Can European Museums Decolonize Themselves? A Conversation with Boris Wastiau
Camilla Pagani 24 September 2020

Boris Wastiau is the Director of the Geneva Museum of Ethnography (MEG) since 2009. A Belgian-Swiss anthropologist, Wastiau has been advocating for a decolonization of ethnography museums since his very first position as curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium back in 1996. Founded in 1901, the MEG holds one of the most important ethnographic collections in Switzerland with 70,000 objects from around the world. Recipient of the European Museum of the Year Award in 2017, the MEG has just launched a new strategic plan detailing an ambitious decolonial approach. This innovative perspective focuses on future generations as well as sustainability, while dealing with a difficult past in a constructive and inclusive way.

Mr. Wastiau, over the last months the Black Lives Matter movement has staged many protests, in the US and elsewhere, against contentious public symbols. Because a significant part of ethnographic collections is often linked to colonialism, museums of ethnography are at the heart of this debate. The decolonization of cultural sites may be considered a “hot topic” today, but among museum professionals and curators it is not a new issue. How does the MEG position itself within this context?

Although the MEG has not been criticised nor has it received any claim or request for restitution, these topics matter to us daily: our museum’s strategic plan is foremost a decolonial project. Museum professionals have been working for a long time against racism, in defence of the rights of indigenous peoples, and for the recognition of cultural diversity. Yet, for museums like ours it is sometimes hard to make our commitment visible. Although we are one of the most visited museums in Switzerland with an average 185,000 visitors per year (close to Geneva’s number of inhabitants), our main problem is that many people are not aware of this commitment. Also, a significant number of people refuse to come to the museum, not because they are not interested in it, but because they think they will feel uncomfortable or outraged by the very existence of our collections. They consider ethnographic collections a symbol of colonialism. Therefore, one of the goals within our new strategic plan is to reach out to those people, try to understand why they may feel insulted by the displays, and deal with their doubts.

Concerning the current debate, I do not necessarily support the knocking down of statues. Obliterating symbols is not enough and may degrade relations and mutual understanding. Likewise, the issue of restitution of cultural heritage is a huge and complex debate that needs to be sustained on the long term and cannot be solved by simply returning some items. The restitution topic has been widely broadcast after the Sarr-Savoy report (2018), but since then the claims for restitution have not grown in our museum, nor have elsewhere. It is important to take into consideration the surprising variety of cases throughout history; the MEG has already returned some objects spontaneously and facilitated the return of human remains. How should we integrate this debate within our thinking? Decolonization is not only about doing a historical job and provenance research; it is about addressing the legacy of this very complex colonial history that still shapes mentalities and behaviours. We won’t get rid of this legacy in one fell swoop through statements or by toppling symbols.

What is the role of today’s ethnography museums? How can they recount the history of their collections as well as their own history to audiences with very different perspectives?

Firstly, they need to tackle the issue of the “non-public” that I was mentioning: people who do not come to the museum for a number of different reasons. According to a reputation survey we conducted in Geneva and its surroundings, 20 to 25% of the population neither knows about the museum, nor about “ethnography”. It is necessary to go towards these people and identify their apprehensions and needs. Secondly, there are those who feel misrepresented or alienated. As an alternative to our traditional displays, an important commitment within our decolonial program is to overcome the “ethnographic paradigm” and to become a “post-ethnographic” museum. We want to avoid monographic exhibitions on particular cultures such as “Japan’s Samurai” or “Cameroon’s Bamum”. Rather, we will focus on global topics, in a cross-disciplinary and trans-local perspective, so that anybody, from anywhere in the world, could potentially relate to them: climate change, decolonial ecology, labour, health, governance and territory, extractivism and world markets, global demography, or other issues currently being addressed in post-humanism for instance. We also want to take an experimental approach in the renewal of the exhibitions, and to invite visitors to think about their future. The first exhibition of the new cycle will be presented in 2021: “Environmental injustice: the autochthonous alternatives”. Besides, in order to stress this change of paradigm, it is necessary to “decolonize our ethnographic collections”, which are similar, mutatis mutandis, to those you find in other “ethnographic museums” in the world. The oldest artefacts came to Geneva in the 18th Century and most date from the first half of the 20th Century.

A full-scale cultural revolution seems under way.

It is timely to rethink the vision and purpose of our museums in a global context where the notion of museum itself has deeply changed, as the debate hosted by ICOM shows. If we keep and curate collections that bear witness to a colonial past for future generations, this should not prevent us from renewing and expanding our mission, to address contemporary issues and engage, for instance, in a reflexion on our global future. Our type of collections was created in an entirely different time, for ideological or for scientific purposes, by scientists as well as missionaries or collectors, within a colonial framework. Our role today is not so much to “value” those collections as to share new knowledge about them with our visitors. In order to renew ourselves as a place of exhibitions, encounters and exchanges, we need to deliver new messages to the public through those same objects.

How can this be done?

Today there is a broad variety of approaches vis-à-vis the contestation of collections and decolonisation. When collections are criticised, museums can take different positions. Some may blindly follow tradition and wait for the storm to end, while others may express their guilt and explain that “yes, it is horrible”, but they have a duty to preserve this heritage. Other museums may be so supportive of returning collections to source countries that, in some ways, they may appear to be clearing the whole problem without confronting their own responsibilities as public institutions.

