The following conversation with Dr. Winani Thebele, Chief Curator and Head of the Ethnology Division at Botswana National Museum, took place in Rome in the occasion of the “Return of Looted Artefacts since 1945: Post-Fascist and Post-Colonial Restitution in Comparative Perspective” Conference (Max Weber Stiftung, 16-18 May 2022, hosted by Goethe-Institut Rom).
Every Sunday, the Botswana National Museum’s radio programme broadcasts a show called Motswedi wa Ditso (“Fountain of Traditions”), focused on heritage interpretation with a strong accent on oral history and topics of common interest such as parenting, natural therapies, relationships, and so on. It is a way of connecting different communities not only with the museum per se – this is a lateral aim, in fact, since the museum is so far away for the majority of the population – as a dynamic interpretative network in a very easy going, laidback yet effective way. This “cultural acupuncture” reinforces the community’s immunity system as a whole, reversing the dualistic paradigm of festive/ferial, cultivated/popular, top-down/bottom-up. This is one of the many strategies that museums have developed to reach the local communities, in the effort of outspreading its core assets and values in a communicative and informal way. When the radio curators go to a village and propose a subject, word-of-mouth starts naturally: “You need to speak to my friend who is out in the fields. Come with me, let’s go look for him”.
When issues concerning heritage – such as archaeological excavation, or provenance research, or conservation and safeguarding practices, or dealing with colonial history – come up and need to be shared and agreed upon, the local curators, working in outposts throughout the Country, contact the local community chiefs and discuss the theme with them, asking them to act as a “loudspeaker”. If an effective communication flow concerning objectives, impacts and the articulation of the process, the chief shares the information and advocates for the project with his community during the daily Kgotla, or local council. If the community refuses the investigation, then the museum renounces, out of respect; and if more consultation have to be done in order to inform all the members of the community, the museum simply waits. Sometimes somebody knocks at the museum’s doors and asks for an investigation in a certain site: this is when the issue of ownership steps in. Often the first investigation is done by the museum staff with members of the local community, so that transparency is radical since the very beginning of the process. “Sites are really meant to benefit the communities”, Dr. Thebele states, “that’s why it is important to start from the beginning together, so that people own the results. We are always happy to work with the elders and the youth, in particular, because this is how a deep sense of ownership, and even of pride, is transmitted. The heritage is theirs”. The communities benefit from heritage also in a very concrete way: they run the museum’s curio shop, the small businesses, the coffee shops and camping sites located around the two Botswana’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango delta) with the support of the museum.
Winani Thebele talks about an “ownership-taking process”, which is fundamentally about respect and patience: ownership is something so complex and even “intimate” that mistakes and pitfalls are considered part of the process. The journey towards accountability about heritage preservation is to be considered a never-ending process rather than an objective, an ongoing dialogue. As she points out, “it is important to acknowledge one’s mistakes, apologize and when possible, start afresh from a different basis”. An “apologizing toolkit”: the project popped up in my mind when the Chief Curator mentioned this practice as something “naturally” rooted into the museum’s mandate. Most timely, seen the state of the art for what concerns repatriations of looted objects and artworks from colonial countries to the source communities, the inflamed discussions it implies, and most of all the pain it revamps, on and on. “No trespassing”, is Winani Thebele’s motto. The topic of co-curatorship is very crucial in her view: transparency in preservation and dissemination strategies implies a shared responsibility and hence, a shared heritage. This is all the more relevant in a touristic country such as Botswana, where cultural and natural heritage is at risk of a certain “predatory” gaze, a hit-and-run approach or even a tailor-made narrative that risks to flatten out the richness of the Country for the tourists to metabolize it quickly and then leave. I asked Dr Thebele her viewpoint about the power structures implied in the repatriation and restitution processes, at every level (the material, the economical, the symbolic, etc). We discussed about how the Botswana National Museum works with human remains and what her understanding of the concept of repatriation as a healing practice is, as mentioned in the call for papers for the present issue of the magazine.
