01.03.2008 Feature Article

Why Do European Museums Have So Much Trouble With African Bones?

Why Do European Museums Have So Much Trouble With African Bones?
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“The contested human remains in Western museums were collected at a time of gross inequality of power. A power that we now recognise was terribly abused at the expense of the indigenous peoples. We now have the opportunity to redress that historic imbalance acknowledging that this may well entail a loss to science that will in its turn heal open festering wounds. And it won't all be a loss for the Western museum or the anthropologist; there is plenty of evidence that dialogue and transfer of authority back to where it rightfully belongs leads to a healthy relationship in which cultural exchange and understanding can flourish between the museum or the scientist and the indigenous community. That seems to me at least a pretty good dividend for addressing past injustice and working with the willing consent of indigenous peoples.”(1)

Tristram Besterman,
Former Director, Manchester Museum

It seems the colonial past of many European museums will keep haunting them for a considerable time and in the foreseeable future as they try to come to grips with the implications of the colonial enterprise for the activities of museums.

In response to the various demands for the repatriation of the human remains of many persons from Africa, Asia, Australia and America which have been lying in European museums for a long time, the Musée du Quai Branly held an international symposium in Paris on 22 and 23 February, 2008 on the subject:
“From anatomical collections to religious objects; conservation and exhibition of human remains in museums”. (“Des collections anatomiques aux objets de culte: conservation et exposition des restes humains dans les musées.”) The main question is whether the European museums have the right to keep the remains of Africans and other colonized peoples or do the relatives of those whose bones are lying in Europe or America to request the return of their remains.

It should be recalled that under colonialism, many African peoples, Hereros, Namas etc. were massacred in various invasions and their bones collected for museums in Europe and America. The relatives of these peoples are now seeking the return of the bones of their ancestors and relatives for proper burial in accordance with customary rites.

According to a report in Le Monde of 26 February, 2008, directors of various museums, jurists, anthropologists and representatives of several communities in Paris attended the symposium. As the paper pointed out, the issue revolves around the basic difference in attitude towards death. Whereas some Europeans consider death as the end of life, for many Africans and others in Australia and Asia, death is only another phase of life; they believe in life after death and hence seek to give their dead ones proper burials in accordance with customary rites. These people are not happy until their ancestors and relatives are given proper burials. The museum directors should read the books that have been written by their anthropologists to understand the role of death in these societies.

The museum directors argue that these bones and skulls are needed for scientific purposes and that the repatriation of the human remains will upset scientific research. But is this really true? These museums have had the human remains in their possession for hundreds of years now. How much longer do they need these bones and skulls? Why were hundred and more years not enough for their studies? And why do they not take bodies of their own people in Europe for such experiments but had to go to Africa and elsewhere to collect foreigners for experimentation and research? A false conflict is established between the West which stands for science and the rest who are not for science although they have the bones. Are European bodies and bones not good enough or is there something else behind their preferences? Do we not have science outside the West and its museums? The real conflict is between the right of individuals and their communities to determine what can or cannot be done with their bodies and those who believe they can justify the unlawful acquisition and possessions of the bodies of others in the name of science. We know where this defence of science can lead to. Besides, the museums do not seem to realize how offensive most of their displays of human hair, teeth, and other parts of the body are. Their depiction of Africans has always been considered racist by most Africans. How would the Europeans feel if, under the pretext of increasing human knowledge we started displaying in Accra, Lagos, Timbuktu and Dakar parts of the bodies of Europeans who died in Africa? We could show their unusual noses and other features which would surprise the average African. We could perhaps also organize human zoos and ethnic shows and if necessary ask the museums and the ethnologists to send us the necessary samples.

One professor, Alain Froment, in charge of the physical anthropology section of Musée de l'Homme which has some 30,000 pieces is quoted as saying that the study of these skeletons and mummies enabled us to know precisely the living conditions of peoples who are now extinct, the origin and diffusion of diseases. He agreed there could be some restitution provided family ties could be established between the demanders and the remains. I hope that the professor is aware that conceptions of family ties differ very widely between African cultures and European cultures. Whereas most Europeans recognise basically a narrow circle of relatives, in Africa we tend to have a wider view and most of us easily accept about hundred persons or even more as being part of our families. Whether this is based on blood relationship, marriage or simple custom, we claim many persons as relatives who will not be so recognized in Europe. So whose conception should prevail here and why? Especially, in questions of death and burial, our African conceptions tend to be wider than in actual day to day life. I would suggest that any requirement of family relationship will cause unnecessary distress and dispute. It should be enough for persons from the same community as the deceased to establish a legitimate ground for their request which need not necessarily involve the establishment of family ties. Very distant friends may even want to have a person back home for proper burials.

I can envisage situations in which an African may feel responsible for the proper repatriation of the body of a person without being in a position to establish any link by marriage or blood. There are social links which are equally strong and sometimes even stronger than blood relationship but can Europeans understand all this?

