ;

  3. There are many examples of words/lexemes with the same formation in the everyday language : hoɗ- “to live in” => hoɗorde “place to live in, house”
    loot- “to wash” => lootorde “place to wash in, bathroom”
    hen- “air, wind” => henorde “window”
    sod- “to cut short” => sodorde “shortcut”
    juul- “to pray” => juulirde “place to pray in, mosque” etc.

39The term is composed of two substantives : resorde, “reservation and preservation place”, and pinal, “culture”.

40The formation of resorde/res-o-r-de/:

  • Verbal root RES- (infinitive RESde) means “to keep in reserve”. See for example : resde jawdi, “to keep one’s property”, resde debbo, “to keep a woman” [having married her], resde sirru, “to keep a secret”, etc.

  • Morpheme – o- : indicates a middle voice, and refers to the subject of the verb, almost in a reflexive sense. Thus, res-omeans “to keep oneself, to be preserved” without prejudging the author of this preservation.

  • Morpheme – r- : instrumental/locative case indicating that something, or a place or locale, is being used.

  • Class marker – de : indicates a second-degree derivation [substantivation] in the noun class NDE which connotes a place, a circumscribed space, a zone, totality/globality, roundness, etc. See for example the class for “universe” (winndere NDE), “book” (deftere NDE), “place” (nokkere NDE), and “round things” : hoore NDE (“head”) horde NDE (“calabash”) (duunde NDE (“island”) lowre NDE (“piece of land”) husre NDE (“piece of meat, muscle”), etc. Hence resorde : “place, locale, where [things] are preserved, or kept”.

41The formation of pinal/fin-al/ :

  • Verbal root FIN- (infinitive FINde) means “to wake up, to be awake”, and by extension to be open-minded, erudite, awakened, cultivated.

  • Class marker – al : indicates a third-degree derivation in the noun class NGAL which generally connotes a state.

42Hence pinal, “the set of [inherited or natural] values [a community] gains from its knowledge and expertise”. Pinal thus also differs from ganndal (root ANND-“to know”) which refers to objective knowledge, science.

43Resorde pinal is thus equivalent to “place/locale for the conservation of [things related to] culture”.

In Bamanakan : Fεnkɔrɔmarayɔrɔ, “place where ancient things are conserved”

44In the Bambara tradition, the place where ancient and extremely important things are conserved is generally sacred and consecrates fetishes, gris-gris, and other things related to the physical and spiritual protection of human beings against evil spirits and ill-intentioned people. These sacred objects may be preserved in a hut, bag, canari (pottery vessel) or calabash and may belong to a man, woman, or youth. Access to it is private, and it is therefore out of bounds for the public. In the Bambara language, this “man hut” is called cε (“man”)-so (“hut”, “house”).

45The equivalent to a “museum” for the Bambara people might be a place for the conservation of things that have been deconsecrated, either because there are no officiating priests, guides, or teachers to initiate the new generations into the rituals (sacrifices, libations, offerings), or because the rituals have been transgressed. Losing their historical and socio-cultural value, “sacred” things may thus be shared and known by all. The neologism fεnkɔrɔmarayɔrɔ (fεn : thing, object ; kɔrɔ : ancient ; mara : to conserve ; yɔrɔ : place) which we ended up settling on to translate the notion of “museum” literally means “the place where ancient things are conserved”.

46Using language in this way makes it possible not only to see what is lost in translation, but also perhaps what is gained.

In Swahili : Museum/Makumbusho, “a site of collective memory” and nyumba za makumbusho, “houses of memory”

47There is a traditional term in Swahili for everything related to the safeguard of tangible and intangible objects. This term is composed of words of Arabic origin : hifadhi ya jadi (the conservation of traditions). However, what is meant here by “tangible” and “intangible” does not of course really comply with the international specifications of these two types of heritage.

48The generic term Makumbusho was coined at the time of the foundation of Tanzania’s National Museum in Dar es salam.

49Ma : prefix, indicates the collective ;

50Kumbuka : indicates the fact of remembering something ;

51O : indicates a place ;

52Makumbusho : evokes the notion of a site of collective memory.

53Located in the heart of Dar es salam, Tanzania’s National Museum focuses on the history of its encounters with foreign people while also asserting the region’s role as the “cradle of humankind”. The museum exhibits objects and specimens which come from exchanges and encounters with foreign groups. It is a museum dedicated to the international influences that shaped Tanzania.

54Located on the outskirts of the city, Dar es salam’s other museum presents Tanzania’s main ethnic groups in separate huts. This museum is called nyumba za makumbusho, “houses where one remembers”, “houses of memory”. Each hut reflects the architectural and cultural traditions of the ethnic group it describes – hence the significance of the term “house”, the place where one lives.

