Georges Abungu, Vice President of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was among delegates participating at Forum d'Avignon this week, the international think-tank that convenes in the southern French city every year to discuss urgent issues in the realms of culture, media, digital innovation, and economics. London arts journalist Tom Flynn spoke to Dr Abungu about museums, cultural heritage disputes, underwater archaeology, and the role culture should play in the future development of Africa.
TF — Dr Abungu, you were one of the few museum specialists who dared to speak out against the 'Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums' issued by the directors of European and North American Encyclopedic Museums and which continues to be a source of controversy as repatriation requests mount. How do you see the future of the Encyclopedic Museum as it is currently being articulated by leading museum directors?
GA — I'm very much a believer in museums that are relevant to communities, museums that stimulate curiosity but which also address human needs, that involve communities in the interpretation of their collections. The model I am describing is divorced from the old notion of the temple, it is a museum that is much more open to the public and to questioning; it is a place the curator is not the holder of all the answers. Now when you talk about Universal Museums, I have no problem with museum directors branding their museums in whatever way they wish, but I felt that the whole concept of the Universal Museum as it was being revived was not in good faith. One of the intentions of the Declaration seemed to be to try and do away with the discussions on the role of these collections, the positions of these collections, on the ownership of these collections. So the driving force behind that [Declaration] was to do away with questions that were emerging by branding themselves as universal and above questioning. I think the intention was not good, and that's why I questioned it. And what about the other museums? What are they? I can give some examples of equally big museums that had big collections that were probably matching these Universal ones. Why weren't they not also universal? Why were we trying to grade ourselves into different pedigrees? I thought it was going to bring divisions between museums where some are going to be more important than others. The word universal in this context struck a very bad kind of intention when I heard it and that was why I was against it. I think the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre, and all these big museums, they have a real role to play. They are wonders of the world and they have collections that apply to humanity but I think there is no need to try to grade themselves as much more superior than others and to degrade the others as not so important or as universal as them. So that was an important principle — it was questioning the intention and to me it was this hidden agenda that struck me very strongly.
Museums are places of dialogue, places of questions, and some of this dialogue can involve furious discussion, even on origins and acquisition policies and even on thefts, and collections that might have suspect origins and I think this is part of the richness of museums. I've seen this taking place. There have been returns, there have been museums that originally had collections that were questioned but some of these collections had been given by the source communities to these museums on the condition that originally they belonged to these communities and that they are now given on permanent loans or that they are given as gifts. To me that is the way forward rather than re-branding and segregating.
TF — Today, the requests by smaller nations and source communities for repatriation of objects are often criticised by some leading museum directors as a form of nationalism, on the grounds that all cultures are essentially hybrid and “mongrel” and that those calling for return are failing to understand the cosmopolitan nature of culture. What is your response to that?
GA — Well, I've heard that argument and I've written about returns and I'm one person who doesn't believe in mass returns. I don't think it makes sense, especially for collections that have been in these museums for hundreds of years. Unless they are human remains. In those cases I really have no short cut. I think if the source communities want them back, they should go back. But I believe that we should not shut doors and claim that these cultural objects are cosmopolitan. They must have origins and if those origins can be traced they must be returned to those places. There are materials, of course, that have origins in Britain, others that have origins in the USA, or in Germany, or in France, and if they can prove that, why not ask for them? I think the same applies to other parts of the world, to Asia, to the Pacific, to Australia, Africa, South America. The most important thing is not to hide behind terminologies...the whole concept of urbanism, metropolitanism, and all these things. The important thing is to sit down and create dialogue with those who are claiming, and not to take cover under the big name of Universality and then say 'There are no more questions, we cannot discuss'. However, I also believe this issue of calling for mass repatriation of materials from museums taken from one place or another many years ago is also irresponsible. I've always been very categorical when it comes to the solutions. I think we need negotiation and ICOM has set up a structure where people can negotiate and agree. I personally believe very much in permanent loaning but I also believe that museums that have these collections, where there are have arguments about them, or claims behind them, they need to sit down and negotiate without dismissing these claims as cosmopolitan, as cross-cultural, and that they cannot be discussed. They need to engage in dialogue so that discussion can prevail at the end of the day. But as I've also said, I don't believe in mass transfer of material from museums back to source communities just because they can show it was theirs... unless it is human remains. With that one it becomes very tricky. And also certain religious paraphernalia that can be proved to be still relevant to those particular communities.
TF — If the original acquisition involved intense violence or things were taken as a part of the subjugation of another culture — as was the case with Benin in 1897 — is that not a justification for thinking again about those objects?
