The stories we tell
April and May are a rather exciting months for those of us afflicted with the heritage bug. #MuseumWeek invited cultural institutions around the globe to discuss and promote their collections on social media. The 3rd African World Heritage Youth Forum (AWHYF) for Portuguese-speaking young professionals in the cultural sector, in which I participated, was held on the Island of Mozambique from 30 April-05 May. The tag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral recently re-surfaced on Twitter as well, reminding us that these institutions can act as agents of positive change if they resist the urge to embrace the myth of neutrality and respond to social issues instead.
The campaign against non-involvement is an almost uncanny sequel to the AWHYF. One of the key objectives of the Forum was to evaluate how the World Heritage Site, which was part of the Transatlantic Slave Route, is presented. As it stands, the Island of Mozambique is, as it has always been, cast as a city composed of two distinct parts. The Cidade of Pedra e Cal which housed the colonial administration is manifestly set against the Bairro Macuti, the impoverished township where the servant population has lived since time immemorial. Whereas the Cidade is a now a ghost-town of sparsely populated hotels and crumbling stone buildings, the Bairro plays host to the vibrant local community. Following various guided tours, consultations with local associations and presentations, one working group chose to shine a light on intangible culture heritage – the practices, artistic expressions, and traditional knowledge, as well as objects and cultural spaces, that communities recognise as part of their cultural heritage.
Various incarnations of the same question animated our plenary discussions:
Como é que os objectos e monumentos contam uma historia? [How do objects and monuments tell a story?] De quem pertence of património? [To whom does heritage belong?] Quem conta a nossa história? [Who tells our story?]
All agreed that because the Island of Mozambique is still inhabited, the vibrant culture of the community could and should not be divorced from the built up city. The resulting intervention, a map that identified areas on the entire Island where cultural traditions manifest, sought to harmonize the urban areas and the communities of the City of Stone and Cal and the City of Macuti by encouraging free movement, cooperation and public recognition of the value of local culture. The promotion of sites erected by slave traders with the fruits of that inhumane business, and an imbalanced object-collection originating from colonial administrators, remained problematic. When ardent voices called for dismantling collections in the colonial house-museum to de-emphasise their oppressive history, contesting spokes(wo)men argued that the museum could also be a socially engaged and emotionally charged space. #MuseumsAreNotNeutral but the stories they tell can be well-balanced because historical objects evidence multi-layered narratives which can be presented in different ways.
The group finally settled on a rather poetic maxim:
Eu sou o património [I am heritage] O património sou eu [Heritage is me]
We declared that we, multi-cultural and global citizens, were responsible for fairly representing and honouring our shared heritage. More importantly, just as we must acknowledge the sieve through which information has passed on its way to us, as cultural professionals we could not allow ourselves to forget that we control how stories are now told.