Lotte Hughes, The Open University, UK
Who owns history and heritage, and who has the right to manage it? These are questions of vital concern to citizens, and nations, all over the world. In Africa they have particular urgency, since they connect to larger questions of livelihoods, democratization, truth telling, peace building, nationhood and identity, which the research we are undertaking aims to address. In this brief overview, I will sketch some of the issues and challenges facing the heritage sector and heritage actors in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, drawing on studies of other regions, particularly South and West Africa(1).
By ‘heritage actors’ I mean everyone who is a heritage stakeholder, who engages actively with heritage at any level – state or non-state, locally, nationally or globally. It embraces professionals and non-professionals, scholars and non-scholars; in fact, it includes us all.
Colonial museums and their legacies
First, let me outline some of the history. National museums across Africa are struggling to cast off colonial legacies. Established in the 1900s, often by imperial natural history societies or similar bodies, they traditionally focused on the preservation of material culture, and the collection and classification of fauna and flora. These ‘European transplants’ also tended (in settler colonies, like British East Africa) to reflect the interests of European settlers, such as big game hunting and ethnography, which dwelt on the classification of ‘tribal’ peoples in order to facilitate their administration and control. In Kenya’s case, there also developed over time an over-emphasis on archaeology and palaeontology which reflected the influence of the Leakey family. Clearly, in the postcolonial age transformations were required, in order to meet changed public expectations of what a museum should be in the twenty-first century, and to “shift museum emphasis to public programmes and its communities” (Lagat: forthcoming 2007). The problem, as Lagat notes, is that wananchi rarely visit state museums despite the low entry fees. “This may be attributed to the nature of exhibits currently in place that have been on display for about 30 years. In these displays, objects are displayed according to their functions, thus portraying culture as static and insulated from other cultural influences”(2). The Hazina exhibition that Lagat describes – a collaboration between National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the British Museum – was meant to depart from this type of display, “by interpreting objects in new ways that enables visitors to appreciate their total cultural and aesthetic values”.
In other parts of the world, indigenous peoples’ rights groups have recently forced the pace of museums change in postcolonial states where they have challenged the way in which museums represent indigenous peoples, museums’ use of indigenous knowledge, and the illegal acquisition and display of cultural artifacts and body parts collected in the age of imperial exploration. It follows that many studies of state museums change focus on countries with assertive indigenous populations, notably Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific, North America and Canada. The same kind of pressure has not been brought to bear on East African state museums, however, which is maybe why they have been slower to change.
In many ways postcolonial states are now at a crossroads in history and heritage as they strive to forge a national identity. This is most evident in makeovers of national museums, which hold up a mirror to national identity. But what if that identity is unclear, multi-faceted, and the ‘nation’ itself is yet to be born? What kind of ‘story of the nation’ can a state museum tell that is coherent and all-inclusive of a nation’s citizens? It requires enormous imagination, but if the nation is yet “to be imagined, let alone realized” (in Colin Bundy’s words), how can a national museum deliver such a story? (Bundy: 79) Bundy is describing the situation in South Africa after apartheid, where such questions are “heavily freighted with the burden of race”. Kenya is obviously a very different scenario, but such questions are equally weighted here, maybe with the burden of ethnicity, competing sub-national identities, and the unresolved legacy of the independence struggle. Kenyan writer Parselelo Kantai echoes Bundy when he writes: “Kenya is a country that has not imagined itself into being. Not yet” [2005: 33]. You may disagree with this assessment; we can return to these points in our discussion.
Other continuities from colonial days can include state concern with controlling and punishing citizens who are seen to pose a threat to heritage (which is and always was an ownership issue); an over-emphasis on preserving material heritage at the expense of intangible cultural heritage such as story-telling, dance and song; displays of power in ostentatious public ceremony at memorial sites; the way governments tend to cater for elites, and frame national heritage in commercial terms as an earner of foreign exchange from tourism. It may be said that Kenya follows a European tradition of using national heritage to “consolidate a sense of national identity and to assimilate or dispense with competing regional or minority challenges” (Kockel and Craith 2007). Much the same has been said of South Africa, where contestation has raged in particular around Robben Island, Cape Town – an iconic site of both nation and heritage, which critics have accused the ANC government of hijacking for its own ends. They say it ignores or does not give equal weight to the struggles of other political movements such as the Pan-African Congress (PAC), whose members also stake a claim to the public memory of the history of the liberation struggle (Coombes 2003). This has now been remedied to some extent, for example by including more information on PAC leader Robert Sobukwe’s imprisonment. Robben Island’s uneasy rebirth as a museum, from a former prison, place of exile and leper colony, illustrates how “telling the story of a nation’s past is a highly political act involving struggles over whose stories will be remembered and preserved and whose memories will be expressed and forgotten” (Natzmer: 161). Ex-prisoners, the PAC and the ANC did agree on one thing: that Robben Island “should not be a shrine to suffering and hardship but to the ‘triumph of the human spirit over suffering and hardship’” (Coombes 2003: 58).
Is there anything to be said in favour of imperial heritage legacies? Diop, writing about West Africa, finds something positive to say: “the museum [he writes] “is by far the most positive cultural phenomenon borrowed by contemporary Africa from the West as a result of European colonization; not that Africans wished to make of the museum an instrument reserved for a social elite … but rather because they saw in it far-reaching qualities and possibilities” (1973: 250). So, according to that view the museum is an idea to be developed and exploited. Calling for “museological decolonization”, Diop urges curators to move away from a model of the museum as “a sort of warehouse in which exhibits were deprived of their true essence in a totally inanimate setting” - in other words, dead, and removed from their cultural context. Nature reserves and ecomuseums are needed, he says, especially for schoolchildren to learn about the natural world. Museums should be open to all “as an instrument of culture and civilization”.
At community level across Africa, different types of museums and memorialisation activities are developing, in contrast to state-led models. District Six Museum, Cape Town, is a prime example of a community-led museum and site of memory. It commemorates a residential area destroyed by apartheid laws, from where 60,000 people were forcibly removed in the 1970s and early 1980s, after the area was declared ‘white’ in 1966. Over and above the built environment, however, this relocation attempted to destroy a community. The museum opened in 1994, at the end of the year in which South Africa overthrew apartheid and became a democracy. It is very much about the democratization of public space, which has parallels in Kenya. To quote scholar Ciraj Rassool, it “was created as a project that worked with the histories of District Six, the experiences of forced removal, and memory and cultural expression as resources for solidarity and restitution” (2007: 286). I have been there: it is a very moving place, with many photographs displayed of former residents and street scenes, walk-in exhibits such as a reconstructed living room full of everyday items from bygone years, floor to ceiling cloth banners like ‘memory boards’ on which people have written down their anecdotal memories of community life in District Six. On the floor there is a street map of how the district used to look, where former residents have written who lived where and when.
District Six Museum has inspired other South Africans to set up community-based memory projects and museums; some examples include Lwandle in Somerset West, and Crossroads and Protea village near Cape Town. To quote Rassool again, “these new museums have emerged largely on the margins, outside the structure of national museums and national heritage, and thus exist outside the official circuits of national funding for arts, culture, and heritage”. While this leaves them vulnerable in some ways, their marginality – and position outside national heritage systems – also has its upside: it has increased the “possibilities of constituting a vibrant, independent, contested public culture” (Rassool: 288). This has not been without its difficulties, however; as at Robben Island, different stakeholders have had conflicting ideas about what should be commemorated, and argued over the ownership of history and memory of District Six, and their uses. Many former residents have chosen not to get involved with the memorialisation of District Six, because they say they want to forget the past. Also, after a successful restitution claim, many former residents have accepted cash compensation rather than the option of returning to live in the city. The site of District Six itself has remained empty to this day; now there are plans to turn the space into a commemorative park.
West Africa has also seen a flowering of community-based museums, including ecomuseums. They tend to be called ‘independent’ or ‘local’ rather than community museums. Local people are using them to “promote solidarity”, preserve local cultural heritage, embrace living culture (as opposed to the ‘dead’ and functionless items in many state museums), come together to tackle climate change and its effects on the community (e.g., at an ecomuseum in Senegal), and to promote and revive traditional crafts and craft-making. These museums also have a strong educational and awareness-raising role. Local museums, writes Konare, “are not a place where objects are simply piled up and accumulated, but the place that holds most information about our cultures …. museums must be related to our own culture”. He does not see local museums as opposed in any way to national ones – “politically, there should be no dichotomy between the two … local and national museums can be integrated into the same network” (Konare 1995:6-7).
