Disagreement about the course threatens Africa Museum

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The ground floor and the first floor of the Africa Museum could hardly be more different. The ground floor is bathed in light. White walls contrast with the bright colors of art objects and the moving image on various screens. “This is going to be a different atmosphere,” says director Wayne Modest as he climbs the stairs. There is carpet on the first floor. The space is dark, lit showcases show statues, masks and spears with spiritual meaning.
Modest, professor by special appointment at the Free University in Amsterdam and publicist in the field of postcolonial studies, is ‘substantive director’ of the National Museum of World Cultures (NMVW). The Afrika Museum has been there since the merger in 2014 with the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam) and Museum of Ethnology (Leiden) part of. Downstairs, Modest points to his favorite works: a wall by the painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, about Congolese history and decolonization. And further on: photographic studies in black and white of exuberant dancing people in Mali in the 1960s, by the photographer Malick Sidibé. “This is also a story that we as the Africa Museum have to tell. About new hope among the population after the independence movement.”
Mission and merger
The Africa Museum was founded in 1954 by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit – a missionary congregation. The fathers are still the owners of the buildings, the grounds and (part of) the collection. But they disagree with the course of the National Museum of World Cultures. The ground floor of the museum reflects the new course, the first floor the old one. The fathers have since canceled their collaboration with the Museum of World Cultures. The NMVW must leave the building on 1 January 2025. As it stands, that means the end for a museum that has been iconic in the region for decades.
The collection of the Africa Museum is rooted in the missionary missions of the fathers to African countries such as Nigeria, Congo, Togo, Benin, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, the Swahili region and Madagascar. There they experienced the local art and culture. The museum was intended to also introduce the Dutch public to this. The collection consists of 8000 pieces. “Everything was bought or received fairly,” says Carel Verdonschot, economic adviser to the fathers. But ‘bought and received’ is difficult to control in a colonial context; this requires in-depth research. In 2020, African activists took another statue from the museum as a protest against looted art.
At the merger in 2014 a condition for retaining the subsidy the NMVW became a tenant: the museum would be redecorated “with the collection on loan”, according to Verdonschot. The museum thus embarked on a modernization and decolonization of the contents. “Around that time, ethnological museums, also in the rest of Europe, had been thinking for some time about what and how they exhibited,” says director Wayne Modest.
“In fact, a discussion arose about whether these kinds of museums should exist at all, in line with the broader scientific and art-historical discussion about decolonization.” He points around the dark space of the first floor, quite literally a representation of ‘dark Africa’. “European museums devoted to African art need to think very critically about how they are exhibited.”
residential areas
The agreement was that the Africa Museum would retain its authenticity, says Carel Verdonschot. It is not the modernization initiated by the NMVW that is a problem for the fathers. “Our main concern is that the museum, as it is currently managed, is not concerned with exhibiting our collection in the best possible way. The NMVW has had eight years to renovate the top floor. That didn’t happen.”
According to him, the collection is handled carelessly, and more and more pieces are said to disappear in a depot.
When the NMVW indicated in 2020 that it wanted to change both the name ‘Africa Museum’ and the outdoor museum, “the switch turned,” says Verdonschot.
The outdoor museum around the museum building consists of typical residential areas, such as you find in the countryside of some African countries. “That is also Africa,” says Verdonschot. Those yards with cottages are now the first thing visitors see when they arrive. The NMVW wants to get rid of that. Director Modest: “We are not saying that Africa is only urban, but only that rural presentation is incomplete.”
Despite requests, Modest has only had one interview with the fathers so far. The fathers say that their requests for further consultation failed. “I think we essentially think the same about a lot,” Modest says. Both parties say they consider modernization necessary. But there are differences of opinion and misunderstandings about how to shape that process. Modest: “We certainly wanted to keep doing something with the collection, especially in our other museums, so that the pieces can also be viewed in Amsterdam or Leiden.”
Future
What will happen to the museum from 2025? That also depends on who owns the collection. According to the NMVW, half of the pieces, about four thousand, have been transferred by the fathers: they are now part of the National Art Collection. “That is incorrect,” said Verdonschot. “I’m trying to avoid a lawsuit, but the chances are high.”
A plan by the fathers for their version of a restart of the museum has been rejected by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The fathers cannot maintain the museum without a subsidy. They are now looking for other financiers, otherwise they will have to house the collection elsewhere. “There are already interested museums abroad,” says Verdonschot.
Wayne Modest hopes to use the remaining two and a half years “to find each other after all.” The NMVW wants to stay in the region and look for another location. “We hope that we can continue to work together with the fathers in the future. That’s better than a bad divorce.”