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The World’s Largest Museum Dedicated to African Civilizations Opens in Dakar, Senegal

The largest museum dedicated to African civilizations opened in Dakar, Senegal in late December. The idea of creating the Museum of Black Civilizations, known in French as the Musee des Civilisations Noire, was inspired by the vision of the first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, fifty-two years prior.

In 1966, the World Festival of Black Arts (Festival Mondial des Arts Negres) was hosted in Dakar. The month-long festival featured music, visual arts, theater, literature and other cultural activities from forty-five nations across the African continent and the diaspora. The second iteration of the festival was held in Dakar in 2010. Dakar is the capital of Senegal and has continued to be regarded as one of Africa’s cultural towns with the Dakar Art Biennale held every two years since 1990.

The Museum of Black Civilizations aims to decolonize knowledge on African art. Ernesto A. Ramirez, assistant director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO), attended the opening ceremony of the museum, stating, “This museum is a response to the aspirations of African children to better understand their memory and other cultures.”

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal aims to decolonize knowledge. Photo:    Artsy   .

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal aims to decolonize knowledge. Photo: Artsy.

The design of the museum pays homage to traditional homes in Senegal’s Casamance region and the round walls of Great Zimbabwe. It has the capacity to store 18,000 artworks and currently has various exhibitions with subject matters spanning from pre-colonial history to religion, slavery and more. Countries like Haiti and Brazil, which have some of the largest black populations outside of the African continent, are also represented in the museum with an exhibition titled “Memory in Motion.”

The establishment of the Museum of Black Civilizations has reignited conversations around African nations being able to conserve their own cultural objects. In late November, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to return looted objects to Benin. Senegal has also requested the return of its heritage. As Senegal’s cultural minister stated, “We are ready to find solutions with France. But if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

Some Western museums have begun considering ways to have art returned to their original countries, such as through loans, like the Victoria and Albert Museum’s offer to loan Ethiopia some of its cultural treasures from the Maqdala Battle. Others have chosen to build entire African museums, such as Belgium’s Africa Museum, formerly known as the Royal Museum of Central Africa, which houses items taken from colonies, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). In a press statement, the museum’s Director-General Guido Gryseels stated that there are no museums in Congo and that artifacts are not stored correctly. However, in the same release, he also stated,

“It is not normal that 80% of the African cultural heritage is in Europe… It is basically their culture, their identity, their history. We need to have a very open attitude. The question is under what conditions. How do we define what was legally acquired and what was not legally acquired?”

Senegalese arts journalist Amadou Moustapha Dieng referenced the significance of the Museum of Black Civilizations being located on the continent during the opening of the museum, “I know there are important relics which I’m not able to see unless I go abroad, but now [with] this space, we can get back the relics and Africans can come here now and see this was their history.”