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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Alien, fascinating and familiar: the Afrika Museum and the changing Western viewpoint

power figure, 'nkisi nkondi', Yombe or Woyo
Angola (Cabinda)
Collection Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal

Strange objects

The history of the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands, goes back almost half a century. Its story is the story of changing Western views of Africa (and non-Western cultures in general). The evolution has been considerable: from colonization and mission work to admiration for artistic achievement and a basis for intercultural dialogue.

Wouter Welling

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The story begins with two large drawing rooms in a spacious timber mansion called Huize Ooster-Meerwijk in the village of Berg en Dal . In 1949 the mansion, which stands amid woodland, was bought by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (the Spiritan fathers) as a home for missionaries returning from Africa. Father Superior Piet Bukkems, who was so greatly adored by 'his' people in what is now Tanzania that they proclaimed him chief, decorated the two drawing rooms with African objects that other members of the order had brought back for various mission exhibitions. In 1954 this small exhibition area was opened to the public as a museum. The missionaries, who had their heyday in the 1930s, organized exhibitions to encourage interest in and support for their work. Strange objects, 'fetishes', spears and stuffed beasts of prey from far-off Africa were displayed on these occasions. It was hoped that this would convince people of the need for mission work in such dangerous heathen countries. Subscribers to De Bode van de Heilige Geest ('The Spiritan Herald') were thrilled to read exciting tales of the fathers doing battle with sorcerers, cannibals and wild beasts. Yet from the very outset - unlike many other missionary orders - the Spiritan fathers treated their exhibitions as more than just a 'raree show'. The idea was not to scare visitors, but to inform them. The missionaries gave their own guided tours, and in 1956 De Bode proudly reported: 'The tours have taught us just how interested in African life and art people are - not just professors and experts, but ordinary people as well. Our collection of masks is said by those in the know to be one of the best in existence. This is now the leading museum of Africana in the Netherlands.'Elimba-Mahongwe-Gabon-mask-Berg-en-Dal

mask, 'elimba', Mahongwe
Gabon
Collection Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal

Missionaries were urged to gather as much information as they could about the objects they had now been specifically instructed to collect for the museum. 

In fact, anthropological fieldwork was nothing new to many of them. In addition to providing 'development aid' long before the term was ever invented, the missions had always made a point of studying the languages and cultures of African peoples. The first linguistic studies of these scriptless cultures were made by missionaries, including many Spiritans. The traditional image of missionaries confiscating 'fetishes' and burning them also needs to be revised. The Spiritan father Jan Vissers, who lived among the Woyo people in Cabinda (an Angolan enclave on the west coast of Central Africa) for twenty-five years, did all he could to prevent traditional objects from being burnt. In 1948 he foresaw that the use of wooden cooking-pot lids decorated with proverbial images would one day die out. The women were increasingly using enamel lids, a form of Westernization that Vissers saw as cultural impoverishment. He became a passionate collector of the old lids and recorded the meanings of the figurative and abstract decorations, which referred to specific domestic situations. If a married couple were quarrelling, the wife would use a lid of this kind to give an indirect hint to her husband. Vissers reported on his 'rescue operation' in De Bode: 'Up to now I have described this art as something that still exists, but in actual fact it is dying out. Missionaries can try to preserve something of it for ethnographic purposes, but all the signs are that in fifty years' time there will be no trace of it left among the people themselves. That is why I am doing my very best to gather together all the knowledge and objects I can in my particular area of Africa. The death of just one elderly African is a near-disaster for ethnography. A voice that could have told researchers things that young people no longer know and no longer have any interest in has fallen silent forever. What is more, it is the custom to burn the dead person's house and all the utensils in it - including the lids!' Vissers collected about two hundred lids, most of which are now part of the Afrika Museum collection. The missionaries collected the objects so enthusiastically that the museum now contains one of the leading collections of African art, including a number of world-famous objects.

Fascination

The growth of the collection and increasing public interest made expansion inevitable, and in 1958 a separate museum building was opened opposite the mansion . There was now much more space for the objects on display, a respectful manner of presentation that was widely appreciated. This was clearly no longer just a mission museum. The development was also in keeping with political trends: Africa was regaining its independence and Europe was starting to take a less paternalistic view of its former colonies. The Western view of Africa and African culture was becoming decolonized - a very gradual process, but one in which the Afrika Museum often took a leading part. The first catalogue to be published by the museum (for the Africans - savages or bearers of culture? exhibition in 1960) thus ended its brief introduction to the exhibits with the rhetorical question 'So draw your own conclusions: are Africans savages or bearers of culture?' The press seemed to have difficulty making up its mind: a 'nail sculpture' (a greatly prized object!) was seen as a typical example of backwardness, yet one could not help acknowledging a degree of spontaneous, vital purity in the pagan darkness of African life.


Ntadi-Kongo-Berg-en-Dal-Museumgrave figure, 'ntadi'
Kongo (Angola)
Collection Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal

As well as showing the aesthetic side of African art, exhibitions at the Afrika Museum now focused on the context in which the objects had been used. The 1963 exhibition Alien religion took a step in this direction. The museum's unique siting made it possible to give visitors a taste of everyday life and work in Africa in what started out in 1959 as a 'negro village' but gradually expanded into a fully-fledged outdoor museum featuring buildings from various parts of Africa . The history of the museum has been one of constant expansion and reconstruction  - a process that still shows no signs of stopping: in 2004 the museum will substantially expand once more, doubling its exhibition space. 

Interculturality

When Ineke Eisenburger (who began working for the Afrika Museum in 1967 and became its curator in 1981) was interviewed on her appointment as museum director in 1989, she summed up the museum's policy in the following terms: 'We are convinced that people's religious needs and interests are their principal motive - or at least an extremely important motive - for seeking contact with others. Our basic principle is the unity of the human spirit, which enables people to encounter and recognise one another at various levels, even if not always at the same moment or in the same ways. It is this unity that guides the museum and its policy.'

Spirituality is the way in which people look at the world and existence. However different the cultural manifestations may be, people's questions and desires are the same. Interculturality is a key feature of the museum's exhibition policy. The exhibitions entitled Spirit power: West African vodun (1996) and Face of the gods: altar art from Africa and Afro-Brazil (1997) looked at contemporary African spirituality, focusing not only on the context in which objects were used but also on the artistic quality of the individual exhibits. This enabled visitors to experience the visual power of African art at first hand and at the same time be drawn into a completely different world. In this way its magic came alive for them. Some visitors even made 'sacrifices' to the spirit beings in a specially provided bowl. 'Otherness' was not frightening, but unexpectedly familiar. The eternal face, a major exhibition of masks put together by visiting curator Ulrike Weinhold in 2000-2001, had an explicitly intercultural focus. The awe-inspiring display brought visitors face to face not only with the African icon par excellence - the mask - but also with themselves (see ill. 5). Weinhold's unorthodox presentation made clear that even in seemingly quite different cultures there are more similarities than differences in human experience at the most crucial turning-points in life. The exhibition Ad fontes! - an intercultural search for hidden sources (2001) showed that contemporary art (a key component of the museum's current policy) is an excellent starting-point from which to reveal this unity-in-diversity - an extremely topical theme in an age of increasing globalization and tension.


Address: 

Afrika Museum
Postweg 6
6571 CS Berg en Dal
Netherlands

Website: www.afrikamuseum.nl

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