Friday, March 09, 2007

On Museums; Grand and Humble.

When Eric and I arrived in Brussels, we noted that our guide book recommended the Koninklikj Museum voor Midden Afrika (Flemish; who needs those stinking vowels?) and so we went to check it out. It was incredible. They have a vast collection, largely because of their ugly colonization of the Congo under King Leopold II. The museum is gigantic; we only saw a tiny portion of it.

They had an exhibition of head dresses that was absolutely stunning. There was one ceremonial piece in particular that had been created from thousands of red tail feathers from male African grey parrots. Since each bird has only 12 of these red tail feathers, you can imagine the symbolic power this object must have held.

As we wandered from hall to hall in this palace of a museum; perfect lighting, linen shadow boxes, interactive video screens, an eerie hall full of taxidermied African creatures, beautiful masks, robes, necklaces, instruments and tools, I thought about the irony of African treasures and history being preserved in Brussels. King Leopold's Congro Free State was one of the darkest and most violent examples of the evils of the colonial system. And I couldn't help but compare this pristine museum to the one we visited in Kampala on our last day in Africa.

Chris had decided we should all go to the Ugandan Museum. It was a pretty sad sight; built in the sixties, and hadn't been maintained. The exhibits looked like eighth grade science fair projects. They were covered in dust, crumbling and made from papier mache. The paint on the walls was peeling, and many of the halls were permanantly closed. As we wandered along, I couldn't help but think about the rape of the African continent. Where were all thier treasures? Where were the gorgeous mahogony carvings? The intricate gourds? The bark cloth, the giant drums made of cowhide? They are in Brussels, and the British Museum and in the homes of collectors and New York galleries.

But there was something else going on in that dusty, crumbling, little museum. Two ugandans were seated next to a giant wooden xylophone, and the gorgeous haunting sounds of the instrument echoed along the corridors. Someone mentioned that the xylophone was invented in Africa (with some help from termites). No collection of objects defines culture, no matter how vast or stunning. Culture it is a living thing that can't be catalogued. A museum is just the remnants of a culture, its refuse. No matter how grand or humble the trappings, a museum only offers clues to the elusive and unique parts of the human expirience. Thats why we visit them, to think about how other human expirience compares with our own. And part of the wonder of that expirience is the realization that no matter how much we think we know, mystery remains.

1 comment:

chris said...

beautifully written, bwecks.

-chris s

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