MuseumFutures Africa is a people-centered cultural project focussed on museums. It began with a focus on Africa, and expanded its reach to museums across the Global South, with the intention to test, explore and study potentials for new formats of Southern museology.

Study Groups
Arna Jharna Thar Desert Museum
The Conflictorium
Mutare Museum
MajiMaji Museum
Acervo de Laje
Museu Mafalala
Exchanges 2023
Musée National de Guinée
National Museums of Kenya
Steve Biko Centre
Uganda Museum
Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art
Musée Théodore Monod
Exchanges 2021-2
Towards a depiction of ... the experimental / colonial museum
MFA publication 2022
Curriculum 2023
Curriculum 2021
Notes toward a proposal

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MuseumFutures is supported by the     Goethe-Institut



Text by Sophia Sanan, 2024. 
In early 2023 we gathered inputs from our 6 new museum partners on the themes that they would like to engage through the year with their colleagues. Their suggestions (see above) ranged from themes of digitisation to Global South solidarities.

Consequently, we planned for a number of virtual exchanges, facilitated by key thinkers and practitioners in their fields (Dr heeten bhagat, Dr Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, Dr Sara Ahmed, Sukrit Sen and Molemo Moiloa), to guide a series of dialogues across the very different contexts of the 6 museums on these themes. Scroll down for a series of narrative highlights from these rich dialogues.


In late March 2023 we hosted the first of our workshop series, with scholar, educator and thinker Dr heeten bhagat around documentation in museums. Our planning was inspired by the following questions: ‘What are your documentation practices? What does archiving mean to you? Do you engage with local constituencies? What are some of the complexities you have faced in documenting your work? Who is your documentation for? How does your museum tell stories? What are the mechanisms for communication that you use? What are some of the digital inequities that you face in your work? What are some ways to overcome these? Why is the documentation of history important? What are some of the inter-generational dynamics at play in your community?’

Some of the overlapping questions for Maji Maji museum in Tanzania and the Arna Jharna Museum in Rajasthan, India were around documentation as a form of working with the museum’s surrounding (partly) rural communities. For the Maji Maji, the war memorial and burial grounds under the care of the museum call for innovations in how communities are engaged around painful memories. A challenge they take on is the documentation and celebration of the intangible, along with tangible: “documentation we admire is public engagement in museum activities through oral tradition: methods like festivals, storytelling, and museum interactive programs also digital documentation. This kind of documentation is complex but very safe for the sustainability of the museum collections”.

For the Arna Jharna Museum, it is the artefact that is the entry point to a certain philosophy of documentation which has manifested in the Broom Project of the museum: “an exhaustive study of Rajasthan's different regions and communities. The museum's approach was to contact the broom-User communities of Rajasthan situated in different regions and also explore the botanical diversity of each food zone to form a comparative study. Around one hundred eighty brooms, each unique to their region and functional utility, have been documented in the form of audiovisual and text.” As Kuldeep Kotari notes “(t)he broom may seem to be an ordinary object but it is also a repository of relationships. It not only gave an insight into the variety of grasses used for broom making depending on the type of environment they are made in, but it also made the museum aware of the various traditional values and beliefs around the brooms.”

We also asked: are there existing (or inherited) norms around documentation in your museum context, does any of this represent a frustration? Acervo da Laje’s response was instructive: “No, on the contrary, it represents a victory, because there was no documentation about our territory and now we have it, that is, we went from invisibility to visibility and this is a very important point in community museums, the fact of being able to tell their own stories”. For Museu Mafalala, documentation is inseparable from museum work: “assuming that Documentation is everything that has recorded information, regardless of the format, one can see that the existence of Museums is directly linked to documentation. There is no Museum without documentation. I mean, without registered and exposed information for other times, spaces, and contexts. Besides, in our daily life, as Mafalala Museum, documentation plays a preponderant role in our relationship with the community in which we are inserted. Through murals, photos and other records, the Museum dynamises its relationship with the space, as it produces works and documents that mirror the life of the community”.

The telling of untold narratives in urban settings like Salvador and Maputo is urgent work, and comes with its own set of complexities. We considered struggles with community buy-in and trust with the telling of histories, especially under the guise of the museum. What is repellent about the form of the museum, what is attractive? Who feels represented in the museum? Is the museum our most productive answer to a need to historicise?

