Monday, August 03, 2015

Museum Anthropology Leaders: Boris Wastiau, Director, Musee d'ethnographie de Geneve and Tenured Professor, Department of the History of Religions, University of Geneva, Part 1 of 3

Exclusive Museum Anthropology Blog Interview with Dr. Boris Wastiau, Director, Musee d'ethnographie de Geneve and Tenured Professor, Department of the History of Religions, University of Geneva.

This interview is the seventh installment in our series, Museum Anthropology Leaders, where blog intern Lillia McEnaney interviews various anthropological museum professionals.

This interview was conducted over written email correspondence. 

This is Part 1 of 3

1. When in your education did you decide to pursue the anthropology of art and museum anthropology? Why? 
Truly, until after my Ph. D. fieldwork had I only considered becoming an academic. I liked museums a lot, but I had never given a thought at working in one, thinking they were reserved territory for art historians. It happened one day that a curator I had met at the RMCA (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium) faxed me a job vacancy. I applied and got it. That was in 1996. I never wanted to work outside the museum field ever since! We are so lucky to be doing what we do!

2. While working as the curator of ethnography at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, you worked on the exhibition ExItCongoMuseum. Many have cited this exhibit as a pioneering foray into critical curatorship. Can you explain on this project for the readers and discuss how you went about structuring it? 
I was the author and curator of that exhibition. I had never worked on the topic of colonial appropriation of African art and ethnographic collections, but it was clear that many members of the public were in demand of explanations about the provenance of the collections. At that time the RMCA was a superb example of denial. A panel with a text signed by the then director stated that every single artefact, like every natural history sample, was the product of scientific research and that everything had been paid for to the former owners! A blatant lie! Harsh criticisms of the museums revisionist attitude had been voiced already, in Belgium and elsewhere, like in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. I realised that all I knew about colonialism was what I had been taught during my M. A. at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia. When the director asked me to become in charge of the re-display of our 125 masterpieces that were back from a tour in the US and Europe, I accepted with the demand to publish an essay on the collection. He knew too late what was coming up! I invited a guest curator, Toma Muteba Luntumbue, an artist, to produce some installations. He himself called for the collaboration of another half dozen artists, regardless of their origin, to work on, around, and in the museum. That came as a blow. There appeared cracks in the walls of the institution, disbelief, sometimes a glimpse of hope for change... I for myself started researching the provenance, the means of appropriation of the masterpieces and their “social lives” ever since they had left Congo. How they had subsequently been used, abused, interpreted, described, etc. I worked on the contrast between the free movements of artworks from the colony to the metropolis, while the artists were debarred from following up their creations, so to speak, to travel to Europe. I showed that only a tiny fraction of objects had been collected in a scientific context. The vast majority of objects collected in the colonial period, there as in most ethnographic museums in Europe, were brought by the military, the missionaries, administrators and civil servants, traders, collectors and artists, not scientists. The museum in this field had never been scientific, only colonial.

3. Which book, project, or exhibition have you worked on that you are most proud of? Why?
My Ph. D. thesis (Mahamba. The transforming arts of spirit possession among the Luvale-speaking people of the Upper-Zambezi), subsequently published in 2000 at Fribourg University Press. This is the most researched and elaborate text I ever produced, based on an incredible fieldwork experience among the Luvale people of Northwestern Zambia. Traditional fieldwork in small-scale societies is out of fashion now and our academic culture has turned monographs into decorative items on study shelves for some. With no experience whatsoever of communication then I completely failed to make my work known, but I am very proud I contributed, if modestly, to classical anthropology. Having just been offered a tenured position of professor at the University of Geneva in the department of History of Religions, I am glad I will start teaching about it next September (2015). 

4. What was the most challenging book, project, or exhibition that you have worked on? Why?  

The same, I guess: years of fieldwork and writing at an age when it is very difficult to foresee where your work will take you –a very individual work too. Most meaningful for a broader audience, ExItCongoMuseum, the exhibition and the essay, about which I still receive frequent correspondence. The most challenging project: the MEG!

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