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December 7, 2012

Conclusion of Dr. Tom Flynn's Interview with Georges Abungu at Forum d'Avignon

TF — We’re here at Forum d’Avignon where we’ve all been discussing culture as a source of hope. What excites you most about ICOM’s activities at present and what gives you most hope and optimism for the future?

GA — What gives me a lot of hope is that ICOM has tried to lead from the front, and from the bottom up, engaging museum professionals, and particularly in those areas involving the youth because they are the future of museums and heritage, and culture in general. ICOM has systematically made sure that where it has initiatives and programmes, where it has meetings, young people can begin to get involved. That is the first thing. The second is the ICOM Code of Ethics, which stipulates how we need to act together and negotiate and move forward on what we can do. The third is setting up these mediation teams where institutions don’t have to quarrel over things but can go through the mediation process with professional mediators, allowing them to discuss amongst themselves and agree on issues. And the same things I’ve been discussing with you can be taken through this mediation process. So to me that is very important. Speaking on an intellectual level as an academic, and referring to the production of intellectual material, ICOM has done that too. The only problem is that it lacks in peer review and that is something some of us have been arguing for because ICOM has a great body of intellectual potential and we could use that. We need to intellectualize our products, to generate more peer-reviewed material using our human resources as a network. It is taking place but we can do better. Lastly ICOM has been flexible enough to guide the development of museums from temples of heritage to community spaces, so it is not rigid. If you look at ICOM as an institution, compared with other bodies it really has embraced this idea of community as a bottom-up approach. I think that is very powerful. It has given museums a direction to enable them to engage with their communities, to open up museums as places of dialogue and as places where communities feel at home. And also to allow museums, indeed to encourage museums in different parts of the world to develop alongside the community’s way of living, of believing, the way the society looks at itself. When you go to Africa, the museum since the 1990s has developed in a very different way, so it is a place of meeting, it is a community centre, a place of dialogue, where you can talk politics. It is the only place that is open to the public in a very fresh way.  To me that issue of diversity that is embraced within ICOM is very important.

TF — Is this your first Forum d’Avignon?

GA — Yes, it’s my first forum and I’ve been enjoying it. I think it’s a fantastic event and I look forward to many more. Over the last two days I have seen how it’s moving on. I think because it’s in Avignon it is very French...

TF — Quintessentially French.

GA — Yes, it’s very French! But I hope that in future they will bring in even more people. They are talking about 42 different nations. It will have to be able to move to embrace those voices. I would have liked to hear what is happening in South America, what is happening in Africa. Africa is the emerging economy, the future of the world, the continent of the future. It is where things are taking place. People are talking about mobile phones here, Africa is where the majority of mobile phones are sold, where communication is moving so fast and I would have liked, when we are talking about culture, not to box it so that European culture is the main thing that needs to exported out, but that we look at other areas, particularly on the issue of diversity. There is no better place to talk about this than here because the whole of West Africa is more or less French. And Asia too. So it will take time, but I’d like to see us move away from the Eurocentric way of looking at culture to a much more globalized way of approaching it. But I’m very happy that we have been looking at culture in terms of innovation, in terms of digital technology, in terms of diversity, and in terms of hope. I’m very happy about that but I’d like to see it opened up to embrace other perspectives because we can learn a lot from the diversity of other cultures.

TF — Why do you think the African art market has not emerged in the same way that, for example, the Chinese art market has, or the Indian art market, or the Russian and Middle East art markets have? After all, Africa has produced great art.

GA — Africa does make fantastic art, but Africa is very busy with other things! We are still trying to find out what resources we have. We have oil, we have uranium...Kenya has oil, Uganda is now producing oil. Every part of Africa has mineral resources coming out if its ears, so there is a second scramble for Africa taking place. And of course the Chinese are there and the Indians are doing things, but Western Europe is finding itself late in this  second scramble for the continent. So I think Africa is trying to manage that before it goes into other things. Everybody is positioning themselves, but everyone talks about Africa as the future continent or the future in terms of the economic scramble. But I think culture is still being left on the side, which I think is a mistake because it should go hand-in-hand. We should use culture to manage those resources that are coming out. It is not that I am approving of what is happening now. I’m actually disapproving because this is the time to use our culture to manage the developments that are being driven by the new resources that are emerging out of the continent. Africa now is able to choose. As a continent, and its various countries, they don’t have to go to Washington to kneel to the IMF or the World Bank. The Chinese will give them money if those guys refuse, so there are choices now. There are resources, but if we don’t manage them now, using our heritage and our culture, we will regret it.

TF — So you’re reinforcing what has been said here at Forum d’Avignon this week, that culture should not be marginalized but should be placed right at the centre of economic activity?

GA — It should be central, but it should also to some extent dictate development because if you don’t do it your way someone else will do it their way and then, by the time you realise it, suddenly it will be too late and that could be a problem for Africa. That is why I’d like to hear more critical analysis at forums like this of how things are happening in Africa and how they could happen better, especially now that these new resources are coming in.

TF — So we should be pushing for greater African representation at Forum d’Avignon next year and in future years?

GA — Yes, that would be fantastic but not only Africa; there is also South America, and Asia, which is developing very fast, as well as the Pacific and other places. But Africa does deserve more critical analysis because we are the continent that still has the raw resources. We have to develop them in the right way, using our various cultures as central to that process. And of course the museum is part of that process too.