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The Elephant in the (Museum) Room: Issues of African Representations

Apart from their leading role in conserving and protecting the objects they display, ethnographic museums can fundamentally serve as actors that generate cultural and social impact among their audiences. The thematic concept that distinguishes these museums can be seen as both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, they have the privilege of holding collections of cultural heritage from all over the world; on the other hand, more than any different kind of museum, they have been accused of promoting inaccurate representations of the ethnic groups displayed. Under this scope, it becomes hard to deny that the ethnographic museum environment can become a breeding ground for complex perceptions about issues of diversity and identity. Depending on the museum’s goals and the practices employed, these can either reinforce or deconstruct cultural stereotypes. This article aspires to explore the most timeless and challenging topics of African representation in the museology framework. It will also unveil strategies to dismantle stereotypes of cultural heritage.

Figure 1: Museum visitors observe artifacts of African heritage (Senegal's Museum of Black Civilisations, n.d.)

Role of Ethnographic Museums in the Representation of African Cultural Identity

Ethnographic museums can offer a vantage point regarding the interaction within their ethnically diverse audiences. The museums’ respectful stance towards their non-native cultural heritage is recognised as one of the essential instruments for their qualitative function and preservation of their reputability. The authentic African cultural narrative is solidified through the organisation of exhibitions and projects that aim to collect, show, and interpret the African community's history, art, and culture. By employing a holistic approach in their projects, contemporary ethnographic museums manage to capture the complexity and diversity of different audiences' needs. Consequently, they appear to consider that “one person may come into a museum a descendant of slaves, another the descendant of slave owners" (Rosenberg, 2011, p. 118). The museum is in a delicate position here, needing to address as many visitors as possible without possibly excluding others.

At the same time, they are deeply involved in interpreting African identity and history and forming the visitors’ perceived impression of African cultural heritage. This is a crucial task since a significant part of the visitor audience has not, and probably will not, have acquired its essence from first-hand experience. By unveiling problematic contemporary issues of child labour, poverty, gender inequality and class division, one can claim that ethnological museums efficiently deconstruct the perpetuated reassuring perception of Africa as the continent of exoticism and wilderness. In this way, the demythologisation of ideas of stereotypical orientalism is achieved (Sideris, 2004). For instance, it is widely known that “negative and distorted images of black women” have been prevalent over the last centuries, with “exoticism being frequently used to depict Africans and other women of colour” (Cain, 2011, p. 112).

Figure 2: African fashion (National Museum of African Art, n.d.)

With the overturning of cultural prejudices, ethnological museums set forth the foundations for Africa not to be perceived as a monolithic or homogeneous entity but as dynamic and diverse. As Sideris (2004) aptly argues, “At times, ethnic museums are even described as advocates for ethnic communities, often becoming directly involved in community development, political action, and protest” (p. 54).

Challenges in Authentic Representation

Ethnographic museums increasingly strive to provide exhibition content that is relevant and inclusive, presenting visitors with a range of perspectives and stimulants for thoughtful interpretation. On the reverse of the coin, however, they might fall into self-contradictory practices by implicitly promoting subconscious cultural bias. As Sideris (2004) rightly points out, “questions of the appropriate representation of the past or what constitutes art have incited controversy and have generated debate over larger issues of national self-definition and group values” (p. 50).

Museum sector discussions of multicultural inclusion often resolve into practices aimed at one or another broad social segment, such as "African-Americans" or "Asians", which are assumed to describe common interests or outlooks. Such broad generalisations are problematic when establishing an accurate understanding of cultural specificity (Coffee, 2008). For example, museums' "Afrika exhibitions" have been claimed to manifest oversimplified generalisations that can enhance an unfathomable number of stereotypical ideas of the African continent. It is generally accepted that misconceptions of Africa often include the belief that it is one country in itself or made up of only a few countries. This stereotype significantly undermines the vastness of the African continent (Aperin Global). It can consequently be argued that museums, in their efforts to establish an inclusive ambience, foster the idea that Africa is to be thought of as a whole. Hence, they demonstrate a difficulty in portraying that every African country is different, and each has its own cultures and subcultures.

Figure 3: I Didn't Know There Were Cities in Africa!: Challenging children's — and adults' — misperceptions about the African continent (Offermann, 2008).

Such mishaps confirm and comply with the claim that “ethnic museums reveal the difficulty of escaping the historical function of the museum as 'temple' that authenticates specific representations and operates as a tool to legitimise group identity and obtain recognition, status, or power” (Sideris, 2004, p. 71). This “difficulty” may be driven by the knowledge that many non-native visitors come with an expectation that is quite different from the reality of who indigenous people are today. As a result, if those expectations are not met, they tend to get disappointed, which may affect the possibility of future visitation.

This might suggest that ethnographic museums have to strive to overturn visitors’ socially dominant and fixed ideas on the African race because, as Scott (2007) rightly argues, “museum visitors are situated within culture, the meanings museum audiences make are socially constructed and profoundly shaped by visitors’ previous insights and experiences” (p. 2). However, a more optimistic outlook could be based on the idea that if ethnographic museums display their boldness in touching upon taboo issues, they could effectively dismantle preconceived notions of internalised racism (O'Mara, 2019).

Figure 4: African cosmologies: Photography, time, and the other: Challenging traditional notions of blackness (FotoFest Biennial exhibition, 2020)

Museum Oasis in a Desert of Stereotypes?

