On May 2-4, 2022, I participated in a workshop “Museums, sustainability, collections” at the Africa Museum / the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The workshop was organised within the European cooperation project “TAKING CARE – Ethnographic and World Cultures Museums as Spaces of Care” and included curators, conservators and other museum professionals from ethnographic museums from across Europe and Africa. A central focus of the TAKING CARE project is the climate crisis and the Anthropocene with a particular focus on entanglements with colonial histories and their reverberations in our contemporary world.
The workshop included three keynotes that in different ways addressed sustainable collection practices. Chris Ssebuyungo (Conservator at Uganda National Museum) discussed the relationships between the museums and their publics from his experiences in Uganda. André Ntagwabira (Researcher in Archaeology at the Rwanda Heritage Academy) and Siska Genbrugge (Objects Conservator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa) explored challenges relating to collections care of African collections weighing conflicting interests such as accessibility, cost, environmental impact, and health risks relating to, for example, exposure to pesticides used in conservation practices. My talk on the care for human remains discussed the ethical entanglements of different collections with a range of power structures, including those of colonial histories, and explored alternatives for ethical care practices for these sensitive collections. The talks were all followed by extensive collaborative workshop discussions where participants shared their experiences and perspectives with these issues. It was clear that we are in a moment when museums across Europe are all grappling with the challenges of how to best deal with their history, their role as contemporary inclusive and safe spaces, and their role as agents for sustainable futures.
In the segment of the program devoted to discussing sensitive collections we discussed different strategies used by museums to tread the difficult balance between accessibility and respect – for example the ways in which searchable databases can include specific protection for sensitive materials, or only be accessible from within the museum by researchers, descending communities, and curators. Participants also discussed what ethical engagement might look like in the work with human remains – and one participant shared how many bioarchaeologists and biological anthropologists systematically talk to the human remains as they study them to maintain the connection to and acknowledge their humanity. The discussions also raised new questions emerged in relation to new museology techniques. As auditory elements become increasingly incorporated in museum exhibitions, we could for example ask ourselves whether the documented sound of a voice should be included in the category.
The TAKING CARE project involves museums with ethnographic collections, and this means that the focus of any ethical exploration will be rooted in a critical analysis of colonial research and collection practices. In this discussion human remains is only one of many categories of sensitive collections. But there is nevertheless significant overlap in the challenges we all face, and many of the ethical considerations are very similar. In 2013 The Royal Museum for Central Africa closed to accomplish a complete overhaul of its exhibitions. The ongoing work on provenance and restitution is currently central to the mission of the museum.
While the theme of human reamins was not central for this workshop, it is relevant when thinking about decolonisation and collections. Currently a large scale project called HOME (Human Remains Origin(s) Multidisciplinary Evaluation), to inventory all human remains collected abroad and currently located in museums, research institutions and private collections in Belgium has been initiated. The interdisciplinary project will identify “the individual people, the conditions under which their remains were collected and in some cases, will try to better understand past lifestyles, both from a cultural and biological point of view.”
The project will also study Belgian and international legal frameworks for repatriation and restitution. Just like in, for example Sweden, “there are currently no guidelines for the conservation and management of human remains (in Belgium), nor a legal framework for the return of human remains to family members, institutions or countries of origin. A large inventory supplemented with archive material should help to identify more individual people and better understand the circumstances in which they were acquired.” This is in and of itself not unusual. What stands out in the case of Belgium however, is that up to today, Belgium has never repatriated any human remains to another state. This is perhaps especially striking given the well known colonial history of Belgium.