Discussion between the Conflictorium in India and the Mutare Museum in Zimbabwe was energised by the radical differences in these museums. One is a non-collecting organisation interested in mediating conversations in conflict conditions, formed in post-colonial India and the other collections based, national and founded pre-independence Zimbabwe. The Conflictorium offered the following reflections on documentation: “other than the memories of people who experience the museum, the museum remembers itself only via documentation. Because of many different kinds of activities taking place at the museum, documentation plays the role of Memory Keeping and for Communicating the happenings at the museum”. For the Mutare Museum, documentation was (to paraphrase) about “accountability of objects, security of objects, a historic archive about objects and finally a mode of referencing and retrieval”.  Some of the productive questions that emerged out of these different approaches were around what is at stake in the recording of history: how is the state implicated in this, how is community defined in history making, how do we think about truth in museums? What is the role of creativity in memorialisation, what are the risks inherent in this process? How do histories of violence affect how we document and who we document for? 


Next in our workshop series, we focussed on ‘Objects, collections and decolonial practice’, with artist, scholar, writer, educator Dr Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja. We framed the workshop around another core expectation of the museum: to collect and exhibit. The traditional form of the colonial museum placed high stakes on the object as a conduit to represent knowledge about the world ‘out there’. The strategies of aestheticisation, objectification, exoticisation and othering implicit in traditional museum practice are facing scrutiny in the context of calls for decolonisation. At the same time, decolonisation has come to mean many (sometimes contradictory) things, and is perceived and understood differently in diverse contexts.  Some of the museums we are working with are collecting museums, some are not, some are seeking to expand their collections, some are seeking to create new objects in the shape of (changing) traditions, others seek to recontextualise inherited object collections, others still have collected narratives, sounds, and experiences over objects. These varied perspectives came into conversation through this dialogue series. The series of online conversations were used to map out and debate the practices and understandings of decoloniality in each museum via the question of objects and how to (or perhaps how to not) exhibit them.

The Arna Jharna museum from Rajasthan, India and the Mutare museum from Zimbabwe were asked to share an image of an object from the museum that spoke of movement and mobility. For the Mutare museum, they thought about objects in the collection that were transferred from other Museums in Zimbabwe, such as the Traction Engine which was originally displayed in Bulawayo. A central characteristic of the modern museum has been to truncate the circulatory nature of objects, and some would argue, placing moving things into the straight-jacket of objecthood. We wanted to explore ways in which objects in museum environments do move, if at all, and what their movements might represent. As one of the study group members remarked, the history of automotive transport in Zimbabwe itself tells a compelling tale of the afterlives of colonialism and its impacts on human mobility.

For the Arna Jharna museum, the Kamaicha, a folk instrument which was used by the itinerant musician community - Manganiyars, spoke of mobility in a way that contests the violence that borders (which themselves in the post-colonial world are so tied to colonial histories) can represent. They shared with us that the Manganiyar community “used to migrate around the Thar (that includes states of both India and Pakistan) before the partition of India. But in the post-independence period their mobility got restricted on both sides of the border, still their music has been a means of connection for both the countries. This instrument is the embodiment of musical values of both India and Pakistan”. 

Nashilongweshipwe invited thinking around decoloniality as a project of actualising freedom, using artworks such as this linocut by John Muafangejo to visualise what we mean by this very powerful and sometimes nebulous term. He shared some projects and experiences from Namibia, and the struggle to raise suppressed narratives and experiences into the public realm through the notion of ‘shadow work’. The diversity in our participants’ approaches to decolonial work were expressed in some of the keywords that came to mind via the question of decoloniality: ‘caste’ and ‘translations’ on the one hand ‘indigenous’ and ‘heritage’ on the other. These diverse approaches produced many generative questions. Partners from Conflictorium asked “do ethnographic museums need to be abolished for actual decolonising in museums? can we abandon the decolonial project for a more vernacular and contextualised framework? is speculative work the only possibility of subverting archives? where do we encounter colonial residues/tendencies in museums besides language and curation?”

Acervo da Laje and Museu Mafalala are two museums in very different parts of the world who engage with the histories of very specific urban neighbourhoods, one in Salvador, Brazil the other in Maputo, Mozambique. When thinking about collection and decoloniality in these contexts, it is more than the collection of objects that these museums are pursuing. Instead, the under-documented histories of these spaces and the expression of their protagonists - often women and youth whose impact is not so easily made on official national historical narratives - these form the impetus to remember and archive in a collective way. Both museums shared footage and photographs of their neighbourhoods that related to the origin stories of the institutions. These are images that are not asking to be read through the lens of documentary nor of art - instead as Jose Eduardo from Acervo da Laje insists - the practice of memorialisation at the heart of Acervo da Laje is constantly in a battle to protect itself from appropriation by academic institutions, by the conventions of the artworld, by national narratives. What we explored in this conversation is that ‘museum-making’ can itself be an activity that works against (and speaks back to) colonial afterlives and logics.