Our decolonial project at MEG features a different option: by 2023 we will present our collections as “colonial collections” in the new permanent display, in order to clearly explain their history and that of our institution, as well as their relevance to some living cultures, interest groups or individuals today. Our permanent exhibition is already entirely dedicated to the history of the collection, the history of acquisitions and that of the institution. The provenance and the mode of acquisition of every single item in the museum are properly indicated on labels – but who reads them? Who can make sense of hundreds of provenance indications? People who only browse the galleries and those who do not enter the museum cannot notice the details of colonial provenance. We need a different and more explicit museography that will be relevant to the debates you mentioned. Today, the permanent exhibition is entitled “The archives of human diversity”. It will be changed and possibly renamed “The decolonial exhibition”. Its principles will be as follows: transparency, fairness, and equality. The origin of all sensitive collections, colonial or neo-colonial, will be more explicitly addressed: looted objects or objects taken under duress during colonial wars, originating from illicit archaeology, genocidal contexts, or otherwise unlawfully exported from the countries of origin. This will be done to the specific purpose of sharing our understanding of the dynamics of colonial (and post-colonial) museography and the persistence of colonial prejudices in the way collections have been presented and curated until recently.

In order to do so, we are committed to co-produce knowledge, to co-interpret objects and to be sensitive to the will of culture bearers in terms of displays of sacred and secret or otherwise sensitive artefacts. At least half of the collection on display should be interpreted by people from the source cultures. Thanks to communication technology, it has become much easier than ever to dialogue with these people, wherever they are in the world. To take one example, we know the story of an isolated item, a votive sword taken by French soldiers in 1881 from a mausoleum in Kairouan, Tunisia. It arrived in Switzerland in 1882. The mausoleum is still there, and Kairouan is so close. We would have no excuse now not to reach out to them to interpret this object together.

Does this desire to look at the future encourage you to work more with contemporary artists?

We have been doing this for a long time, but perhaps failing to give it pre-eminence. Today we do it in more diverse and more intensive ways. There is a longstanding interest in contemporary creations at MEG. For instance, in 1928 the MEG was the first museum to exhibit the Congolese painter Albert Lubaki. One of the oldest photographs of the museum’s displays (1925) shows an ensemble of Nigerian carvings titled “modern art”. Besides being a place of display of contemporary creation, the museum has also been a place of inspiration for artists. For example, Jean Dubuffet visited MEG in 1945 because he was interested in extra-European art, Swiss folk art and contemporary works. The temporary exhibition entitled “Jean Dubuffet, a barbarian in Europe”, which opened on the 8th September focuses precisely on his visit to MEG. Ethnography museums often aged with the habitus of their discipline and they rapidly turned, in a way or another, into conservation places for “heritage”. Their collections becoming ever more anachronistic, they abandoned their pretention to an “ethnographic present” and turned more and more historical. Museums ossify when they only look at the past. Contemporary creation is not new in our museum, but it will have a more explicit role and will actively take part in the interpretation of our decolonial collection. Knowledge co-construction and the search for origins should be done critically and not only for the sake of a clear conscience.

Do you believe that ethnography museums could play a role of mediation and inclusion, precisely because of their collections’ complex and sensitive history?

This is an important aspect of our exhibition program! But besides exhibitions, since its reopening in 2014, MEG has been a space for debate and exchange. Today it is just reformulated in a more ambitious way. Our strategic plan features a program of societal engagement, with an inclusive aspect. Before the pandemic, we used to organise 3.7 events per day with an average 40 partners per year, from educational, social and cultural associations to foundations, NGOs, etc.

Most ethnography museums in Europe have replaced the very term “ethnography” with “world cultures” or “cultures” because the term was considered to be too associated with colonial history. Do you also plan to change MEG’s name?

So we now find ourselves with a “decolonial program” in a museum with a colonial denomination: we have to tackle this problem! The city authorities have welcomed the strategic plan and are open to the idea of changing the name. We are working with them in order to rethink our name, role and image, and will discuss it with all stakeholders and strive for public approval. The name change should be the symbol of a change and not just the change of a symbol. In 1996, the Basel museum of ethnography was a forerunner by replacing the German name of “Museum für Völkerkunde” with “Museum of Cultures”, in a real epistemological shift. Here in Geneva, the context was not primed to discuss the issue until recently. The situation is different today, as our new strategic plan is explicitly focused on contents and on ethics, whereas the previous one, twelve years ago, was about the museum’s structural renovation.

To what extent is the Geneva Museum of Ethnography’s history related to colonialism?

The creation of the ethnographic museum in Geneva in 1901 took place within a global colonial framework. Through many citizens, companies and institutions, Switzerland was widely involved in many aspects of global colonization, starting with its involvement in the slave trade and plantations. Its economy largely relied on colonial goods. As a state, Switzerland never owned colonies, but some Swiss companies and individuals did, in Africa or in the Americas. We should recount this encroachment into world colonial history. So why was this museum created? Not just because the good citizens of Geneva needed an outlet to the world and its marvels, but also because such a museum was an important feature in any country and city whose citizens contributed to colonial enterprises. By 1901, there were already thousands of objects that had been brought to Europe by diverse agents of colonialism: missionaries, travellers, merchants and diplomats. Some of the oldest artefacts in the collection were brought from Surinam in the 17th Century by Ami Butini, a Geneva-born slaver and planter.

During your career, what has driven you most to take such endeavours into account?

When I started my career as anthropologist and curator, I was shocked to find that nobody at the museum (back in Tervuren) answered the sensitive questions asked by the visitors, which were mostly about simple facts concerning the colonial past: “Where do the collections come from?” or “Why and how were they brought to Europe?”. So, what made visitors offended? It is fundamental to answer all of them in earnest, even the most difficult ones. People are always grateful if you bother to listen to them respectfully and answer them duly. If you turn their questions and your answers into exhibitions, you can be sure that are doing a very exciting job.


Cover Photo: © MEG, Blaise Glauser

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