Examining Switzerland’s Colonial Past at MEG: Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, December 2022

Prologue section of the MEG exhibition, "The Archives of Human Diversity."

During my visit to the Palace of Nations in Geneva to attend the inaugural sessions of the United Nations Permanent Forum of People of African Descent (PFPAD), 5-8 December 2022, I spent time at MEG (Musée d’ethnographie de Genève), Switzerland’s largest world cultures museum, viewing two exhibitions: (1) “The Archives of Human Diversity” – a presentation of c.1000 cultural objects from MEG’s permanent collections spanning five continents and several centuries of production; (2) “Helvécia: A Forgotten Colonial History” – a temporary exhibition of photojournalism about the legacies of Switzerland’s involvement in enslavement history and colonialism in the Americas, considered and recounted via the cultural traditions, heritage and religious observances of African-descended Helvécians from Bahia, Brazil.

The Archives of Human Diversity

Within MEG’s permanent exhibition, the museum showcased a selection of c.1000 artworks, sacred objects, ceremonial artefacts, embroidered textiles, other cultural items and ephemera arranged into chronological and geographically-themed display cabinets in the lower-ground-floor galleries. This eclectic sample of exhibits represented a small fraction of more than 70,000 holdings in total that have been collected since Geneva’s municipal authorities founded an amalgamated “Musée Ethnographique” from several smaller and private collections, formally brought together in 1901 and initially housed in a lakeside villa near Mon-Repos Park.

Exterior of MEG: Musée d'ethnographie de Genève on Boulevard Carl-Vogt, Geneva, Switzerland
MEG: Musée d’ethnographie de Genève on Blvd. Carl-Vogt. The building was designed by Graber Pulver Architekten AG in collaboration with Weber + Brönnimann AG and opened in 2014. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Rapid expansion of the museum collections during the early 20th century led to the institution being moved to its current city-centre location on the Boulevard Carl-Vogt in 1941, remaining in a converted school building until the current, purpose-built museum was constructed in 2014 by Swiss architects Graber Pulver Architekten AG of Zurich, working in partnership with civil engineers Weber + Brönnimann AG of Bern.

Display cabinets featuring cultural objects from continental Africa, acquired by Swiss collectors such as the artist Émile Chambon (1905-1993) and the Geneva-born geographer and explorer Alfred Bertrand (1856-1924). Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

The idea of having the main exhibition spaces, public auditoriums and meeting rooms below the ground floor was suggestive of visitors being granted unrestricted access to a repository of cultural treasures and global educational resources that have historically been hidden from mainstream public view in basement archives, members-only viewing salons, or privately held “cabinets of curiosity” – previously only accessible to a small minority of learned and well-connected elites.

The permanent collections

Cultural objects displayed at MEG (Musée d'ethnographie de Genève), December 2022
Cultural objects displayed in the prologue area, titled “History of the Collections,” at MEG (Musée d’ethnographie de Genève), December 2022. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

In the exhibition’s prologue section – “History of the Collection” – an expansive white display table was used to showcase a range of glass-covered objects assembled from different world regions and grouped according to their usage, materials, cultural symbolism and aesthetics. The interpretation panels positioned along the length of the gallery wall made reference to Switzerland’s long history of wealthy European explorers seeking out what were previously considered “exotic” items and “curiosities” acquired from distant places, primarily used to furnish the domestic interiors of elite households and also as sources of entertainment. It was regrettable, and quite uncomfortable to read problematic details about how the acquisitioning of these artworks and cultural objects was couched in rather benign descriptive language that made vague references to international ‘trading’, artistic ‘commissioning’ and a desire for ‘cultural exchange’ using quite neutral and muted terms that significantly downplayed how exploitative, violent, unethical and unjust collecting practices were – especially at the height of late-18th and 19th-century, European colonialist expansion throughout the Global South.

“Exoticism as taste” and “Othering”: How far have museums moved on?

However, one of the prologue’s interpretation panels did openly address the racialised practice of “Othering” non-European communities, and acknowledged the continuing harmful legacies of those actions by commenting on the trajectory of increased European demands for “exoticism as taste” that accelerated the scale and pace of cultural appropriation, colonial theft of significant objects and the associated racialised oppression of communities of colour by Swiss explorers and their counterparts from other nations in Western Europe. The museum’s vast white table at the centre of this introductory display space was highly symbolic of the consumptive behaviour that esteemed sociologist and race theorist bell hooks described in her seminal essay Eating the Other (1992), observing:

“[T]he commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (hooks, 1992: 31)

[and] “…The over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate – that the Other will be eaten, commodified and forgotten” (Ibid, p. 39).

Source: bell hooks (1992) “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” Chapter 2 in Black Looks, Race and Representation, Boston, MA: South End Press, pp. 21-40.

Beyond the prologue, five continental sections showcasing objects from Asia, the Americas, Europe, Africa and Oceania formed the main part of the exhibition, arranged into dark, dimly-lit cabinets in a parallel linear sequence, with an additional set of vitrines positioned along the length of the nearside gallery wall devoted to musical instruments from around the world, crafted over several centuries. Additionally, a Sound Chamber [Chambre Sonore] installation, curated by French musician Julien Perez – which combined contemporary electro compositions, traditional instrumental music and soundscapes of ambient noise – provided audio accompaniments for the object-based musicology display.

The African collections

Figurative sculptures and masks with African provenance displayed in the permanent exhibition at MEG. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

Among my personal highlights displayed in the Africa section were: a Beninese “Masque Gelede” woodcarving from the early 1900s; Nigerian sculptor Lamidi Fakeye’s mid-20th century equestrian figure of an Oba King “Ce roi-cavalier entouré de ses serviteurs“; an ornate wooden post from the palace of the Babanki Tungo kingdom in NW Cameroon, carved by the artist-king Fontshue Aseh (c. 1910s); and a late-19th century Yoruba, Ekiti area wooden sculpture depicting a priestess on horseback surrounded by musicians and followers.