The hosts of our third Southern Museology workshop were Dr Sara Ahmed and the wonderful Sukrit Sen from the Living Waters Museum from India. This brilliant hybrid museum project: “results from a personal and institutional inquiry into the future and relevance of museums beyond borders, the nuances of measuring impact and the value of building inclusive, collaborative partnerships which address social equity and gender justice through research, design and curation (…) As a digital museum, we are more than just a website -over the past 6 years we have built programming around water classrooms, climate resilience, water heritage, public health and changing urban waterscapes. The use of digital technologies and art, broadly defined, allows us to re-imagine museums, creating sensory experiences and ‘playful’ solutions towards societal transformation, bringing science to people while acknowledging their water wisdom and agency”.

To address the theme of climate crisis and museums in the Museum Futures project, the LWM created a format to “engage with participants to develop a storyboard based on a ‘water’ challenge/issue that the communities the museums work with, or their partners and stakeholders, are facing. How can we facilitate a dialogue through storytelling, using digital media and/or the arts, towards the collective ‘good’, while recognizing and acknowledging the voices of those at the margins?”. LWM asked museum participants to send a story or short text about water in their locality. The texts were used as a basis to think together about a fictional story, which was narrativized and visualised by the workshops hosts together with the participants. We share here the diverse stories that pointed to the myriad ways that water (in its lack, in its over-abundance, in its generosity, in the project of trying to conserve or control) shapes our social, geographic and cultural existence.

The Mutare museum reflected on the various religious, industrial, agricultural and economic roles of water in the Mutare region of Zimbabwe. This led to a discussion around rain and its importance, and the role of wildlife in helping to understand seasonal patterns. What are indigenous ways of knowing that may be relevant to radically shifting climatic patterns? What is the role of the museum in this regard? Chiedza Zharare shared with us that “Mutare Museum is taking part in awareness campaigns in regards to climate change, mining and environmental threats posed by illegal mining. This was done through a temporary exhibition on diamond mining in Chiadzwa area in Manicaland. Currently we have developed an exhibition on cyclone Idai looking at how the floods changed lives of the local communities in a negative way as well as creating awareness on water disaster preparedness.”

The Arna Jharna museum shared fascinating case studies of water related projects in their museum environment. The scarcity of water in the desert environment has sprung innovation over decades. The Arna Jharna acts both as a repository of ‘lost’ methods and a laboratory for future water saving strategies, engaging traditions of indigenous knowledge with a changing climate. Kuldeep Kothari explained: “(i)n the arid landscapes of rural Rajasthan, water has been the lifeblood of communities for generations. Rajasthan, known for its vast deserts and semi-arid climate, has faced water scarcity challenges for centuries. However, the ingenuity and wisdom of the local communities have led to the development of various time-tested water conservation techniques that ensured the availability of water not just for daily needs but also allowed agriculture and livestock rearing to thrive in this challenging environment. Arna Jharna: The Thar Desert Museum situated on the one of hills of aravalli range in the outskirts of Jodhpur city, the capital of erstwhile the Kingdom of Marwar, has documented and fully utilised this traditional knowledge system in its museum space.”

Members from the Conflictorium in Raipur, Chhattisgarh shared some projects related to the Karun river in Raipur and pointed to complex issues around human habitation and ecological stability:  "Civilizations have bloomed around water. For landlocked areas like Chhattisgarh, that meant habitations springing up near rivers. When the habitations spread, the villages, towns and cities populated around ponds, some natural and some man made. Geographically, Chhattisgarh is populated with lakes and ponds. Every village, every hamlet across the state has access to at least one pond which is used perennially for personal, religious, social and political purposes. While the trend is slowly dying in the cities, urbanisation and the surge of building high rises to accommodate the burgeoning population are eating up these small water bodies that are an important part of the social fabric."