GA — The Benin question is very complex. The first thing we need to accept about the museums that own those Benin collections is to come out and say: 'Yes, we know these things were taken under those circumstances; we know the Benin kingdom, the Benin royal family, they still exist even if they are not as powerful as they were; we know there are contestations, we know there are claims'. How are we going to satisfy this after all the changes that have taken place? Even if you took it back, who are you going to give it to? Are you going to give it back to the kings? Are you going to give it back to the Nigerian government? Who are you going to return it to? These are issues that need to be discussed. They have been through so many hands, how are we going to trace them back? But these questions do not give you immunity against discussion. You cannot even talk about compensation because these things were done in the late nineteenth century. It was an attack, it was looting, it has ended up in some of these museums. If you measure them even in terms of financial economic benefits to the Benin people, how much is it? In some instances it may not apply because, as others argue, even if it were compensation, who would it go back to? Will it go back to the community, for who are the community? Will it go back to the royalty, for who are the royalty? Will it go back to the government and how will it trickle down there? So the issue is that we must engage in this. We cannot run away by claiming that we are a superior status or that we don't want to talk. If we can start to engage in a discussion we will probably come to an understanding whereby source communities will be saying, 'Now we understand. This case is so complex, that this heritage is better preserved where it is'. But if we do not engage and discuss with the [source communities], this problem will continue to be there, because there are people also who are making money out of this. There are NGOs who are paying so that they are in business, there are community members for whom it is a business to continue to agitate for return. There are also people who are genuine, who feel they have a genuine case that they need to be able to discuss and agree on. So at the end of the day I think sitting down, talking, negotiating, compromising and agreeing — 'Ok, time has passed, you have had this. We are transferring it in good will, on a permanent loan. Have them because you have recognised that ideally these should have belonged to us.' That is very simple because mentally and psychologically it also helps the community. They know you have reached a compromise, that their ownership has been accepted, symbolically, but physically things remain in the custody of the institution that now owns it on behalf of the world. But you see this is what we have never reached because most of the big institutions think that once they accept that, there will be another big legal challenge, you know, 'OK, now you have accepted it, now we want it back.' But if it is in good faith and negotiated properly, this issue of the flood of returns will disappear. I don't think this is something that will last forever, but it is energized by the fact that big institutions refuse to negotiate and refuse to accept responsibility even where they have been wrong. You cannot win without dialogue, especially in terms of heritage because people feel very attached to it at times and emotional about it.
TF — Where do you stand on partage? As an archaeologist, is it not a way of enabling archaeology to continue to take place, for countries to collaborate on unearthing things and sharing them when they've found them? Or do you think anything that is dug up in a country should stay in that country?
GA — That is a very difficult question because we have had some very bad experiences. For years I personally have resisted the issue of sharing when it comes to commercial activities and this applies much more to underwater archaeology which has been misused because you have private companies with suspect archaeologists, you know, so-called archaeologists, who go and negotiate with governments who don't understand the Convention and then you have officials who are corrupted for a few hundred dollars and they give permits and people go into the sea within the territories and get this material. In Africa there is a lot of problems with that. And they say 'Fifty percent'. But the fifty percent in the first place on what basis? These are cultural materials. Their fifty percent is going to be sold somewhere. And so you are turning archaeological material into a sellable material. The second things is that the people who are digging here are people from outside so when they say fifty percent, how do you know that is really fifty percent? In most cases when you are told fifty percent, it is actually one hundredth of what is found. I was educated at Cambridge and so I grew up in a culture of cooperation; to me cooperation in the archaeological field is very important. But that sharing was always in the sharing of the knowledge, not in the sharing of the material, unless there was a request from an institution for a particular object or set of objects where there were more and you did not need all of them. In that case it should not be a problem. But I think the idea of people ganging together to go the field to exploit it and then share it; to me that has a risk, the risk that it becomes more of an occupation than the pursuit of knowledge and the representation of humanity's heritage. It becomes like treasure hunting and if we can do away with the treasure hunting out of it then I have no problem with governments or institutions sharing knowledge and information and sharing material as long as it is clear and documented and everything is clean. But I'm saying there must be clear policies and regulations and arguments as to how this can be done. It must not be based on bureaucratic decisions taken at government levels with people who could be compromised by giving them a hundred dollars and then the fifty percent comes in.
TF — We're here at Forum d'Avignon where we've all been discussing culture as a source of hope. What excites you most about ICOM's activities at present and what gives you most hope and optimism for the future?