55These are the distinctions between two types of Makumbusho.

56The use of the Swahili term is widespread in Tanzania and other languages (notably Sukuma and Tsonga) have borrowed it. However, it lacks clear definition, because the concept has not as yet been appropriated by local populations.

Chiefs’ huts : from mashigo to Bujora (Tanzania)
After Independence was declared in 1961, the need to unite the country meant that chiefdoms were abolished. However, the objects symbolising the power of the Chief remained... What was to be done with them ?
In the Tanzanian village of Bujora, missionaries suggested placing and conserving them in huts (
mashigo in Sukuma). Mashigo, a term which initially referred to the historical burial ground of the chiefs, also designates symbolically very valuable collections which cannot be divided in any way, except during major ceremonies. The name of the village, Bujora, gradually displaced the term mashigo when speaking of these huts, which are now open to the public (and are especially popular with Sukuma and neighbouring ethnic groups, as well as tourists). Wall texts are written in Sukuma, as well as Swahili.
In Tsonga, in Mozambique, South africa, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, the term
swikumbuso is also used.
Swi-plural prefix – class 8 (the class for things and objects) ;
Xikumbuso comes from ku kumbuka, causative verb “to make someone remember”.
The phrase “little house of sacred things”,
yindlo ya swigotso, is used to speak of the chiefs’huts where the objects kept are of high symbolical value for the community or ethnic group. These “little houses of sacred things” are only opened for major ceremonies.
Missionaries suggested parallels with “temple”, and this idea inspired the local population to coin the word
thepela, which has now almost completely displaced yindlo ya swigotso.

57The terms coined in Swahili, Tanzania’s national language, to speak of “museum” and “heritage” – makumbusho and orithi wa taifa for “national heritage” – clearly remain arbitrary and are only really understood by parts of the Tanzanian civil service. Tanzanian communities having no lived experience of the cultural realities these words evoke, they are merely foreign terms used in international exchanges. As such, they run the risk of intensifying the cultural disjunction between those who are initiated into this international lingo and those who are not, encouraging withdrawal rather than social cohesion. This phenomenon heightens the impression among speakers of traditional Swahili (spoken along the coast of the Indian ocean) that intellectuals have usurped their language and are sacrificing some of the notions that are key to their identity on the altar of globalisation.

Towards other types of museums ?

58Five main categories of museums : museums of art, fine arts, and decorative arts ; history museums ; science and natural history museums ; museums of techniques ; ethnological museums. Of these, three types seem to us particularly relevant in the African context : the site museum, the community musuem and the culture bank.

The Site Museum

59A site museum is a museum with a relatively specific localisation which is not arbitrary, or dependent on demographic, migratory or geopolitical considerations, such as when a new capital city emerges, leading museums to re-localise, or when an ethnic group or an institution move and take with them their ethnographic collections or treasured objects. The site museum, on the contrary, depends on an “absolute” location which gives it meaning : the location of an archaeological site (for example Olorgesailie in Kenya, or N’didima in South Africa) or again a cultural landscape, the site of a marking event or history (such as Robben Island prison) or indeed a mythical event whose location is traditional or conventional.

60The site museum has therefore no ambition to be universal or to represent a microcosmos, and this is probably one of its major strengths. The conservation, education and enjoyment aims of such museums, as well as their architectural setting, can therefore be more intelligible for both museum professionals and public authorities, as well as visitors. The site museum is thus thematic. It can bear on sites and events that are known, and serve to exemplify them. It can also serve to highlight and problematise sites that are as yet unknown or undervalued : a fauna-or artefact-bearing hominid site (ex. Olduvai gorge), a site associated with the slave trade (Gorée Island, Senegal), a colonial industrial production site, or again, not unlike the European “skansen”, an open-air museum where traditional dwellings and architecture can be augmented by various objects, crafts or agricultural practices, within an interpretation centre.

61The main asset of the site museum – its local grounding – can however also become a source of weakness or conflict when it clashes with other geographies, sites of power, population centres, transport networks, access conditions or local topographies. To the physical remoteness and disinterest of local authorities can be added the temptation of “self-looting” – focusing on the country itself, this time, rather than the distant colonial metropolis – when the most important or representative artefacts are appropriated and centralised in the national museum, to be used in identity discourses beyond those of traditional or community heritage.

