Conference: Restitution, Museums and Cultural Policies in West Africa
Organizers: Kodzo Gavua (University of Ghana) & Hans Peter Hahn (Goethe University Frankfurt)
While restitution has increasingly become a concretely experienced practice in many countries of West Africa, urgent questions about future cultural policies in this region emerge. The factor that makes its articulation and further development a prioritised task, is the arrival of restituted objects from various European museums in countries such as Nigeria, Benin and the Cote d'Ivoire.
National and other museums have a contentious position in the restitution process and there is a certain plausibility that these already existing institutions in the subregion are the first addresses for the objects. At the same time, however, the situation of these museums is not entirely simple: for many years they have been burdened with high political expectations and suffer from a massive lack of resources. Yet, these objects belong to certain cultural groups, which would want to exhibit these items in different regional contexts.
One of the important question to ask, therefore, is: if national cultural policies are intended to promote national identity, and if museums are seen as important instruments for this, how can the well-established idea of unity through diversity be implemented in relation to the returned cultural materials? Other questions are: (a) How can contesting meanings of the materials be reconciled, and (b) How will museums be managed to accommodate national, community and other interests? Addressing these questions may lead to a reconstitution of museums in West Africa, namely by developing diverse, polyphonic and also artistic forms of assessing, appreciating and exhibiting with the newly acquired cultural heritage.
While restitution as such is an obvious and concretely plannable act, the accompanying contexts call for a comprehensive concept that allows the expectation of cultural enrichment and connection to the past be experienced by as many groups of the national population as possible. The concept should open up access points to make the values of the things clear to variable groups of people. It must be a matter of making the spatial embedding comprehensible, and ultimately of making the historical dynamics inherent in the long history of each individual object understandable in the form of exhibitions.