As she pointed out, “it is about bilateral agreements at a high political level, but also about shared ownership at the community level. We have to start from the very beginning as a community, otherwise all agreements will be an imposition, top-down decisions made by others. We are talking about the possibility of allowing communities/families to perform funerary and mourning rituals for their ancestors and allowing them to rest, at last. I take for example, the practices around the Nama and Herero skulls performed in Namibia, after the repatriations by German cultural institutions. Also, those performed by the Nama at the Iziko Museums in Cape Town. I very much consider the ceremonies finally performed by the indigenous communities as a closing gesture, one that puts a full stop after such a painful and violent process, one that allows for the turning of a new page. Rituality, it is very important for a society to elaborate and progress, to represent and be represented. If I had to pick a point of reference in this regard, I must say I look with great interest at the practices put in place by some Canadian museums, when they provide room for performing spiritual rituals and involve the communities of origin in a very transparent way. This is what I mean by equality: having an equal say”.
Cultural Diplomacy: History Collectively un/re-written (Northbound)
The Botswana National Museum recently took part in a project developed with the University of Sussex and Brighton Pavilion & Museum Trust around a collection of artefacts from Botswana, brought to the UK – and preserved by different cultural institutions – by Rev. William Charles Willoughby, who worked with Khama III at Old Palapye on behalf of the London Missionary Society. As Dr Thebele writes in the collection’s catalogue, Rev. Willoughby, as a collector, «remains a perpetrator and a contributing factor to the huge presence of Botswana collections in Cape Town, Europe and America. What was received from him and through him is far too little compared to what has been lost because of him» (The Willoughby Collection, p. 10). The research is part of a larger project called Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK . It revolves around missionary legacies, the representation of diasporic heritage, issues of repatriation and cultural policies as a means for the “healing process” mentioned above. It was developed in close partnership between curators from Botswana on the one side, and from the Sussex University and the Brighton Museums on the other, through provenance research, interviews and interpretative roundtables.
Of course the project has not resolved all doubts about the trajectory of every single object. This leaves us with an opacity, an emptiness and deafening silence, as reflected in many decolonial object-based heritage projects. In Thebele’s words: «As part of best practice, there is a need for transparency and sharing of old notes and records from colonial times by institutions of heritage and scholars. This includes accepting that there is a historical and cultural gap that needs to be filled. The museum also has to give space to the proper inventorying of its collections. The objects migrated by Rev. Willoughby were not documented, and we can only argue the case that the objects that were transferred from Botswana were given to him as gifts and donations and some were purchased» (The Willoughby Collection, p. 11). Yet, despite, the void that still resists every translation, every forced injection of meaning, the practice proved fruitful. «The communities become authors of their own culture» (ibid.). Also, an exhibition took place at Khama III Memorial Museum, a small community museum in the Serowe region, whose community was empowered through this project. “We wrote the budget with the local curators, we did provenance research and could fill in many blanks. So much came out of that project”.
A very crucial aspect in the collaboration over colonial collections throughout the world is the issue of visas, of equitable partnerships, in the end of funding policies. Journeys can be very expensive and not everybody can afford long stays in a foreign country (not only for economical reasons but also jobs, family, etc.). Also, the procedures for obtaining a visa for a country from the “Global North” can be very time-consuming and frustrating. Dr Thebele quotes cases in which experts from some countries of origin were not able to attend the public presentation of a shared project because they could not get their visas in time or were denied visas by the European partner state, This contradicts the “shared-ownership” assumption and provides a blatant demonstration of the inequality of opportunities and access to resources in different parts of the world. Those countries that engage in restitution policies should think in terms of a “package” also including travels. An exception has been the case of many Nama and Herero elders from Namibia, who were able to fly to Germany very easily because of a bilateral agreement between the two countries. Let the communities of origin contribute to the policies, don’t write the policies alone: this is what “decolonising the system” means. It means working as equals, being totally transparent.