According to Carol Duncan (1995), “to control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths” (p. 475). To achieve this, the need for community outreach becomes urgent, and this is stated in the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums (2006). The ICOM demonstrates a growing international awareness of the role of museums as social mediators and that failing to respect the traditions of the ethnic groups displayed is condemned as unethical in the museum world. Based on these principles, ethnological museums still have a long way to go to ensure that reciprocal exchange with the communities of origin really is their operating principle.

A museum aspect in which there is significant room for improvement is the need for the adoption of more democratic policies which would transform entire collections. Over the last decades, there has been a reignited controversy based on the idea that many of the museum’s sections are a mere continuation of the western colonial culture. As a result, the exhibition of relics of the colonial past overshadows the democratic character of contemporary exhibitions (Jong and Rowlands, 2010). Moreover, it renders the programs that aim to include source communities highly debatable. Amidst these debates, France has become actively involved in discourses of restitution/repatriation, "as testified by the international public debate initiated in 2018 with the publication of the report on the restitution of African heritage by the French government" (Sarr and Savoy, 2018). Along similar lines, the German Museums Association (2021) believes "that the colonial past of museums and their collections [should] be reappraised" based on the principles of provenance research, transparency through digitalisation and public access, and collaboration with communities of origin (p. 10).

To further raise cultural awareness, it has become vital for museums to be language-sensitive and self-critical in their choice of words to include in their inscriptions and overall description of their exhibitions. Museum curators and educational officers are well aware that linguistic expressions on museums' websites and social media can shape cultural perceptions. To ensure that the museums' intentions are not misinterpreted, there is an ongoing debate to ensure that what is considered politically incorrect should be updated (Caramel, 2019). For example, the description of African houses as “huts” has been claimed to be a term that could shape inaccurate perceptions regarding the modern African living environment. "In fact, that specific part is seen as a problem by some African organisations that find it offensive and think that it is missing context" (Caramel, 2019) since it does not correspond to current living conditions in Africa and promotes an outdated perspective.

Figure 5: Children playing in the Afrika Museum's outdoor exhibition (Afrika Museum, n.d.)

Lately, an effective strategy that exhibition departments employ for accurately representing racial identities is based on a counter-representation of what was once considered appropriate but today raises red flags. Essentially, racist historical objects are used to deconstruct racism and narrate personal racial stories with universal themes. Notably, Museum London in Ontario, Canada, has been known for its alternative use of racist artifacts to stand against prejudice in its "Difficult Terrain" exhibition. In particular, objects which are embodiments of racist depictions of indigenous people are used as collections of the museum’s exhibitions to expose racism and mock its socially constructed character (O'Mara, 2019). A remarkable example is a rhyme from a little girl's diary:

"God made the N-word. He made him in the night. He made him in a hurry. He forgot to paint him white" (O'Mara, 2019).

In this way, museums can make a resonant and long-lasting statement regarding once normalised but highly inaccurate representations of African identity, showcasing their flexibility in extracting every object’s personal story and raising it in a universalised idea.


It is often stated that museums "despite their 'Africanization' have continued to promote the production of an official past through heritage technologies that privilege certain memories and repress others" (Jong and Rowlands, 2010, p. 34). Considering these claims, it becomes hard to deny that ethnographic museums have an ethical duty to adopt accurate display methods and incorporate inclusive strategies in temporary exhibitions. In this way, they can ensure that the impact on the visitors’ interpretation and generation of personal meaning abides with authentic representations approved by the source community. An accurate cultural depiction within the ethnographic framework is of essential importance for African representations as “cultural images represented in museums suggest tacit messages about power, history, knowledge and identity” (Wexler, 2007, p. 25). With the parameters mentioned above in mind, the non-rightful representation of African cultural identity can more readily be tackled, and an accurate formation of the visitors’ perceived impression of African cultural heritage can be achieved.

Bibliographical References

Aperin Global. (n.d.) Debunking common myths and stereotypes about Africa.

Cain, A. (2011). Representation of Africa and the African diaspora in European museums. Human architecture: Journal of the sociology of self-knowledge, 9(4), 105-114.

Caramel, S. (2019, July 2)."Why should we call them huts?" Afrika museum in changing perspective. 31Mag.

Coffee, K. (2008). Cultural inclusion, exclusion and the formative roles of museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 23(3), 261-279.

Duncan, C. (1995). Civilizing rituals: Inside public art museums. Oxford University Press.

German Museums Association. (2021). Guidelines for German museums care of collections from colonial contexts. German Museums Association.

Jong, F., & Rowlands M. (2010). Reclaiming heritage: Alternative imaginaries of memory in West Africa. Left Coast Press.

DOI : 10.4324/9781315421131

International Council of Museums. (2006). ICOM code of ethics for museums. ICOM Paris.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (2004). Displaying and celebrating the "other": A study of the mission, scope, and roles of ethnic museums in Los Angeles. The Public Historian, 26(4), 49-71.

O’Mara, M. (2019, August 27). Why Museum London is using racist artifacts to fight prejudice. TVO.

Rosenberg, T. J. (2011). History museums and social cohesion: Building identity, bridging communities, and addressing difficult issues. Peabody Journal of Education, 86(2), 115-128.

Sarr, F., & Savoy, B. (2018). The restitution of African cultural heritage.

Scott, M. (2007). Rethinking evolution in the museum: Envisioning African origins. Routledge Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Wexler, A. (2007). Museum culture and the inequities of display and representation. Visual Arts Research, 33(1), 25-33.

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Jan 21, 2023



Jan 08, 2023

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