Two site museums in South Africa
As an example of the decisive importance of the spatial, political and economic location of a site (and its museum), let us compare two South African sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. On the one hand, the site known as “Cradle of Humankind” includes a series of karstic caves and crevasses bearing Australopithecus and Homo Erectus fossils. Situated an hour’s drive on a main road from Johannesburg, the site is well amenable to mass tourism and outreach, including parking areas for buses loaded with school children taken on a day outing to absorb a rather “universalist” message associated with the African Renaissance. On the other hand, the site of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, on the border between the Kwazulu-Natal province and Lesotho, is set in a mountainous landscape with rock shelters rich in rock paintings, an art realised by now nearly extinct San (Bushman) populations. Rather more difficult of access, and requiring a long car journey and an overnight stay, this site is part of a more exclusive tourist trail : it is largely reserved for foreign visitors, rather than the contemporary local populations who are actually quite indifferent to the authors of this art, feeling no ethnic or historical affinities towards them.

The community museum

62The community museum, also called municipal museum, is an institution or instrument founded on the initiative of a municipality or organised group in order to preserve, promote and make accessible to the majority the tangible and intangible traces of its district’s or cultural area’s natural and cultural heritage. As with any decentralised structure, the organisation and management of the community museum are supervised and legally monitored, in accordance with norms for the conservation, management and promotion of the cultural heritage.

63The principal goal of a community museum is to contribute to the education of its citizens. Community museums must respond both to the challenges of decentralisation and free enterprise, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the need to present a plural national culture open to other world cultures. In order to answer this challenge, the policies responsible for the foundation of decentralised museal institutions must focus on information, training, socio-cultural activities, and visitor reception and orientation services, emphasising an open endogenous culture.

64Playing a central role in the conservation and dissemination of culture, and in the organisation of cultural activities, while also boosting economic growth, community museums are “spaces” dedicated to the promotion of past and present cultures : these dynamic museums are educational institutions which present their communities with their heritage and a culture of peace.

Community museums in the Land of the Dogons
Mali’s major community museums – the Fombori, Enndé and Soroly Museums – are located in the Land of the Dogons. These museums were founded on the initiative of the Cultural Mission of Bandiagara (MCB), with the financial support of cooperating partners (UNESCO and other foreign cooperating bodies) and the active participation of local populations. Two imperatives presided over the creation of these museums : the fight against poverty and the illicit trafficking of cultural property, on the one hand, and the desire to use heritage to improve the living conditions of local populations.

The Culture Bank

65Founded in Mali in 1997, the Culture Bank is organised around three central activities : a museum, a centre dispensing micro-credit, and a culture and training centre.

66There are four Culture Banks in Mali today, and this institutional model has spread to Togo and Benin.

67Communities have chosen to move away from the traditional form of the museum, seeking other ways to combine the preservation of their cultural identities and development.

68The Cultural Bank must respect the following imperatives :

  • It must preserve properties threatened by theft, plundering and illicit trafficking in museums and reservations. Information sheets (international model) must be created.

  • It must not dissociate these properties from the familial and collective histories which give them their meaning and value. Every object must also have an information sheet describing its “intangible” context – narratives, stories, and ritual or everyday uses.

  • It must help the local populations to develop income-generating activities by dispensing loans over a maximum period of three years. Owners may take their objects back or negotiate new loans once the interest (3 %) is paid. Very few people wish to take their object back.

  • The culture and training centre promotes artistic creation and provides training for the local population (literacy classes, micro-entreprise management, visitor and school reception services).

69The communities of Togo and Benin have opted to use the phrase “cultural bank”, which local inhabitants have now made theirs, even appropriating it phonetically : this is the term they use to refer to the structures inspired by the Malian model which were created in Togo and Benin.

70Cultural banks preserve and promote the different forms of cultural expression used by various communities. They are forums for exchanges and dialogue and socially cohesive institutions where cultural diversity is expressed.

71They are run as associations and are now facing a new challenge, as a result of their very success : how to develop their micro-credit structure, conserve an ever-increasing number of objects in unsuitable buildings, provide professional training to their members, and, even more importantly, gain recognition from their national cultural authorities.

The Fombori Cultural Bank experiment, Douentza Cercle, Land of the Dogons, Mali
Inaugurated in 1997, this was Mali’s first Cultural Bank. It is a community structure for the conservation of cultural objects, with a village fund for micro-loans and a centre for cultural training to foster income-generating activities. It is a permanent institution for the conservation, promotion, and dissemination of the local communities” cultural heritage. It manages their local cultural heritage to their benefit, while fighting against poverty and the plundering and underselling of objects.
The Fombori Cultural Bank’s management structure includes a general assembly, a management committee, a loan-granting committee, and a committee of Wise Persons.
When it opened, the Fombori Cultural Bank had a working capital of 200,000 CFA francs. In 2002, it was estimated that its collection included over 430 objects from around ten villages. More than 450 loans amounting to over 6,500,000 CFA francs were granted – to women in 60 % of cases. Today, the Fombori Cultural Bank holds 1,072 objects from 24 villages. Between 2006 and the present day, 802 monetary loans were granted to 1,700 persons in order to improve their living and working conditions.