For Acervo da Laje, Jose Eduardo shared some context from the coastal city of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil: “(h)ere we have the sea and the tide. The sea offers us the beaches for leisure and the tide offers us, the mangroves, the sustenance of seafood such as shellfish, crabs and crabs.  In the old days there were pearl oysters in the tide. Whoever found them and had them at home needed to put a little salt on them so they wouldn't disappear, the old-timers used to say. In the 1970s the Reconcavo Chemical Company poured iodine into the tide and as the iodine went to the bottom, it polluted the shellfish. Today, we remember so that mistakes like this no longer exist”

For the Maji Maji Memorial Museum, the theme of water runs deep into the history of the site: “Maji Maji Memorial Museum talks about the impact of Germany's colonial resistance against the natives. The war was known as “Maji Maji war” - this translates to Water war. During the Majimaji war, water was used as the main ingredient in making a medicine that the local resistance bathed in as repellent to German bullets. Majimaji war started at Nandete-Kilwa district Lindi, Mtwara, Dar es Salaam, Pwani, Iringa, Mororgoro and ended in Ruvuma. The war involved more than twenty tribes includes; Ngindo, Luguru, Matumbi, Zaramo, Pogoro, Ngoni, Bena, Ndendeule, Matengo, Makonde, Mwera, Makua, Manda, Nindi, Mpoto, Sangu, Kinga, Pangwa, Rufiji, Ndengeleko, Vidunda, Mbunga  and Hehe. The war was guided by African chiefs including chief, Mputa Bin Gwazerapas Gama, Sultan Seleman Mamba, Mkechekeche of matumbi, Hamad of Makonde, Chief Hatia of Makua, Jumbe Mbuu, Kibasila of zaramo, Mpangire of Ubena and Ngozingozi”.

Sharing a story about flooding in the urban area of Mafalala, Maputo, surfaced a host of questions around natural disasters and the keeping of memories. What survives a flood, and what kind of tangible memories (photos, books, diaries, sentimental objects) are lost through such trauma, and what is the consequence? Rui Laranjeira - historian and writer associated with Mafalala museum shared that in researching the neighbourhood's history, he found that many people lost personal archives of photos etc through the 1965 flood, leaving a vacuum in documentation of that time.

“In Mafalala there was a time when the neighborhood was flooded and it led to many of the original inhabitants having to leave the neighborhood and live in other neighborhoods. This happened in 1965, and there was a heavy rain that left the neighborhood flooded and caused many people to to come to Infulene, Machava and Matola - Fomento and also there were those who came back after the space had dried up. As a consequence of this rain I lost my documentation and pictures from the period. I had to go and live with my family in an uncle's house for a period of 2 months. It was interesting”.


Possibly one of the most politically resonant themes around museums today, Africa and the story of restitution is a theme that we engaged our African museum partners on in a special online session. The session was hosted by Molemo Moiloa  -  a prolific voice in African restitution debates and one of the MuseumFutures project founders. The session provided a platform for discussion on both institutional and lived perspectives about restitution and perhaps more critically, the actual process of return in African museums. Members from Uganda Museums, Musee Guinee, YSMA in Nigeria, National Museums of Kenya, the Steve Biko Foundation, the Maji Maji museum and the Mutare Museum participated in this lively dialogue.

One of the things we spoke about during our special session on Restitution in African Museums were the differences between Restitution, Return, Reparations and Repatriation. These terms can become conflated in surprising ways. Putting it really simply, Maji Maji museum colleagues clarified:

  1. Return is to come or go back to its place
  2. Repatriation is to return to one’s country
  3. Reparation is to act or repairing or restoring
  4. Restitution is the act of restoring or making good

We gained much clarity by analysing these terms and in which cases which term is most relevant. We thought about who (people, countries, institutions) is involved in creating precedence in this field and how African museums might strengthen their position(s) on the debates around Africa’s stolen cultural heritage. Some of our participants shared the following thoughts: “return, moral, rights, research, provenance, veiled histories, veiled narratives, restoration, respect, heritage, rightful owners, our things, bring back, benin bronzes, justice, recovery, cultural heritage”.

Our host Molemo Moiloa brought home the urgency of African museums talking to each-other about what we think / feel/ imagine/ desire / dream/ wish should and could happen in the years to come, to the estimated 90-95% of African material cultural heritage that has been removed from the continent. Meetings between African museum professionals on this topic are all too rare, as the field of cultural restitution is usually framed through Euro-African engagements, and around the possible return of objects. What became clear in this workshop, is that the return of objects is only one part of a very complex story. One of the key spaces for African museums to share experiences and learn from each-other, is around relationships and responsibilities between museums and source communities whose objects, histories and stories end up in museums - whether on the continent or much further afield.