Last week I helped host a speaker from West Africa at the IMA. Dr. Boureima Diamitani is the Executive Director of the West African Museums Programme. It’s currently based in Dakar Senegal, but will move during the next few months to Niger. During his short visit Boureima participated in meetings with IMA staff and local community leaders, and held a public conversation with IMA Director Maxwell Anderson on a range of issues.
Talking with Boureima during his short stay, I became conscious of the inherent contradictions that African museums represent. Contemporary African museums inherited their collections from the European colonial governments that established them. Colonial museums in Africa were originally created for the enjoyment of white visitors; black Africans were not admitted.
Their collections consisted primarily of traditional objects – masks, sculptures, and other artifacts – that were often displayed to demonstrate the inferiority of the African cultures represented. In many cases objects were acquired by reprehensible means – deceit, theft and violence. So now we come to the place where the contradiction gets really complicated: The collecting practices were shameful, but some of those objects represent traditions that have almost disappeared. If they had not been “collected” they might have disappeared, along with memories of the understandings they represent. Another complication: according to Boureima, few ordinary Africans today are interested in visiting a museum to view such objects. Whether because they feel disgust at the colonial repression such collections represent, or because they would rather experience traditional material culture within the context of events and practices that have survived in the villages, many Africans consider the museums in their countries to be irrelevant to the lives they live today.
What a conundrum! Collections that represent traditional knowledge and worldviews in danger of being lost, held by museums that have bad karma, are under-funded and run by staffs with little opportunity to develop their professional skills, and are unsupported by the public. Why should Africans or Americans care about the potential loss of these objects and traditions as African museums crumble or are destroyed in the violence of civil war? Aren’t phones and the Internet, banks and commercial development, and, most of all, effective education and health care the most urgent concerns for all of us? Of course all of these are vitally important.
Here’s where I started to think about an analogy that might be found in environmental studies: biodiversity. We know that when species are lost, the healthy diversity of the gene pool and of life forms in the ecosystem is weakened. More homogeneity equals heightened vulnerability to disease, climate change and other threats Diversity is nature’s insurance policy. It allows life forms to adapt and respond to challenges. The earth is itself a complex, healthy system when diversity is maintained. Is it reasonable to think in a similar way about culture? As we lose languages and ways of understanding the world, is human potential somehow diminished? As mass communication and a global economy prevail, is it possible we lose ways of thinking, distinguishing and valuing that could make human life more creative, compassionate and resilient?
I don’t know the answers, but I’m asking – thanks in great part to two days spent with Boureima Diamitani – a man who has dedicated his life to these questions. I hope this is the start of an on-going conversation between the IMA and WAMP.