So what ?

Attempting to translate the international conventions into the languages of Africa

72Linguistic diversity will always be a challenge when it comes to translating words from one language into another. It will never be easy to transpose the words and phrases used in UNESCO’s Conventions into African languages, and there is much to be learned from this exercise. Member States and UNESCO officials should therefore :

  • ensure that local communities are involved in all stages of the development of cultural projects and programmes ;

  • conduct in-depth research on local languages and the way they are translated into each other and official languages (French or English) ;

  • set up national networks for the translation and integration of patrimonial elements into formal and information educational programmes ;

  • translate UNESCO Conventions into the languages of local communities, starting with codified languages ;

  • plan to develop modular training programmes on subjects related to heritage conservation and promotion, and their relevant terminologies ;

  • publish research outcomes and promotional material in local languages.

73The point of this work is to devise legal provisions and frameworks specifically for each community, rather than imposing the terminology of the international conventions.

Exhibitions and self-contemplation

74In 1947, André Malraux wrote in The Imaginary Museum that “The role of museums in our relationship with works of art is so great that we can hardly conceive of the fact that there are none […] and that they have existed in France for less than two centuries. The nineteenth century lived off of them, and we still do, forgetting that they imposed a whole new relationship between viewer and work of art. They helped deliver the works of art they housed from being functional [...]”

75Starting from the universally recognised and accepted functions of the museum – collecting, conserving and exhibiting – may help to avoid falling into the trap of pure imitation, and creating the gap with lived experience that this implies.

76Considering the African museum in this light may make it possible to avoid the straightjacket of the national museum. The great majority of African museums were created to celebrate the Nation, imposing this notion on the local populations. They are the prisoners of their spatial environment and of its temporal corollary, and as such fossilise the colonial era’s ruptured continua. Instead of allowing for the recovery of segmented identities, they have become often rather unsuccessful laboratories for propping up young nations in search of elusive identities.

77The “national” collections assembled in this context can thus be seen to constitute so many relics of a past which does not have much to say to a new Africa eager for development. Deserted, or ignored, museums understand that some soul-searching is necessary.

78Four major lines of coherence should be introduced :

  • Collections should ignore the tyranny of the ethnographic object and be free to encompass any element that may speak to present and future generations.

  • Conservation processes should be adapted to their specific ecosystem : there is no single reservation model. In particular, African reservations and museums should be made more eco-friendly with a bold and systematic turn to solar energy.

  • Exhibitions : the time has come to put a stop to exhibitions based on self-contemplation which merely repeat ad infinitum what Africa already knows about itself. Yes, it is important for Africa to tell and present its own story, but it is also – and perhaps even more – important to know those of others. There is much to be gained from such encounters.

  • Europe started by preserving its icons, followed by its art and architecture, before enshrining the markers of its industrial adventure and founding ethnographic museums in order to record the cultural diversity it encountered over the course of its peregrinations across the world. All of this is part of History, and this history is intrinsically shared, whatever we wish to do about it. Whether these heritages are conserved in Europe, Africa, or elsewhere, they are the common heritage of humankind, and it cannot be any other way.

79Today, exhibitions should therefore no longer automatically focus on self-contemplation. Africa is curious about the world and this has implications which African museums cannot ignore. European museums are spaces of encounter because they don’t present the discovery of the Other as though this were at odds with self-knowledge.

80Renewing African museums means turning them into spaces that foster the discovery of the Other, the encounter with world cultures and the promotion of creativity. In a word, the survival of the African museum depends on its commitment to “rootedness and openness”.

Museums and inventivity : rethinking the past ?

81Contrary to popular belief, traditional African education methods focused entirely on creativity. One might even say that African ingenuity does not lie with the recycling of cans of tomatoes or other tins to make toys out of them, but with its “creative child”, who, under the aegis of its elders, learns on a daily basis to make, and play with, an astoundingly large range of games and toys, giving him or her so many insights into the natural world and the meaning of things and beings.

82This tradition is very significant and must be shared with educators, notably those based in museums. Although there is no doubt that the challenges facing the continent are related to the – established – fact that consumer attitudes have overtaken the drive to produce, it may nevertheless be worth exploring what happens when one cultivates the urge to create and the pleasure of enjoying one’s own creations, boosting self-esteem in the process. Fostering creativity from a very early age through African cultural references and museums may be one of the best ways of encouraging Africans to be inventive, rooted, and capable of participating as actors, rather than spectators, in the information society, which is primarily a society of producers.

