‘Exhibiting Africa’: Whose voices?

Call boxes from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Call box from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Africa’s image
Ebola and civil unrest turn Africa’s image back into a negative spiral. (Dutch) media publish terrifying pictures. Universities forbid their students to go to Africa for training and research. Africa is back in the media with horrifying stories. To counter this trend we should portray Africa as just another part of the world. That this is not easy is shown in our recent experience with the London Science Museum (LSM). How do we portray Africa in a museum as part of world history, and whose voices do we allow to tell the stories?

The Science Museum opened the exhibition ‘The Information Age’ on 27 October 2014. We started to collaborate with the museum in 2011, when one of the  exhibition organizers contacted me about our research on mobile telephony in Africa. He came over to Leiden, which was the beginning of a discussion about ‘Africa at display’, resulting in the presentation of a Cameroonian call box and phone repair shop at the current exhibit.

Banner of the exhibition "Information Age" at the London Science Museum.

Banner of the exhibition “Information Age” at the London Science Museum.

Caged objects
The Queen of the UK, who opened the exhibition, seemed surprised to see so many nice colours and to see Africa included in the presentation. Joe, a volunteer at the museum, assured me that it was one of the more interesting parts of the exhibition. At first I was a little shocked to see our materials had been caged, like turning Africa into a colourful but still backward ‘country’. This was not the image that we had worked on. How had this part of the exhibition come to life? And whose representation was it? Did I see it right?

When the exhibition organizer at the museum had explained their ideas and invited me to make our research part of the exhibition, I was of course flattered and eager to make it happen. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that  academics have to share their work with the public. Indeed, we have a responsibility to help present Africa as just another part of the world. Modern communication technology did change the African societies where we have worked and they show a very inventive Africa, which should indeed be part of the story about the information age.

Walter Nkwi and I did research on the objects and presented these to the museum crew. In London we held a meeting to decide which objects the museum should buy. The next step was a trip to Cameroon with the museum crew, Walter and Sjoerd Sijsma (film and cameraman). Negotiations with the owners of the objects were sometimes tough, but in the end everybody co-operated, we interviewed the users and owners of the objects and made visual documentation of the objects while they were being used. Then the objects – sometimes literally in 1000 pieces (like the big call box) – were put in boxes and were shipped to England. After being stored for a while, some objects were chosen to be part of the exhibition.

Have a look at the pictures of the process:

The first time we met this  call box owner in Cameroon.

The first time we met this call box owner in Cameroon.

Just before dismantling.

Yellow call box, just before dismantling.

3.box dismantled

Yellow call box dismantled for the journey to the UK (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Whose Africa?
How then was this ‘representation’ for the exhibition decided on? Who had the authority to decide which objects to display and accompanied by which story? The museum adopted a participatory approach in which Cameroonians living in London together with the museum curators and museum community workers decided on the main stories and how to tell them. I was involved in some of the discussions that took place with the London-based Cameroonians. They are participants in several ways: as diaspora community they use mobile telephony to connect to their family and friends at home. They are also among the expected visitors of the museum.

Hence, the voices that were competing for the representation of Africa were the curator of the museum, the diaspora community, academics, and a cameraman. It was a long process in which the authority of voices was well defined: the community had the final say. But then there was the last step to be taken: the technical ways of the museum and the rules according to which its exhibitions are set up. In the end the objects were put in glass boxes, as is the LSM way. Short films and images were on display next to the glass boxes.

in the museum 2

Africa in the world
After a longer stroll through the exhibition, I kind of accepted the idea of the colourful and explicitly social representation of Africa-in-a-box. After all, it had become ‘a’ representation of communication technology in the long world history, and I think it is good that Africa is explicitly part of that. However, we should add African voices to this exhibit, captured in texts and longer films. A book and film should follow.

in the museum

Voice4Thought
‘Authority of voice’, and ‘who chooses which voices should be heard’, are issues that are not only at the core of museum exhibitions, they are also at the core of our project Voice4Thought, of which this blog is part. The three day conference at the museum in London was a good moment for reflection. ‘Giving voice’ and ‘processes of co-creation’ are never neutral. As one of the presenters said: ‘the voice we invite into the museum turns into our own voice in the interaction’. Often indeed, interaction leads to a middle ground, but also to a changing mindset, and then the authenticity of the voice is at stake.

opschrift

So after all, the exhibition is again another representation of Africa. Volunteer Joe compared what he saw with his own experiences regarding technology as a young boy, about 50 years ago, and expressed his respect and understanding of the situation in Cameroon. Hence this ‘show box’ generates a reflection on Africa in relation to our own lives, and to the world. It might become a counter voice for the negative spiral of the image of Africa-in-crisis.

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