Dr. Thebele points out this aspect with great energy, as should be done by all the stakeholders. This point is duly stressed in the Initial Findings and Recommendations stemming from the Making African Connections project: «The partnerships fostered through the project were valued by those involved, but some also stressed the need for these to be more equitable than they were. AHRC project funding via a UK university brought welcome resources, but produced inequities in relations among academic/non-academic institutions and partners, as well as between UK-based and African partners. There is a need for African partners to be able to access funding directly to enable them to gain understanding of historical materials in UK institutions, and to take the lead in the partnerships they want to develop […]. Regional museums also need funding streams to pursue international partnerships and collections research themselves: […] these need to be grounded in ‘inclusive curatorship’ that is ‘less authoritative and more democratic’. Community heritage organisations also need independent access to funds» (p. 14).
And yes, this is part of the healing process. Having a say, for example in the case of the Nama and Herero skulls repatriated from Germany, is key: should they be buried by the community or government, should they be kept in a museum storage, and how? Under which conditions? Once the skulls are repatriated and a collocation agreed upon with all due honours, the spirit is finally resting; the chapter is closed, the witch hunting and pointing of fingers is over. That person is back and has been laid to rest in a dignified way.
 “The project included digitisation, temporary displays and an international loan to Botswana. It was based on partnerships between the University of Sussex and four museums (Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, the Royal Engineers Museum, the Powell-Cotton Museum, and the Khama III Memorial Museum). Each UK museum worked with African and African diaspora consultants and specialists who provided historical and cultural expertise. Three collections were the specific focus of research: a 19th-century missionary collection from Botswana, a 19th-century Sudanese collection originating as military loot and a 1930’s ethnographic collection from the Angola/Namibia borderlands”. See Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections. Initial Findings and Recommendations, p. 6.
AA.VV., The Willoughby Collections Catalogue. (2021).
Amukwaya Shigwedha V., The homecoming of Ovaherero and Nama skulls: overriding politics and injustices, Human Remains and Violence 4/2 (2018), pp. 67–89, also online.
Black w., Cole C. C., Thebele W., Mosothwane M. N., Omar R., Silvester J., Who Were They? Repatriation and the Rehumanisation of Human Remains in Museums in Southern Africa, in Viv Golding and Jen Walklate (eds.). Museums and Communities: Diversity, Dialogue and Collaboration in an Age of Migrations, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2019), pp. 308-20.
Edwards E., Gosden C., Phillips R. B., Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Berg, Oxford-New York (2006).
Gulliford A., Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains. The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 4 (1996), pp. 119–43.
Haeckel J.J. (ed.), Everything Passes except the Past. Decolonizing Ethnographic Museums, Film Archives, and Public Space, Goethe Institut-Sternberg Press, London (2021).
Isselbacher J., The Spirit of the Law. John Harvard’s Journal 1/124 (September-October 2021), also online under the title Repatriating Native American Remains. Disputes over the disposition of sensitive collections shadow Peabody Museum.
Making African Connections Project, Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections. Initial Findings and Recommendations. University of Sussex (March 2021), online
Priewe S., Museum Diplomacy: Parsing the Global Engagement of Museums, CPD Perspectives on Public Diplomacy (August 2021), online
Rutherford J., W. C. Willoughby of Bechuanaland: missionary practitioner and scholar, University of Birmingham, Dept of Theology. Ph.D. Thesis (1983).
Thebele W., The role of museums. Völkerrechtsblog (22 November 2019), online.
Thebele W., Depatriated Objects. A Reflection, in Bénédicte Savoy, Charlotte Guichard, Christine Howald (eds.), Acquiring Cultures: Histories of World Art on Western Markets, De Gruyter, Boston-Berlin (2019), pp. 9-13.
Winani Thebele, Ph.D., is Chief Curator and Head of the Ethnology Division at Botswana National Museum. She joined the National Museum in 1993 after completing her BA in Humanities at the University of Botswana. Her PhD was obtained in 2021 with Wits University, South Africa. She is actively involved in ICOM-International Council of Museums, UNESCO, Commonwealth Association of Museums, American Alliance of Museums and the Pan African Heritage Museum Project.