A French sociologist and member of the French Constitutional Council, Dominique Schnapper is quoted by Le Monde as saying: “The museum, successor to the European Enlightenment, aims at a form of transcendence, that of knowledge which is beyond the circumstances of time and tastes. Thus repatriation is contrary to the collection. It is therefore impossible to envisage a general repatriation.” Though the sociologist thought the museums could participate in some form of recognition of the wrongs done to non-Europeans (2) he did not think the French law of 2002 on the museums which prevent them from repatriating such objects as skulls without ministerial consent should be modified.

Abdoulaye Camara, director of Musée d'art africain of Dakar, tried to assure the European museum directors by declaring: “We do not want to empty your museums. We are only reclaiming the objects which we need in order to recover our cultural identity”. It is indeed remarkable how often many European museum directors seem to be frightened that they may wake up one morning to find that their museums are empty because Africans and others have been allowed to collect their cultural objects. This is an indirect admission that the European museums have too many stolen items from Africa.

The solution proposed by Jean-Pierre Mohen, Director of Patrimony and Collection at the Musée du Quai Branly, is very reminiscent of what we usually hear from European museum directors: “We need projects and the will to work together. We have thus cooperated with the Vietnamese to build an ethnology museum and a war museum, and with the people of Benin (Republic) to prepare an exhibition on the Kings of Dahomey without raising insurmountable problems.”
With all due respect to the Director from Musée du Quai Branly, neither the issue of human remains nor any of the outstanding issues between European museums and Africans/African countries will be solved through ad hoc and partial demonstrations of good will, smacking of opportunism. There has to be a genuine and honest admission of the evil acts committed under colonial rule which enabled the European museums to acquire vast amounts of African cultural objects. Many museums in Africa do not have any of these objects which were originally made by their ancestors in fulfilment of the exigencies of their culture and not for simple aesthetic appreciation. There has to be an admission of the need for massive repatriation of some of these objects, followed by actual repatriation. No amount of talk will be sufficient substitute. How many war museums can the Musée du Quai Branly build or assist in building in Asia or in West Africa? And what lasting effects will the exhibition on the kings of Dahomey have on Benin Republic when the regalia and other objects which the French stole from Behanzin go back to Paris after the exhibition?

Why is it so difficult for Europeans to recognize the evils of colonialism and slavery? These massacres and daily oppression of peoples in order to achieve material wealth should surely be recognizable by human beings in our century. If this is too difficult to recognize and admit, even today, the evils of the past then what is the use of all the talks about human rights to-day? Why do those who promise to help in rebuilding the economies they have distorted and ruined have such difficulties in returning to us the bones of our dead ancestors? What the French are trying to do here, like the Germans in the case of the Herero Genocide, is to try and jump over the necessary steps to reconciliation. They want to reach reconciliation without passing through restitution or reparation but this is bound to fail or be of limited effect. Any psychologist will tell them that the first initial stages are absolutely necessary for a long-lasting and genuine reconciliation.

What the French museum director described as “interminable discussions” are the whole story of colonization and its various aspects which come up anytime there is a discussion on an issue such as the repatriation of human remains. But there is, unfortunately, no other way one can fully grasp this issue and its implications without examining the colonial background which made possible the massive collection of bones and skulls. One can understand that many Europeans are uncomfortable with the accounts of colonial history. So too are many Africans. But this is our history, Europeans and Africans and we cannot run away from the historical reality.

There has up to now not been a single bold act by any European government or museum that would impress Africans as an indication of a genuine determination to repair some of the damage caused in the past and to lay grounds for a new relationship. Not even the question of human remains seems to help Europeans to finally come clean with the past and to assuage the deep wounds of Africans and to atone for some of the evils of colonialism. On the contrary, anytime such questions come up, the wounds are opened afresh and the pepper is rubbed in again and again by the museum directors. Many Europeans do not seem to be aware that we are involved in a healing process which may take centuries. It is no use to ask the victims of colonial and imperialist aggression to forget the past when the effects of the past accompany them everywhere in their daily lives.

Many Europeans, who should know better, appear to be genuinely surprised that even after 50 years of independence, the wounds and damages inflicted during the 500 years of slavery and colonialism are still there. They have no idea about the persistence of structures. They have no idea, for instance, about the hazards we have to go through in order to come to London or Paris for a conference. They are not aware that many artists have had to abandon projects in Europe because of the harassment and obstacles to be overcome before an African finally reaches London or Paris.

Kwame Opoku. 1 March, 2008

1.”Human Remains: Objects to Study or Ancestors to Bury?”

It is gratifying to note that there are museum directors who recognize the basic inequality in the colonial context in which most museum objects were acquired and therefore do not try to defend the indefensible; they should not allow their divisive and provocative colleagues in London, Paris and Chicago to dominate the media discussions on the role of the modern museum.

2.Le Monde uses the word “autochthones”, ”natives” without any specification or explanation as if there were a group of persons born “native” only in some parts of the world but not in Europe.

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