Brown Bag 23rd February 2011
“Reanimating Cultural Heritage”
Digital Repatriation, Knowledge Networks, and Civil Society Strengthening in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone
Dr. Paul Basu
Dealing with societal reconstruction after a trauma – whether that be human conflict or natural disaster – is always difficult, and raises many moral and ethical dilemmas. In the day-to-day practical issues which accompany the rehabilitation of countries and societies, regaining access to food, water, and infrastructure can overshadow any kind of attempt to revitalise the cultural life and heritage of the community. Particularly if this is already a community with a troubled and tangled cultural past.
Such is the case with Sierra Leone, as Paul Basu made plain to us in his fascinating seminar presentation this week. Having recently emerged from civil war, Sierra Leone is a country full of difficult negotiations and issues, and often appears at the lowest rung of the World Bank’s economic table. In the Euro-American imagination it often portrayed in a very negative light; images of child soldiers, poverty and mass graves are all too familiar. It is a country in need of rehabilitation, both in terms of its own internal functioning, and in its appearance on the international stage.
It is the potential role of cultural heritage in this re-visioning which the Beyond Text ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ Project seeks to answer. Is there a place for cultural heritage institutions, such as a museum, in a society where just staying alive can be hard enough? If there is, how can that presence be best utilized, and in what form should it make itself known?
Answers to such questions are, of course, highly context dependent, and so in order to give some background to the project, it is important to understand the situational case of Sierra Leone. Paul, therefore, enlightened us as to the polyvocality of this cultural context, and its various ‘mnemonic modes’ in particular. Multiple modalities of memory, memorialisation, and heritage awareness operate in every locale, and in Sierra Leone the case is no different. This particular situation is in fact extremely complex, for we have to recognise community based knowledges, gained through ethnographic works and the recording of oral histories, the way in which landscape functions as a memorial resource, the nature, location, and interpretation of material culture objects, and acts of colonial memorialisation amongst other ‘mnemonic modes’. Neither are these modes delineated clearly and distinctly from each other. Rather, they operate in a very entangled way, resulting in a palimpsestual memorial landscape where identities, ideals, ideas and interpretations are constantly shifting and undergoing renegotiation, and where context and juxtapositions matter.
Dealing with these complexities is seemingly hard enough, but in the particular case of Sierra Leone the situation is further problematised, as Paul notes, by the lack of attention and resources which are presently, and have historically been, focussed on the project of preserving and valuing of cultural heritages. During the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Sierra Leone, unlike other African countries such as Ghana or Nigeria, was not commonly deemed to have an ‘artistic tradition’ as such. Memorial sites, as far as the early records of the Monuments and Relics Commission are concerned, tend to be focussed upon sites of colonialism and the slave trade, rather than on sites of importance to the people. Historically, very little attention has been paid to the cultural heritage of the country by its own authorities – the National Museum of Sierra Leone, for instance, was founded only in the 1950s, with limited collections, resources and rationale, and very little has changed since. Heritage played only a small role in the country’s independence movement, and much of it's historical material culture has been dispersed.
Conversely, however, there is what Paul terms an ‘embarrassment of riches’ located in museums around the world, including the partners of RCH such as the British Museum, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and Glasgow Museums. The international spread and quantity of content of the Sierra Leonean objects is vast, and it seems appropriate, then, to use the languages of migration studies, particularly the word ‘diaspora,’ to talk about them. The RCH project seeks not only to contribute to the rehabilitation of countries, but also to the rehabilitation of terms. Revisiting the meanings and connotations of ‘diaspora’ can allow the concept to broaden. So frequently the primary discussions around the concept have been rooted in the desire to return, the feeling of being dislocated and desiring home. However, to be part of a ‘diaspora’, as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy have noted, need not be such a negative thing, for it can be a ‘hybrid space of future possibility’(1) in which objects can form new identities-in-context, create dialogic spaces, and bring benefits to their former, and current, host communities. Objects have the ability to create links, engender the telling of stories, and create pathways of communication which are both material and intangible.
How, then, are the object diaspora and the reconstruction of Sierra Leone to be brought together? How is the country to be made able to use these dispersed resources to gain ‘remittances’ for itself, but also to give back to the wider world, culturally and intellectually? It is this question which the digital heritage element of the RCH Project aims to fulfil. The creation of a network of linked online resources related to Sierra Leonean objects, as one of the outcomes of the project, creates the potential for wider access to object information, for the reciprocal sharing of knowledges and information, and for the juxtaposition of objects with pieces of data such as audio or film which go ‘beyond text’ to make meaning. In terms of creating community, a Facebook site, currently being developed, is intended to be a space of dialogue and comment. Whilst the online infrastructure of Sierra Leone remains limited, the project is encouraging its development, using cultural heritage as an excuse through which to engage with other programmes of digital literacy, community building, and education, such as iEARN, or the British Museum’s Africa Programme, for example. Through such projects, the value of cultural heritage is increased almost as a by-product, making the museum, and the internet, into spaces which have multiple beneficial outputs.
Of course, there are many problems associated with such a project. Many of the objects, Viv pointed out, have difficult and complicated histories, and in different contexts appear highly positive, or disturbingly negative. These complexities, Basu argues, should not be ignored, and if objects do have traumatic, ‘demonic’ elements to their biographies, these should be acknowledged alongside their positive qualities. Likewise, the complexity of meaning extends to the language of the project itself; Ross focussed particularly upon the connotative issues surrounding the word ‘repatriation’, which Paul recognised as a problematic term. To use such phrases, ‘repatriation’ and ‘diaspora’ especially, we need to clearly reconceptualise how they might be seen to mean, which, as noted earlier, is in one sense what the RCH project aims to do. There are also complex practical issues which have arisen – the translation of media formats between the various institutions, the accessibility of information to museums and the cultural communities, have all provided various problems which the project has had to overcome, and in some cases is still dealing with.
But there is, overall, one rather large question. This project has not stemmed from the Sierra Leonean community itself, and there has been very little interest or input in the cultural heritage elements of their reconstruction. Therefore, it behoves us to question the appropriateness of a project such as ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage.’ Is it a form of cultural imperialism to use the ideas of ‘museum’ and ‘heritage’ as they are valued in the West in a context in which they may not have such importance or meaning? Does the project, Paul asks, have a right to intervene in this society? Being so questioned, the project has built into itself a continual critique and reflective questioning of its aims, purpose, and methodology. The question of the project’s appropriateness is something which Paul struggles with each day, and any decision made upon it, whether it results in intervention or otherwise, is bound to have moral and ethical implications.
It is wise of us all to ask such questions. When cultures come into contact, presuppositions abound on both sides, and the question becomes one of power and authority. It might appear that museums and the internet can act as fora in which dialogue – reciprocal and polyvocal – can occur, but how much are these fora the already mediated products of a particular society, is worth foregrounding and speculating upon.
These are large questions, and perhaps the point here is to recognise them, but also to recognise the potential good which can come out of such a project, which is of course convened without colonial intent in mind. ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ is a project which I, and many others hope, will go some significant way to helping museums gain access to information, for objects to regain lost stories and build their biographies, and for the people of Sierra Leone to come to terms with a past of trauma, and work towards a positive future.
Thank you Paul. You’ve interested, entertained, and enlightened us. Good luck with the rest of the project, and we hope you’ll keep us up to date on how it is progressing.
1. Paul Basu, ‘Object Diasporas, Resourcing Communities: Sierra Leonean Collections in the Global Museumscape’, Museum Anthropology, 34(1) 2011, Forthcoming, p.4
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