Across the Indian Ocean: ‘Imagining a Museum of Intangible Culture’

Professor Françoise Vergès and Dr Shihan de Silva will be speaking at a forthcoming ICS symposium on Wednesday 29th October 2014 (9.30am-6pm) at Senate House (Room 349, 3rd Floor), University of London.

This FREE event – titled, ‘Across the Indian Ocean’ – is being organised by the Race in the Americas (RITA) Group, in partnership with Kavyta K. Raghunandan (University of Leeds, Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies [CERS]) and will focus on an exploration of the “politics of the present” across the Indian Ocean region – re. Mauritius, Seychelles, Réunion Island, Comoros and Madagascar.

In the event programme, the title of Françoise Vergès’ presentation is ‘Imagining a Museum of Intangible Culture in the Indian Ocean’, and Dr Shihan De Silva will address colonial history and its legacies throughout the region in a talk on ‘Difference and Inequalities’.

“The Indian Ocean region has been marked as ‘hybrid’, ‘creole’, ‘creolised’, and ‘plural’. These ongoing processes have been analysed across a raft of disciplines and media and have also acted as theoretical inroads into inequalities linked to the region’s colonial past and its current economic and geostrategic positioning. Much like the Caribbean region, the Indian Ocean region experienced not only encounters between African slaves and European colonial masters and resulting cleavages created by hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality and language, but also great social complexity through cross-cultural exchanges in trade, labour, religion and culture.”

(Source: Event publicity statement for the symposium, circulated 01/09/2014)

Many of the issues and themes highlighted as discussion points in the event’s publicity statement (quoted above) strike a chord with me – particularly the way the above-mentioned scholars intend to reflect on the political, economic and socio-cultural parallels between colonialism, enslavement and creole histories in the islands and territories of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.

Location map of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean
Location map of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean

Back in April I was very pleased to meet Professor Vergès during one of my research trips to Paris, and we discussed aspects of a particular museum project about intangible culture  that she had been involved with in Réunion as its scientific and creative director for almost a decade.

In brief, the Réunionese  projectMaison des civilizations et de l’unité réunionnaise’  [House of Civilisation and Réunionese Unity] (MCUR) was initiated  in the early 2000s to celebrate the diverse languages and hybrid cultural traditions of the Réunionese population and was conceptualised as the development of a ‘Museum Without Objects’.

MCUR was formally inaugurated in 2002, and between 2003-2009 significant milestones were achieved in establishing a scientific and cultural programme (Programme Scientifique et Culturel (PSC), 2003), a project delivery team (Equipe Scientifique et Culturelle (ESC), 2005), and a federation of heritage organisations (Fédération des écomusées et des musées de société (FEMS), 2006) to ensure that all the work to develop a new museum space for celebrating intangible and vernacular heritage progressed as a collaborative and democratic initiative involving all of Réunionese society. Given the island’s continued status as an overseas department of France (Département d’Outre-Mer de la Réunion), there was a very strong shared resolve among the participants to work towards de-centralising Europe and ‘de-centring’ France’s linguistic (and wider cultural) dominance within Réunionese society in favour of acknowledging equally important diverse, cross-cultural, hybrid and creole aspects of Réunionese culture arising from centuries of pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial connections with Africa and Asia.

The catalogue essays published to document the development process for MCUR in Maison des civilizations et de l’unité réunionnaise (Vergès, 2009) celebrated the project’s commitment to inter-generational planning and decision-making  –  particularly the consultations undertaken with island elders (respected as ‘Des Zarboutan Nout Kiltur’ [‘Pillars of the Culture’]), and the recruitment and training of young Réunionese men and women to assist with designing the proposed contemporary audio-visual exhibitions, performance spaces and  literary/poetic narratives symbolising MCUR as a ‘postcolonial museum for the living present’ [‘un musée postcolonial vivant du temps present’].

MCUR’s stated aim was to name and show the diverse range of cultural treasures that constitute the island’s rich intangible heritage, described by Françoise Vergès and her curatorial colleague Carpanin Marimoutou as the:

“… sounds; creations; the unpredictable, baffling, astounding mechanisms and consequences of creolization processes at work in the Indian Ocean world and Réunion Island; voices, memories, gestures, men’s and women’s practices, both personal and social, holy and profane, which are not considered “worthy of History” but “without which the earth would not be the earth”, as Aimé Césaire put it. Those treasures deserve a museum, free from any ethnographic or exotic perspective, free from an aesthetic or paternalistic stance; a museum for the 21st century on Réunion Island. ”

(Vergès and Marimoutou, 2006: 6)[1]

Despite almost a decade-long planning and development process, the MCUR project was ultimately cancelled in 2010 as a result of a change of regional governance on the island from the Communist Party (Parti Communiste Réunionnais — PCR) to the Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire — UMP). Following the election of UMP politician Didier Robert as President of the Regional Council, support for MCUR was formally withdrawn, and so the proposed new cultural centre envisioned and imagined as a new, 21st century creative and democratic multi-media museum space for celebrating and memorializing the island’s intangible heritage was never built.

It will be very interesting to hear much more about the impacts and the legacies arising from the MCUR project in Françoise Vergès’ symposium presentation, and I look forward to posting a follow-up review piece about it after the event on 29th October.

Registration details and further information about the symposium’s programme  are available online at http://events.sas.ac.uk/icws/events/view/16133/Across+the+Indian+Ocean+

FYI: The full-text of UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is available online (click here) and applies the following definition:

UNESCO-logo

“Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is defined as practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills which are transmitted from generation to generation and which provide communities with a sense of identity and continuity… It is expressed, among others, in the following ways:

  • Oral traditions and expressions
  • Performing arts
  • Knowledge and practises concerning nature and the universe
  • Social practises, rituals and festive events
  • Traditional craftsmanship” (UNESCO, 2003)

NOTES:

[1] Additional information about the MCUR project is available in a PDF document written by Françoise Vergès and Carpanin Marimoutou, published via the online journal Témoignages:  http://www.temoignages.re/IMG/pdf/MCUR_POUR_UN_MUSEE-2.pdf
[English translation:  http://www.regionreunion.com/fr/spip/IMG/pdf/MCUR_PROJECT_FOR_A_MUSEUM-1.pdf]

REFERENCES:

VERGÈS, F. & MARIMOUTOU, C. 2006. La maison des civilisations et de l’unité réunionnaise : pour un musée du temps présent [La maison des civilisations et de l’unité réunionnaise: project for a museum of the present]. In: MCUR (ed.). La Réunion: Témoignages – http://www.temoignages.re/IMG/pdf/MCUR_POUR_UN_MUSEE-2.pdf

VERGÈS, F. 2008. Methodology for a Creole Museum, For a Postcolonial Museum of the Living Present. In: TRANT, J. & BEARMAN, D., eds. Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Toronto, Canada: Archives & Museum Informatics – http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2008/papers/verges/verges.html.

VERGÈS, F. 2009. La maison des civilisations et de l’unité réunionnaise: un centre culturel pour le 21ème siècle, La Réunion, Océan Indien. Sous la direction de Françoise Vergès. In: MCUR (ed.). Paris: Somogy éditions d’art.

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Carol Dixon

Carol Dixon is a teacher, education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her recently completed PhD dissertation is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK).

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