Saturday, July 23, 2016

Is a Museum Meaningful if All It Contains is Political Correctness?

"This is a place of stories...tales of how the town came about through different influences..." the introduction to the newly opened Regional Museum at Iringa cheerfully outlines what the visitor should expect from its collections.  Housed in the Boma, a distinctive architecture of Swahili and European influence constructed during the German colonial era, the museum certainly provides a promising cultural venue, something that had been distinctly lacking in a town that is more marked by cultural isolation than anything else.  Unfortunately though, the rather small collection brought more boredom than fulfillment of that promise.

The direct reason for the boredom is that the collections present facts objectively without seeking to present a central theme to be conveyed for the visitor.  In various exhibits, the collection sought to tackle a bit of German colonial history, a bit of customs for the local Hehe tribe, a bit of the Hehe tribe's role in British takeover after WWII, and even a bit on cultural and natural sights in the Iringa region.  With only four exhibition rooms, no topic is presented in depth, giving an overall feel that the creator of the exhibition make no attempt to give the visitor no more than a cursory, Wikipedia-level understanding of Iringa's history.

Indirectly, the lack of sufficient detail on any of the varied topics presented prevent the visitor from getting enough information to make his own conclusions on what made Iringa the way it is, and how did various aspects of its history shapes its present.  It is hard to tell, for instance, the changing relationship between the Hehe and colonial administrators over the course of wars and colonial interaction.  By extension, then, it is difficult to deduce just how colonial rule and its accompanying introduction of Western ideas and lifestyles affected the local populace.

In this way, the Regional Museum of Iringa has shown itself to be completely opposite of the Livingstone Museum that the author wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Unlike the Livingstone Museum that made no compromises on portraying European colonialism as the sole culprit for destruction of traditional village-based culture, the Iringa Museum largely remained neutral on the subject.  German and British colonial administrations are illustrated as just one of many influences that shaped the region, without making note (or indeed, passing judgments) on colonialism's domineering nature.

While the neutrality in the exhibition is unsurprising (the whole project is funded by the European Union, after all, and it is hard to expect a bunch of European bureaucrats agreeing to bash their own adventurous ancestors), it also creates doubt as to whether the resulting all-rounded political correctness detract from the meaningfulness of the museum's collections in the first place.  Like an industrial neighborhood that has been gentrified, the collection "sanitizes" the history of the area by circumventing unsavory stories of conflicts and brutalities, creating an artificial "feel good" atmosphere that does not answer any of the hard questions.

By going through the exhibitions, a visitor will not understand why the region is filled with economic inequalities that almost exclusively exist along racial lines and postcolonial foreign aid has not led to overall economic development.  Instead, by just visiting the museum, they are much more likely to be completely oblivious to the inequality surrounding them, and be simply grateful that foreign aid has contributed much to the local economy, with the nice restoration of the colonial building and setting up of its adjoining cafe that help bring in more expat clientele.

The author, for one, is not certain whether creating exhibitions that only make the visitor feel warm and fuzzy even has a point at all.  Only by facing the dark past can one gains the energy to make concrete improvements for moving forward.  By skirting the dark past one only embrace the mediocre status quo, assuming that the present is good enough to require no reexamination of the past to prevent repeat of those dark times, which, with the country's weak set of political institutions and the continent's endless examples of charismatic despots, can easily re-emerge with a different perpetrator.

By not having an opinion on the dark past, the Museum plays an inadvertent accomplice to the foreigners' belief that Africa is an intrinsically happier place.  It conveys the belief that the negatives have been forgotten and the future is bright, with an external European party brainwashing the local populace into believing that this is what foreigners want to see about Africa.  And perhaps they are right.  Nobody wants to hear about colonial misgivings before their safaris.  But is there any more need for more institutions that propagate such lies?  If a museum can only accomplish such ends, then maybe there is no need for it in the first place.

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