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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.)