What parallels are there in Kenya? Ordinary citizens – many of whom have never visited NMK in their lives – are, as you know, setting up their own small museums and sites of memory to conserve cultural heritage, build peace between warring communities, and commemorate past events and the heroes they hold dear. Community-driven heritage initiatives are a relatively new phenomenon in this country. They appear to signify a renaissance of civil society activism around new forms of struggle, which have local and global dimensions. Citizens are also, as in West Africa, questioning what they regard as the ‘deadness’ and lack of cultural context of the objects held in national museums. They want to conserve intangible cultural heritage, such as song, dance, ritual and language. Some question the usefulness and relevance of built, bounded museum spaces and see heritage in the entirety of the natural world around them – in forests, sacred springs, wildlife and so on. At peace museums, local communities are making vital grassroots attempts to heal the wounds of social conflict. This may be partly because, unlike South Africa, there has been no concerted effort by government to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). South Africans do not pretend that the TRC process has ended conclusively, or that it was all positive. However, it did provide an important vehicle for social healing, and a way of dealing with individual and collective memories of trauma, conflict and struggle. Museums, heritage activities and social memory are all closely bound. The lesson seems to be: state heritage management that doesn’t recognize and allow for public participation, and spontaneous expressions of social memory at sites of memory, lacks an essential component.
In Kenya, are these parallel processes of heritage development at state and community level set to collide? This is not inevitable, as initiatives in West and South Africa make clear. State and non-state heritage actors can work in partnership. We have seen some good examples in the Meru area of how such partnerships can work. However, we will hear from a lawyer about the implications of the National Museums and Heritage Act 2006, whose impacts are yet to be felt, but which could further marginalise non-state heritage actors since it enshrines NMK as the only legitimate heritage manager in the country, and the only body officially allowed to call itself a museum. But the state need not regard non-state activities as a threat to its authority. Another way of looking at it would be for the state to value public interest partnerships, and independent museums, as “a contribution to the development process” (Ndiaye 1995), and most importantly, a contribution to the continuing decolonization of museums in East Africa.
Participation in heritage activities should be viewed as a basic human right. It is enshrined in rights to culture and education. Rights to culture are enshrined in many international human rights instruments, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and UNESCO protocols, including the 1966 Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Cooperation which asserts that “each culture has a dignity and value which must be respected and preserved” (Schmidt 1996: 18-19). Knowing your cultural past and engaging with it is surely a precondition for moving forward – as individuals, communities, societies and nations. This involves allowing many stories to be told from different perspectives – not insisting on one hegemonic storyline from which some people’s voices, memories and experiences have been excluded. Indeed, no single storyline is possible, for (to quote Reinhardt Kössler on the politics of memory and heritage in Namibia): “national history is … part and parcel of a process of nation-building that … is not to be misconstrued simply as one progressive advance towards cohesion and integration, but rather as a protracted and more or less intense struggle and debate” (Kössler 2007:367). The struggle is not over; in fact, it has barely begun.
(1) This broad overview makes no pretensions to scholarly authority or in-depth research. It was written in a deliberately informal and accessible style for a workshop attended by many non-scholars.
(2) From an earlier unpublished draft, p. 2. My thanks to the editors of this collection for supplying me with the draft text.
Bundy, Colin, ‘New nation, new history? Constructing the past in post-apartheid South Africa’, in Hans E. Stolten (ed.), History Making and Present Day Politics: The meaning of collective memory in South Africa (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2007).
Coombes, Annie E., History After Apartheid: Visual culture and public memory in a democratic South Africa (Johannesburg: Witswatersrand University Press, 2003).
Diop, A. S. G., in Claude D. Ardouin and Emmanuel Arinze (eds.),Museums and the Community in West Africa (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
Kantai, Parselelo. ‘In the Grip of the Vampire State: Maasai land struggles in Kenyan politics’, Reuters Foundation Paper No. 250, Green College, University of Oxford, 2005.
Kockel, Ullrich, and Craith, Mairead Nic (eds.), Cultural Heritages as Reflexive Traditions (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Konaté, A.O., ‘Ecomuseums for the Sahel: A programme’, Museum148, 37 (4), 230-236.
Kössler, Reinhart, ‘Facing a Fragmented Past: Memory, culture and politics in Namibia’, in Journal of Southern African Studies, 33 (2), June 2007, 361-382.
Lagat, Kiprop, ‘Traditions, Trade and Transitions in East Africa: A description of a collaborative exhibition project between the National Museums of Kenya and the British Museum’, in Yoshida and Mack (eds.), Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Africa (Oxford: James Currey, forthcoming 2007. Early draft seen by author).
Natzmer, Cheryl, ‘Remembering and Forgetting: Creative Expression and Reconciliation in Post-Pinochet Chile’, in J. Climo and M. G. Cattell (eds.) Social Memory and History: Anthropological perspectives (Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press, 2002).
Rassool, Ciraj, ‘Community Museums, Memory Politics and Social Transformation: Histories, Possibilities and Limits’, in Karp, Kratz, et al(eds.), Museum Frictions (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Schmidt, P. R., and R.J. McIntosh (eds.), Plundering Africa’s Past(Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press and James Currey, 1996).