Conference Investigates the Politics of Heritage

The African Heritage Initiative’s second international conference was convened at Museum Africa in Johannesburg from 8 to 10 July 2011. The conference proceedings drew a wide and diverse audience, ranging from museum professionals to scholars to activists to librarians. There was much to discuss, for the rhetoric and practice of heritage work stands at the center of Africa’s contemporary cultural politics. In Ghana, the Asante state has come to enjoy an extraordinary pre-eminence thanks to its astute self-marketing campaign. In the United States, Asante attire and jewelry enjoy an unrivaled status as markers of African authenticité, and tourists flock to Ghana to reconnect with a cultural homeland. In Uganda, new kingdoms seem everywhere to be springing up as the Ugandan state allocates resources (and political power) to neo-traditional polities. These states are not simply relics from the past. Their architects speak the language of developmentalism, and they run forestry projects, administer AIDS prevention programs, and oversee prospecting for oil and mineral resources. In South Africa, ethnic entrepreneurs like the Royal Bafokeng are also businessmen, investing in concrete manufacturing, bakeries, and shopping centers even as they also market their ethnic identity. At the intersection of business, politics, and heritage studies, history is being reconfigured and worked over. The past is being marshaled as a resource to be celebrated, commoditized, and deployed by corporations, by governments, and by commoners eager to gain revenue and political leverage.


Heritage conference delegates. Photo by Tom Bray.


There were about fifty attendees at the Johannesburg conference. Papers were written in advance, and participants were obliged to read through them. Presentations were kept to ten minutes, allowing plenty of time for discussion and argument among the conference attendees. And useful debates did indeed happen—about archives and the politics of (selective) preservation; about the relationship between official and ‘popular’ renditions of history; about poetry and Botswana’s history. One panel—entitled ‘Spaces of Heritage’—highlighted the ways in which stone-cut memorials have been edited, replaced, or recomposed in response to changing times. Another panel highlighted the ways in which film, photography and other visual media act as forae where a particular historical milieu is evoked, defined and reconfigured. A third panel, about ‘Royalisms’, considered how, in Asante and in Zululand, contemporary political entrepreneurs consolidate cultural history around the singular figure of a king. In these and in other panels presenters focused on the editorial work of heritage-making, the creative labor by which texts, artifacts and archives are composed, reorganized, and presented. The conference, in other words, opened up new ways of thinking about curatorial work—as an act by which narratives are constituted, historical lessons are taught, and political constituencies are created.


The conference’s location—at Museum Africa, located in the center of Johannesburg’s historical preservation precinct—helped spark the dialogue. One afternoon was spent on a tour through the historical sites of downtown Johannesburg, led by Eric Itzkin, from Johanneburg’s Department of Community Development. Another afternoon was spent touring Museum Africa’s in the company of Ali Hlongwane, the curator of the museum and host of the conference. In these and in other occasions conferees were brought face-to-face with the hard work of historical reckoning in post-apartheid South Africa. For curators face enormously complicated questions about how to tell the story of apartheid: as mourning and suffering or march to freedom, as the stuff of the digital museum or in the more homespun goods of remembrance, featuring which political party, according to whose position in the current regime.


The conference organizers are presently preparing a volume consisting of papers presented at the Johannesburg conference. Through this means—and through the ongoing work of the Heritage Initiative—we hope to bring our conversations to a wider audience.