Candid heritage conversations: appropriations and misappropriations of culture

Posted on September 16, 2020

On 11 September 2020, the Head of the UP Museums and Curator of the Mapungubwe Collection, Sian Tiley-Nel participated in a public engagement Zoom webinar in conversation with Christopher Till, Director of the Javett-UP Art Centre/ Director of Apartheid Museum, moderated by Siseko Khumalo, Editor of the Journal of Decolonising Discipline. The conversation centred around “African gold: appropriations and misappropriations of culture”. The cementation of the topic focused on The National Treasures Exhibition of the Mapungubwe Gold Collection (co-curated by the University of Pretoria Museums) paired alongside the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold Collection in the new Gold of Africa tower in the Javett-UP Art Centre.

The discussion provided a contextual background to the acquisition and history of both gold collections. The Mapungubwe Gold Collection was acquired in 1933 through archaeological enquiry and is today renowned as a national treasure of South Africa. The Barbier-Mueller West African gold collection was returned to Africa by a Swedish institution in about 2001, where the collection first featured in the Anglo Gold Africa Museum in Cape Town. Javett-UP has enabled both precious gold collections onto public display, which is accessible and engaging now within an art of Africa context. More prominently, Javett-UP is the only location to exhibit such unique, finite and valuable African finished artefacts or gold resources. Tiley-Nel explained that the exhibits focus on, “the materiality of gold, the high-level of indigenous craftsmanship and reflect on nearly a thousand years of artistry”. Javett-UP exudes the appreciation of African gold heritage as it resonates on the Mother continent rather than inappropriately exhibited in another western museum.

In a twenty-year career as Curator of the Mapungubwe Collection, Sian Tiley-Nel stated that “striking the balance between a curator’s duty and ensuing professional, ethical, progressive thinking requires compassion, altruism, reasoning and advocacy”. Curating one of the most contested cultural heritage collections has been a humble and challenging experience. She supports the notion that, “Dispossessing people of their cultural heritage and resources misappropriates people of their knowledge, their history and philosophy”. Without being ignorant, museums are important knowledge keepers too and generators of time. One of the primary objectives of a museum is preservation, art is portal to the past and multi-layered histories, marginalised and unknown histories are brought into the present by university museums.

While there is a dire need to deeply engage and to “open Pandora’s box”, such difficult issues are inevitable if museums and are galleries are truly to become social and polyphonic spaces. The justification for repatriation is just one way to address historical injustice and the alienation of those 90% of African heritage objects within Western museums needs to be talked about to restore the agency of Africans as producers of their history.

The candid conversations touched on some exciting and new roles of modern art galleries and museums within higher education institutions. “They have an opportunity to locate and curate dialogues and practices to the wider public, the university, to art practitioners and bring those multi-partied stakeholders to drive discussions on policy and future directions and the trajectory of culture in a South African context”.

- Author Sian Tiley-Nel

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