In South Africa, the management of old ethnographic and physical anthropology collections has become so complex that the most important museum in Cape Town (Iziko Museums of South Africa) simply decided in 2017 to close the ethnographic gallery permanently. Before its closure, the Khoi Nguni coalition, which claims to represent several indigenous populations, organized, in collaboration with the management and the curators of the museum, a “healing ritual” for the gallery. The ritual was supposed to “pacify” the space of the ethnography gallery, and then to dedicate it to the ancestors who had been measured, classified and photographed by the museum's employees at the beginning of the 20th century.
By looking at some key moments in the history of this ethnographic gallery from the 1970s to the present, I will explore how the museum professionals examine the links between the history of their institution and the violence perpetrated against the indigenous populations. What are the vocabularies and the collections that have become “embarrassing” and “problematic” for the curators of the ethnographic collection? Why/ when? What are the forms of collaboration with “source communities” in different historical contexts? Who initiated the first projects of provenance research with regard to the human remains collection? Who initiated different internal debates regarding the potential return of ethnographic objects and of human remains? Why/ when?
1This paper proposal is based on about 18 months of fieldwork conducted in South Africa, since 2014. The fieldwork consisted in participant observation; extensive interviewing of museum professionals, anthropologists, diplomats, public historians, representatives of different indigenous groups, etc., and research undertaken in private and in public archives (e.g. Iziko Museums of South Africa, South African Museums Associations, University of the Western Cape, Philip Tobias’ papers at the University of the Witwatersrand).