The Museums of Black Civilisations, between History and Utopia
DCNtR Debate #3. The Post/Colonial Museum
The idealisation of the Musée des Civilisations Noires (Museum of Black Civilizations, MCN) is attributed to Senegalese activist Lamine Senghor (1889–1927). It was in 1926, with the creation of the Comité de Défense de la Race Nègre (CDRN) that the pan-African luminary firstly mentioned a museum for the preservation of African dignity and heritage. Forty years later, after the successful completion of First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966), president Léopold Sédar Senghor revisited this idea. The museum, designed to be »the most important cultural centre of its kind in West Africa« (Senghor apud Camara 2014: 40), was to be built on the Atlantic coast of Dakar, integrating a vast cultural complex accompanied by an arts and crafts village, a conference room, and a national library, among others. Then named Musée d’art négro-africain, the venue was to house pieces safeguarded by the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), along with new ones to be acquired by the Senegalese state. Its galleries were to be guided by thematic and chronological itineraries, from prehistory to the present, and its mission was to challenge that of European museums built on the colonial experience (Camara 2014: 40).
Despite Senghor’s efforts, the museum would not come to fruition during his mandate (1960–1980), nor those of his immediate successors. Indeed, the Musée des civilisations noires, as it is now, is a result of more than four decades of negotiations that would come to a conclusion in 2015, due to the funds leveraged by Chinese soft-power strategies in West Africa . »The development of the museum is part and parcel of an intellectual and cultural history of modernity«, claims Senegalese curator and scholar Malick Ndiaye (2019). »Reinterpreting that history in light of the profound changes it has entailed is therefore a challenge to the whole museological system« (Ndiaye 2019).
In this article, I examine the Musée des Civilisations Noires throughout three moments of its existence. Firstly, as an aspiration; secondly, as a project in the making; thirdly, as a fact. In the first section, I confront the expectations behind the project of the museum by positioning the institution in a broader geopolitical and historical context. This extends from the 1970s Mexican project of a cultural park, to the so-called »Seven Wonders of Dakar«, advanced during Abdoulaye Wade’s mandate (2000–2012). Following this contextualization, I demonstrate how the museum’s current public form grapples with ancient and current dilemmas on African art history and museology, with an emphasis on the »restitution debate« of 2018, initiated by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr. Finally, I delve into the highlights of the museum’s parcours and curatorial narratives in order to demonstrate how the MCN seeks to foster a vision of pan-Africanism that positions Dakar and négritude as the organizing tropes of Black history, assuming a central role among Africans and the diaspora.