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Helena Bonet Muñoz on The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage
8 November, 2023
Once the audio guide was in operation, we entered the Rietberg Museum through the Villa Wesendonck. We began to wander through the various rooms without any planned route, guided solely by our curiosity. Until the voice of the narrator started speaking, we felt a little overwhelmed by the large number of objects on display without any context or order. The sense of confusion was growing: What is this object? And that one? What could this be used for? We had to limit ourselves to appreciate the beauty of their craftsmanship but couldn’t we delve deeper or gain a better understanding of the whole?
Then, the voice in our headphones gave us the first instructions: “Rest your gaze upon an object that captures your imagination,” and proceeded to recite phrases or excerpts from the “Reader”. At last, I can think. Suddenly, the objects seemed to make more sense, word by word, it was possible to find the connection between what was narrated and our experience as spectators. A discourse about the exhibited works began to take shape in our minds. Furthermore, depending on which building we visited, we, visitors felt more empowered to make a critical judgment: If the object is returned to its place of origin, will it have the same meaning as before? How much has the culture of the original area changed? Exhibitions of this kind make the still-present colonialist character in Europe even more evident. A flood of thoughts intertwined with the perfectly British diction of the audio guide, without us being able to formulate a clear response. The visitor continues to ponder: What do the immigrants in this city think when they see the exhibition? And what about the natives of the countries to which the objects belong?
The debate generated through visits to museums like the Rietberg Museum, by questioning and reflecting on the origin of the displayed objects, their meaning, their historical and cultural context, and their acquisition, should become a fundamental tool for understanding and discussing the role these institutions can play in conveying the cultural and artistic value of handmade pieces to their visitors and generating awareness about it.