Reflecting on the Africa museum: Participatory video for - Lirias

Reflecting on the Africa museum: Participatory video for - Lirias

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 21 Stephane Dondeyne Reflecting on the Africa museum: Part...

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DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 21

Stephane Dondeyne

Reflecting on the Africa museum: Participatory video for transcultural studies

We discuss the use of video as a means for transcultural studies based on two films we produced presenting ‘non-westerners’ views on Belgians’ representations of African cultures in the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Stereotypical representation and de-contextualisation of cultural elements are the major issues raised in the videos. These can be understood given the socio-historical function of museums in nation-state building. Reflexivity is build-in into the videos by repeating images and sequences of images, to enable the viewer to make cross-references and to better understand the embedded messages. By contributing to intercultural communication, the two films illustrate how participatory video is useful for transcultural studies. Film is the only method I have to show another just how I see him – Jean Rouch (MacDougall, 1999:27) Rats amongst the beavers Visual media, particularly photographs, films and videos are often used as illustrative material for research or educational purposes. David Attenborough (2002), for example, shows us in the documentary series The life of mammals how beavers allow muskrats to live in their lodge. The rats however seem to pay a rent for this favour by fetching fresh reeds during the winter. Using special cameras inserted into the lodge, the BBC team were the first to report this intricate social behaviour between these two rodent species. It is tempting to think that in a similar way cinematographic media could be used for studying social behaviour of humans. Quite some ethnographic film projects have indeed been set-up, assuming such a ‘realistic’ approach. Margaret Mead apparently favoured such an approach, arguing that cameras left to film continuously without human intervention would produce ‘objective materials’ (El Guindi, 2004; Pink, 2001a).

it was not there. Alternatively, installing cameras without people knowing would, in general, not be acceptable on ethical grounds. Besides, such an approach would result into an enormous amount of unselective footage, forgoing any principal of sampling. Finally, a ‘realistic’ approach misses the point that by actively and knowingly involving research subjects into the production process of film making, people’s interests, insights, thinking and knowledge can be brought to light.

Though cinematographic media, may be used as recording tools for studying both natural and social phenomenon, it is generally realised that such images are not merely mirrors of the reality, but are constructed representations (e.g. Conord 2002; Ruby, 1996). Machin (1988) argues that this criticism can equally be made to many standard methods of anthropologic research while video in particular, offers the possibility to instantly review the data with the research subject using the playback facility. In summary, we see four major constraints with the ‘realistic’ approach when using cinematographic media as research tool. First, it seems naive to assume that people would be indifferent to the presence of a camera and act as if

Participatory video In participatory video, people are involved as both subjects and producers in a process of community reflection and action (Fabel, 1995). With his ‘Cinéma verité’ style of film Jean Rouch can be seen as a pioneer in developing such an approach. The advent of digital video together with the widespread availability of personal computers, has made video popular with some participatory development practitioners (Okahashi, 2000; Sateesh, 2000; Johanson and de Waal, 1997). Participatory video has also been proposed in social research (Kindon, 2003; Holliday, 2000). MacDougall (1998: 134) refers to participatory cinema when ‘the filmmaker acknowledges his or

In some of the participatory research work I did in Tanzania, we used video as a research tool, which provided villagers a forum for bringing to light their knowledge and skills on land management, while at the same time allowing for getting insights into parts of the social dynamics. Drawing from my experiences in participatory research (Dondeyne, 2004), I wanted to further explore the potentials of video as a research tool, particularly for getting insights into cultural aspects by focussing on transcultural perceptions and representation.

Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 22 her entry upon the world of the subjects and yet asks them to imprint directly upon the film aspects of their culture’, hence MacDougall still keeps a distinction between subject and filmmaker. The Africa museum Located 12 km east of Brussels (Belgium), the Royal Museum for Central Africa – or Africa museum for short – was founded in 1897 as the outcome of a popular exhibition on Congo Freestate. One of the most striking feature of that exhibition was an ‘African village’, putting on display persons brought over from Congo. With the exhibition King Leopold II wanted to promote his colonial endeavour in Central Africa. Today, the Africa museum is a research institution active in the fields of both the natural and the social sciences. It harbours some worldwide renowned collections and has, for example, 10 million specimen of animals (of which 6 million insects and 600 thousand fishes), 180 thousand ethnographic objects, 56 thousand samples of tropical wood and more than 500 thousand films and photographs (Cappellemans, 2002). To the wider public it is best known for its permanent exhibition displaying collections of both stuffed animals as well as objects grouped according to the ‘ethnic groups’ they were collected from. The management of the museum, very much aware of the colonial legacy, started a process of renovation. Besides its function of conservation, scientific research and dissemination of knowledge, it aspires to become a forum for intercultural dialogue, to promote the interest in contemporary Africa and to contribute to sustainable development in Africa (Grysseels, 2002). Our proposal for looking at transcultural representation of the museum was therefore much welcomed. The only observation museologists made was that they wished to have some Congolese persons included in the project. The objectives of this study were: firstly, to get an insight into how people with a cultural background different from Belgians perceive what is presented on African cultures in such an ‘ethnographic museum’; secondly, to illustrate and reflect on how video can be used in such a research project. The making of the films Two fellow students, Ha Thanh Mai from Vietnam and Duru Christian Ebere from Nigeria, responded to my proposal of having ‘non-western’ students to use video for investigating how the museum is representing African cultures. Initially, we had informal discussions on the idea and purpose, after which Mai and Christian both paid a first visit, as unlike myself, they had never been to the museum. Next, each of us elaborated a written proposal: Mai

developed the idea of looking at how a multicultural group would see the museum, while Christian wanted to focus on how transcultural representation was done through some of the exhibited objects, and I elaborated on the idea of using video in such a project. The proposals were discussed with two of the museologists, after which we were granted permission to film in the museum. We made one visit jointly to the museum, for getting to know it better and for sharing views and thoughts. After this Mai and Christian worked more independently from each other, while I functioned as their cameraman, co-researcher and co-editor of their films. For the video Views on others culture we recorded in one day, 30 minutes of footage on statues and artefacts Mai found striking or interesting. Later, two other students, one from Vietnam, one from Congo and who had never been to the museum before, joined on a visit. We recorded their reactions and comments: first what they expected to see, than the visit and finally asked for their appraisal. During this visit one hour and half of footage was recorded, which was subsequently mounted as a 14 minutes film. Mai and I developed the structure of the film interactively; as the Congolese student had taken an important role in commenting on the exhibits, she was also involved in the editing. For the video Reflecting on the museum a first visit to the exhibits was made by Christian and myself. We recorded about one hour of footage whereby Christian took particular interest in the bronze statues in the entrance hall, in some of the ‘ethnographic’ materials and some of the stuffed animals. Later, an interview of Christian with one of the museologists was recorded, during which the museologist explained the historical background and organisation of the museum. The interview was recorded as 17 minutes of footage. The one and half hour of footage was used to create a film of 9 minutes, of which 4 minutes are devoted to the interview. The museologist reviewed a draft copy of the film, to make sure that nothing of what she had said was distorted or would misrepresenting her views. The videos Views on others culture The first part of Views on others culture gives an overview of what can be seen in the museum: the (old) permanent collections, besides two new temporary exhibits: one called Nature and culture in Congo, the other one Memory of Congo: the colonial era. The second part shows the visit of the two fellow students starting from their expectations (Fig. 1.a and 1.b) and ending with their appraisals.

Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 23 Figure 1 Figure 2 The video shows the bewildering of the Vietnamese student, especially but not exclusively at displays of the old exhibit (Fig. 1.c). In part, this was because in the old exhibits none of the displays have captions in English, but even so, these bear little information. Essentially, the objects were so foreign to her that she could not relate to them. The Congolese student1 however could easily relate to most of the objects, and could explain their uses and meaning by referring to her culture (Fig. 1.d). Initially she takes a neutral stand, explaining the meaning and uses of objects; gradually however, she shifts to a more outspoken position, on one side pleading for carefully contextualisation of a display showing half-naked women dancing (Fig. 1.e) and, on the other side criticising the segregating policy of the Belgian colonisers and their policy of ‘training people to become civilised’ (Fig. 1.f). Reflecting on the museum Reflecting on the museum is more of an impressionistic document. First we try to immerge the viewer in an atmosphere of images and sounds presenting our subjective impression of the museum. To this end, we show a fast sequence of still images of striking statues, artefacts and animals. To create an ‘African’ atmosphere these images are shown on the rhythm of Rwandan drummers music. We altered the original colours to stress subjective feelings: black-and-white with a connotation of things belonging to ‘the past’ but also with a neutral connotation with respect to representation of others. Hence, black-and-white is mainly used for stuffed animals but also for some of the outside views of the building. A yellowish colouring is used to add a sense of warmth and positiveness, when showing the ‘white-men’s civilising’ actions represented by some of the bronze statues (Fig. 2.a), as well as when showing some of the artefacts and statues presented in the displays of the ethnographic collections (Fig. 2.c, 2.e and 2.f). In contrast, a green-bluish colouring is used to induce an effect of ‘strangeness’, almost ‘scariness’, which we used to emphasis stereotypical representations of African persons (Fig. 2.b). The subsequent interview with the museologist (Fig. 2.d), allows the viewer to better appreciate what was shown. Almost all of the images from the first part are shown a second time, now in their natural colours, to illustrate what the museologist is talking about. In a last part, the viewer is given time to reflect on what has been shown and said, by showing once more the sequence of images in their natural colours, and with the sound track of the Rwandan drummers.

Discussion The two videos provide insights into how ‘nonwesterners’ look at representations made of African cultures in a Belgian museum. Whereas the African participants could easily relate to the objects displayed, the Asian colleagues had difficulties making sense out of the materials. Naturally, one would expect this for a person from Congo, but it also applied for the Nigerian student, despite cultural and historical differences between their countries of origin. The Vietnamese students were however lacking both contextual and historical background to interpret the best part of the displays. Consequently, the participants raise concerns on stereotypical representation and decontextualisation of cultural objects. As ethnographic museums pretend to provide a window on other peoples’ cultures, it may seem surprising that the Vietnamese students found it hard to get a picture of how life in Africa may be, even when looking at the new, temporary and modernised exhibitions. Indeed, museums are generally thought of as institutions for acquiring, safeguarding, conserving and displaying objects, artefacts and works of arts. But, as Lidchi (1997: 205) argues, Museums are also contestable entities that confer certain kinds of meaning and validity upon objects in line with specific or articulated discourses. A museum will endow objects with importance and meaning because these come to represent certain kinds of cultural value. In our videos, this aspect surfaces in various ways. As the exhibited objects are dissociated from their cultural context, it is impossible for anyone not familiar with Africa to get an idea on how people may be living there. In the video Views on others culture this transpires clearly from the Vietnamese student’s reactions and comments. At first this seems totally opposed to what one might expect from a museum. It is however better understandable when considering one of the sociohistorical function of such a museum. Macdonald (2003) points out that the creation of museums is linked to the building of nation-states. By confronting the public with the ‘otherness of foreign peoples’, sentiments of belonging and brotherhood are induced amongst the public, which contributes to the building of a sense of nation identity. One can see that this was crucial in the time of King Leopold II, though it would equally have been important during the colonial era and beyond. A justification for using video was that it would provide insights into how ‘non-westerners’ look at

Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 24 ‘westerners’ representation of African cultures. Inspiration for the assumption was found in Jean Rouch’s statement ‘film allows me to show you how I see you’. Stereotypical representation of African people, de-contextualisation of cultural elements, linked to issues of subjugation and discrimination during the colonial era are the most important issues raised. Seeing and appreciating all the clues of this discourse, may not be possible when viewing the films for a first time. In the first part of Views on others culture, for example, panels are shown on the colonial educational efforts. Even though the stereotypical character of some of the posters is self-evident (Fig. 3), the viewer cannot anticipate the additional connotations these will get when taking into account the Congolese student explanations on the Belgian policy on educating Congolese people to become ‘civilised’ and ‘evolved’ – évolué2 is the French term used. As MacDougall (1999) writes viewers never see the film the way the filmmaker sees it. For the filmmaker, the edited film is a compression of his experiences: in our cases about two hours of footage per film, each recorded in two sessions, and mounted to 14 and 9 minutes respectively. Normally viewers would see the film only ones, during which a world is unfolding of which the viewer never knows where he is finally lead to. Figure 3

A second, or subsequent viewing seems therefore desirable for appreciating the full meaning embedded in such a film. For obvious reasons this will not happen during most screenings. In our case, it can be anticipated that staff of the museum will take time to look more than once at these videos. Advocates of adding reflexivity in the film often stress that the process of filmmaking ought to be included in the film (Borghs, 2002; Pink, 2001b; Ruby, 1980). An van Dienderen (1998) for example applies this type of self-reflexivity in Visitors of the night. Though this may be interesting and justified in particular cases, it bears the risk of resulting into self-indulging products. El Guidin (2004: 149) even criticises this approach as being ‘the extreme extension of the narcissism component of postmodernism’. In our two films we induced reflexivity by repeating images and sequences of images; in Reflecting on the museum most of the images on the museum are shown three times, though each with its own ‘colouring’. Ruby (1996) writes that visual anthropology has never been incorporated into mainstream anthropology but rather has been trivialized by some anthropologists as being mainly concerned with audiovisual aids for teaching. In line with my experiences with using video in participatory

research and development projects (reported by de Waal, 2001; Dondeyne et al. 1999), the two examples presented here show that participatory video can be a means for getting insights into peoples views and thoughts. Such videos are not intended to plainly portray, illustrate or document people’s culture, but are tools for intercultural communication, and hence particularly useful for transcultural studies. Anthropologists generally try to grasp the others culture, whereby the anthropologist has to take position between ‘the disinterested social scientist’ or the ‘native point of view’ (MacDougall, 1999). Taking into account the uncomfortable colonial legacy of anthropology, to us it seems more appropriate to use videos for fostering intercultural communication rather than for grasping others culture. Conclusions In the two films we produced on transcultural representation of the Africa museum, issues of stereotypical representation and decontextualisation of cultural elements are raised. Though it may seem surprising that persons not familiar with Africa find it difficult to make sense out of the displayed materials, this can be understood when considering that such museums are not merely institutions for research and dissemination of knowledge – as they pertain to be – but that they are part of a discourse building a sense nation identity amongst its public. By repeating images, and sequences of images, we induced reflexivity putting representation of others into perspective. Including reflexivity in such films is important, as it is almost impossible to understand all embedded clues and messages of such films. Finally, the two films illustrate how participatory video can particularly be useful in transcultural studies, by bringing to light views from people of different background and cultures. Notes 1 The same observation could be made for Mai and Christian, respectively. 2

Evolués were people who had received formal training in ‘European manners’ such as using chairs, tables, eating with cutlery, etc. Upon succeeding examinations, they were given a certificate of ‘civil merits’ (carte de mérite civique) and the status of ‘immatriculated’ (le statut d'immatriculé). Though this status would not give the bearer equal rights as of ‘white’ people, it would give the person privileges ‘indigenous’ people did not have. Acknowledgement We like to thank professor Patrick Devlieger for stimulating us to carry out this study. We are grateful to the Royal Museum for Central Africa for

Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 25 granting us permission to work and film in the museum and special thanks to Koeki Claessens and Anne Desmettre for their kind cooperation and assistance. We are much indebted to Vu Thi Tuyet Mai and Brigitte Iyeli for their participation and collaboration in the film Views on others culture. References Cited Borghs, Elke 2002 To see or not to see: ethnografie van zelfreflexiviteit bij een filmploeg. Ethnographica 2: 48-58. Cappellemans, Marleen (Ed.) 2002 Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika: centrum voor onderzoek en verspreiding van kennis. Tervuren: Royal Museum of Central Africa. Conord, Sylvaine 2002 Le choix de l’image en anthropologie, qu’est-ce qu’une bonne photographie? Ethnographiques.Org. N° 2, www.ethnographiques.org/documents/ article/ArConord.html , accessed on 16-032005). De Waal, Dominick 2001 Setting precedents in the Hangai forest. Forest, Trees and People Newsletter 44: 42-6. Dondeyne, Stephane, Laurence B. Emmanuel, and Jozef. Deckers 1999 Land use in Chiwambo: video as a participatory land survey tool. The Land 3(2): 89-100. Dondeyne, Stephane 2004. Sharing insights into land management: experiences from participatory research in South Eastern Tanzania, Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Applied Biological Sciences. Leuven: Catholic University of Louvain. El Guidin, Fadwa 2004. Visual Anthropology: essential method and theory. Oxford: AltaMira Press. Fabel, Elizabeth 1995 Video II: Demystifying the technology. In Power, Process and Participation: tools for change, edited by R. Slocum, L. Wichhart, D. Rocheleau and B. Thomas-Slayter. London: Intermediate Technology Publications. Grysseels, Guido 2002 Voorwoord, In Konijnklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika: centrum voor onderzoek en verspreiding van kennis edited by M. Cappellemans. Tervuren: Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Holliday, Ruth 2000 We’ve been framed: visualising methodology. The Sociological Review 48: 503-22. Johansson, Lars and Dominick de Waal 1997 Giving people a voice rather than a message. PLA Notes 29: 59-62. Lidchi, Henrietta 1997 The poetics and the politics of exhibiting other cultures. In Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, edited by Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications. Macdonald, Sharon J 2003. Museums, national, postnational and transcultural identities. Museum and Society 1(1): 1-16. MacDougall, David 1998. Transcultural cinema, Edited and introduced by Lucien Taylor. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Machin, Barrie 1988 Video and observation of complex events: the new revolution in anthropology. In Glasnik, Bulletin of Slovene Ethological Society, Zagreb, Vol. 28. www.geocities.com/mazzachan/video.html accessed on 12/03/2005. Okahashi, Patricia 2000 The potential of participatory video. Rehabilitation Review 11(1). www.vrri.org/rhb0100.htm, accessed on 13/05/2005. Pink, Sarah 2001a Doing visual ethnography: images, media and representation in research. London: Sage Publications. 2001b More visualising, more methodologies: on video, reflexivity and qualitative research. The Sociological Review 49: 586-99. Ruby, Jay 1996 Visual Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, edited by David Levison and Melvin Ember, Vol. 4: 1345-51. 1980. Exposing yourself: reflexivity, anthropology, and film (1). Semiotica 30: 15379. Sateesh, P.V. 2000 An alternative to literacy: is possible for community video and radio to play this role? Forest, Trees and People Newsletter 40/41: 913.

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Figures:

Figure 1: From Views on others culture: (a) and (b) Expressing their expectations. (c) Trying to make sense out of a display. (d) Explaining uses and meaning of displayed objects. (e) Raising the issue of contextualisation. (f) Explaining aspects of the segregating colonial policies.

Figure 2: From Reflecting on the museum: (a) Missionary bringing ‘civilization’. (b) Stereotypical representation of an African man. (c) Statues in the permanent exhibition. (d) Interview with the museologist. (e) Statue and (f) Artifacts displayed in the exhibit on Nature and Culture. Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven

DONDEYNE/ Reflecting on the Africa museum: participatory video for transcultural studies/ 27

Figure 3: From Views on others culture showing part of a panel on the colonial educational efforts, in the exhibit on the colonial era. The caption of the poster translates as ‘Education means civilization’

Ethnographica 6: 21-27 Copyright ©2006, Social and Cultural Anthropology, KULeuven