GA — What gives me a lot of hope is that ICOM has tried to lead from the front, and from the bottom up, engaging museum professionals, and particularly in those areas involving the youth because they are the future of museums and heritage, and culture in general. ICOM has systematically made sure that where it has initiatives and programmes, where it has meetings, young people can begin to get involved. That is the first thing. The second is the ICOM Code of Ethics, which stipulates how we need to act together and negotiate and move forward on what we can do. The third is setting up these mediation teams where institutions don't have to quarrel over things but can go through the mediation process with professional mediators, allowing them to discuss amongst themselves and agree on issues. And the same things I've been discussing with you can be taken through this mediation process. So to me that is very important. Speaking on an intellectual level as an academic, and referring to the production of intellectual material, ICOM has done that too. The only problem is that it lacks in peer review and that is something some of us have been arguing for because ICOM has a great body of intellectual potential and we could use that. We need to intellectualize our products, to generate more peer-reviewed material using our human resources as a network. It is taking place but we can do better. Lastly ICOM has been flexible enough to guide the development of museums from temples of heritage to community spaces, so it is not rigid. If you look at ICOM as an institution, compared with other bodies it really has embraced this idea of community as a bottom-up approach. I think that is very powerful. It has given museums a direction to enable them to engage with their communities, to open up museums as places of dialogue and as places where communities feel at home. And also to allow museums, indeed to encourage museums in different parts of the world to develop alongside the community's way of living, of believing, the way the society looks at itself. When you go to Africa, the museum since the 1990s has developed in a very different way, so it is a place of meeting, it is a community centre, a place of dialogue, where you can talk politics. It is the only place that is open to the public in a very fresh way. To me that issue of diversity that is embraced within ICOM is very important.
TF — Is this your first Forum d'Avignon?
GA — Yes, it's my first forum and I've been enjoying it. I think it's a fantastic event and I look forward to many more. Over the last two days I have seen how it's moving on. I think because it's in Avignon it is very French...
TF — Quintessentially French.
GA — Yes, it's very French! But I hope that in future they will bring in even more people. They are talking about 42 different nations. It will have to be able to move to embrace those voices. I would have liked to hear what is happening in South America, what is happening in Africa. Africa is the emerging economy, the future of the world, the continent of the future. It is where things are taking place. People are talking about mobile phones here, Africa is where the majority of mobile phones are sold, where communication is moving so fast and I would have liked, when we are talking about culture, not to box it so that European culture is the main thing that needs to exported out, but that we look at other areas, particularly on the issue of diversity. There is no better place to talk about this than here because the whole of West Africa is more or less French. And Asia too. So it will take time, but I'd like to see us move away from the Eurocentric way of looking at culture to a much more globalized way of approaching it. But I'm very happy that we have been looking at culture in terms of innovation, in terms of digital technology, in terms of diversity, and in terms of hope. I'm very happy about that but I'd like to see it opened up to embrace other perspectives because we can learn a lot from the diversity of other cultures.
TF — Why do you think the African art market has not emerged in the same way that, for example, the Chinese art market has, or the Indian art market, or the Russian and Middle East art markets have? After all, Africa has produced great art.
GA — Africa does make fantastic art, but Africa is very busy with other things! We are still trying to find out what resources we have. We have oil, we have uranium...Kenya has oil, Uganda is now producing oil. Every part of Africa has mineral resources coming out if its ears, so there is a second scramble for Africa taking place. And of course the Chinese are there and the Indians are doing things, but Western Europe is finding itself late in this second scramble for the continent. So I think Africa is trying to manage that before it goes into other things. Everybody is positioning themselves, but everyone talks about Africa as the future continent or the future in terms of the economic scramble. But I think culture is still being left on the side, which I think is a mistake because it should go hand-in-hand. We should use culture to manage those resources that are coming out. It is not that I am approving of what is happening now. I'm actually disapproving because this is the time to use our culture to manage the developments that are being driven by the new resources that are emerging out of the continent. Africa now is able to choose. As a continent, and its various countries, they don't have to go to Washington to kneel to the IMF or the World Bank. The Chinese will give them money if those guys refuse, so there are choices now. There are resources, but if we don't manage them now, using our heritage and our culture, we will regret it.
TF — So you're reinforcing what has been said here at Forum d'Avignon this week, that culture should not be marginalized but should be placed right at the centre of economic activity?
GA — It should be central, but it should also to some extent dictate development because if you don't do it your way someone else will do it their way and then, by the time you realise it, suddenly it will be too late and that could be a problem for Africa. That is why I'd like to hear more critical analysis at forums like this of how things are happening in Africa and how they could happen better, especially now that these new resources are coming in.
TF — So we should be pushing for greater African representation at Forum d'Avignon next year and in future years?
GA — Yes, that would be fantastic but not only Africa; there is also South America, and Asia, which is developing very fast, as well as the Pacific and other places. But Africa does deserve more critical analysis because we are the continent that still has the raw resources. We have to develop them in the right way, using our various cultures as central to that process. And of course the museum is part of that process too.