83Moreover, the extraordinary rise of children’s games, which always send a cultural – and sometimes also political – message, ought to spark renewed interest in the African cultural heritage : games, toys, tales, legends and nursery rhymes should be re-appropriated for educational purposes and resolutely placed in the service of young Africans.

84The impact of the digital divide might also be minimised by putting NICTs in the service of the development of museums and the exploration and adaptation of cultural traditions to these crucially important media.

Dialogue between Africa and the “West” around the museum

85To recognise that African museums have had a colonial past is also to better perceive how their present and future conditions may initiate a new kind of dialogue with the “West” – and thus, to paraphrase Georges Balandier, to exit the colonial situation through the “museological situation”.

86The issue here is not of course to deny history, but rather to grasp what in history can be demonstrated, rendered material, and put in a museum – becoming a focus for sharing and restitution (as the first example provided below shows) or on the contrary for displacement and travel (as with the second example provided below). Here are two examples of such exhibitions – the first is yet to be realised, the other already achieved.

87The first is an exhibition project which might be called “Dakar-Djibouti, from Dakar back to Dakar”. This exhibition project, to begin in Senegal and eventually reach further east all the way to the Ethiopian plateau, is based on the celebrated trans-African ethnographic expedition of 1930 - 1931. Directed on behalf of the Musée de l’homme in Paris by Marcel Griaule and Michel Leiris, who were both pupils of Marcel Mauss, the Dakar-Djibouti expedition played a pioneering role in the transformation of ethnology, away from the description of savage manners and customs, and towards socio-cultural anthropology. With its concern with exhaustive documentation and collecting practices (in ways that were sometimes excessive and even aggressive) the expedition sought to broaden its research horizons beyond aesthetic or primitivist exotism (“art nègre”), to a wider and more pluralistic conception of African material cultures and cultural expressions. The display, within Africa itself, of archival documents, field-notes, photographs and original artefacts collected during the expedition, and preserved since then in museums or repositories in France, is therefore of considerable interest. In documentary terms, such an initiative would foster a renewed appreciation of the way the cultures in question were perceived more than eighty years ago. At a reflexive level, it would serve to see and to show, in situ, how knowledge about “Others” is constructed, and how the scholarly perception of local societies at the time of the expedition has become so widespread that it now almost constitutes a universal sensibility, which can be freed from the shackles of academic disciplines and relate to an emerging post-colonial reality.

88With our second example, the challenge was rather to present Africa with something it had never seen : the prehistory, and indeed history, of “Others”. At the initiative of the Houet museum in Bobo-Dioulasso (Burkina Faso) and the Laténium museum in Neuchâtel (Switzerland), an exhibition of Swiss archaeological remains was set up and displayed in the museums of Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso, and Abidjan, in Ivory Coast. Under the title Un peu plus lointain, un peu plus proche (“Somewhat further, somewhat closer”), this unprecedented exhibition included models, basketry and various small finds originating from the lake dwellings of the Swiss Bronze Age. The many visitors who swarmed to the exhibition were able to experience the museum as a site of discovery and outreach to the world, combining knowledge and critical reflection. Reversing for once the direction of travel – going from Europe to Africa, rather than the other way around – the exhibition displayed the shared premises of ancient cultures, including their artistic expression, interactions with their environment, and common potentialities in relation to their historic development. At the same time, by demonstrating that European institutions and populations take an interest in their own archaeological remains and seek to enhance them, the exhibition was an awareness-raising exercise. In Africa too, testimonies from the past and traditional crafts are not simply “curios” to be collected by expeditions (recall the “Dakar-Djibouti” expedition), nor are they commercial items to be bought and sold while plundering the continent, but rather cultural goods of scientific and historical interest, a veritable patrimony which it is urgent to protect, valorise and make known.

89The long and all too often asymmetric history of the cultural acquisitions and movements of museum collections shared by the colonial West and Sub-Saharan Africa can teach us a lesson for the present and the future. How to ensure that the patrimony of contemporary artistic creation will not in its turn be diverted north ? Granted, when cultural creations are drained away today, this is done legitimately, within the framework of market laws, through acquisitions by collectors, art galleries and museum institutions. Whereas craftsmanship and production for the tourist trade were part of colonial exploitation, the contemporary recognition of genuine artists, individuals and schools, is a complex phenomenon. We must remain vigilant, to ensure that the – essentially Western – symbolic and financial capital attached to this recognition does not unwittingly lead to more plundering, depriving modern art museums in Africa of their very contents.

© Demopolis, 2014

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