Some concluding reflections

Similarly to my previous observations about the acquisition histories, interpretation narratives and exhibiting practices within world cultures museums in Europe, MEG could benefit from much more long-term, structurally integrated international and cross-cultural research dialogues with present-day art historians, museologists and heritage scholars from the regions and nations of the Global South that feature prominently within the permanent collections. With particular regard to the African holdings, I would have welcomed seeing scholarly quotations and documentary film clips presented by art experts and historians from Benin, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, etc. – actively discussing the historical and cultural significance of some of the afore-mentioned cultural objects, communicated within a decolonial framework and via art-political and anthropological discourses that explicitly address histories of racism. Naturally, live issues concerning the rightful restitution of any contested holdings sourced during the colonial era should also feature prominently in these decolonial dialogues – including the return of looted artworks, and exploitatively appropriated sacred exhibits purchased from corrupt traders, sent back to their cultures and communities of origin.

I’d much rather see a selection of cultural objects labelled as “on temporary loan” from museums on the African continent, with accompanying descriptive text illustrative of ongoing polyvocal knowledge-sharing and co-produced interpretation, than the continued reinforcement of “exoticism as taste” written on interpretation panels, and the use of symbolic dinner tables offering up “the Other” as a sumptuous buffet. Although the prologue was supposedly all about seeking to critique historically problematic relations of power and inappropriate ways of displaying and demonstrating an appreciation of diverse cultural production from around the world, the methods used had quite the opposite effect.

The inclusion of a contemporary digital art installation – “La Mer” [Sea] by French painter, photographer and film-maker Ange Leccia – flowing continuously as a video projection of moving water alongside the “History of the Collections” table display was beautiful and mesmerising to view. However, its contemporary dynamism did very little to counter the problematic presentation techniques that still encouraged spectatorial ‘gazing down’ on the ‘dinner table of exoticised delicacies’, and the associated convention of using an anonymous, disembodied, Euro-centrist curatorial voice on most of the interpretation panels.

The published expertise and portfolios of Black and Brown arts and heritage scholars from continental Africa and the global African diaspora – including notable luminaries such as Nigerian-American art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, Nigerian-born MoMA curator and film-maker Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Senegalese multi-disciplinary artist and scholar-activist El Hadji Sy, and the internationally acclaimed Cameroon-born, Cape Town-based curator and academic Koyo Kouoh (among many others!) – must be consulted and integrated into curatorial practices. Additionally, more Black/Brown museum professionals should be appointed to diversify curatorial and education teams, so that world cultures museums such as MEG are not simply interesting to visit because they have an architecturally contemporary look and feel, but rather because their object collections, research knowledge and interpretation practices reflect and convey what politically-informed 21st century, multicultural, globally outward-looking, and decolonialist museum-going publics actually want to engage with today.

“Helvécia: A Forgotten Colonial History”

I was pleased that the temporary exhibition “Helvécia” was on display at the time of my visit to MEG. This insightful photographic presentation featured contemporary photojournalistic images and personal testimonies about a community of villagers with African-Brazilian heritage, researched and presented by the Swiss-Brazilian photographer Dom Smaz and the Brazilian journalist Milena Machado Neves.

Their decolonial approaches to knowledge co-production – encouraging challenging content about Switzerland’s forgotten colonial past to be foregrounded, and presenting a searching critique of the enslavement histories and exploitative plantation economy practices that linked the African-descended community in Helvécia to the former Swiss and German colony of Leopoldina – provided much-needed, inter-cultural balance to make the latter part of my visitor experience at MEG a more positive one than my earlier encounters with the regrettably staid and Euro-centrist discourses on global cultural production presented in the permanent exhibition.

Detail from an image of a Helvécian at prayer near the umbanda altar (2016), shown in the temporary exhibition at MEG co-curated by Dom Smaz and Milena Machado Neves (Helvécia: A Forgotten Colonial History, October 21, 2022 to January 8, 2023). These sacred objects were considered a connection between heaven and earth. Exhibition photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

The long history of Black/Brown people being rendered voiceless, invisible and denied agency to contribute to, co-produce or lead the conceptualisation and crafting of curatorial narratives that consider us, our lived experiences, our ancestors’ legacies and our creative cultural production, is something that must be confined to the distant past.

A number of these museological reflections concerning self-authorship of African artistic production, heritage interpretation and representation of one’s own ancestral cultural knowledge featured in some of the recent debates at the United Nations Permanent Forum of People of African Descent (PFPAD). Having attended this Forum’s inaugural sessions in Geneva, 5-8 December 2022, it is my intention to continue advocating for greater inclusion of African art-historical, cultural studies and anthropological scholarship, as well as more diverse curatorial and pedagogic expertise led by people of colour with African ancestry, prominently featured within museums and the wider arts and heritage arenas – not only in Europe, but internationally – for everyone’s future benefit.

Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D. in front of a poster at the United Nations in Geneva, 8 December 2022.
Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D. at the United Nations in Geneva, attending as a civil society (CSO/Academic) delegate at the 1st PFPAD, 8 December 2022.

Further Information

For further information about the inaugural gathering of the United Nations Permanent Forum of People of African Descent (PFPAD), 5-8 December 2022, please see my full-text report for Decolonial Dialogues at https://decolonialdialogue.wordpress.com/.

MEG: Musée d’ethnographie de Genève website (English translation) – https://www.meg.ch/en.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: