Recycled Objects: Exhibiting Africa in Scotland. - NMS Research Repository
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Conference paper (unpublished)

Recycled Objects: Exhibiting Africa in Scotland.



Those acts of assembling, juxtaposing and exhibiting objects, which constitute the western museum, have themselves been conceptualised as artistic processes which produce the museum as a form of ‘public art’ (Hein, 2006). Such an holistic concept is fundamentally geographical: the place and placement of objects creating new aesthetic and discursive formations which invite public gaze. These practices of space are productive of their site of action as a museum (Swinney, 2013). This paper reports on aspects of the curatorial (sensu extenso) practices and processes performative of the World Cultures’ displays of the newly opened, in 2011, National Museum of Scotland (NMoS), a multidisciplinary ‘universal survey’ museum, which is the flagship site of National Museums Scotland (NMS) (Knowles, Livne & McCormick, 2013). In particular, its focus is on how Africa is presented, represented and aestheticized in and for Scotland. It takes as its fulcrum L’Ange, a contemporary sculpture by Beninese artist Gérard Quenum (b. 1971), which was acquired by NMS specifically for inclusion in the new displays. For one European commentator, ‘Quenum’s work is composed of an eclectic mix of recycled objets trouvés – that elevates the pieces into poignant, mysterious and whimsical “portraits” of individuals or types observed in his local environment. These “portraits” serve as a ‘lens through which we view Africa’ (October Gallery, [2012]). Quenum’s recycled objects, I argue, are emblematic of the very process of museum display. The Museum’s construction and representation of the ‘ethnographical’ has a long history – a public, encyclopaedic, government-funded museum was established in Edinburgh in 1854. The new NMoS displays are but the most recent recycling of collections into new juxtapositions and new discursive formations – the latest ‘lens through which we view Africa’. Drawing on NMS public statements, archival documents, and a semi-structured interview with the Curator of the African collections, this paper reflects on the work done in ‘grinding’ that lens and situates the recent recycling of objects, the acquisition of contemporary art, and concepts of ‘the field’ and ‘fieldwork’, within the context of a longer-run history of collecting and exhibiting Africa by Scotland’s national museum. Hein, Hilde (2006) Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield. Knowles, C., Livne, I. & McCormick, K. (2013) Multiple dialogues: interpreting ethnographic collections in the twenty-first century – an introduction. Journal of Museum Ethnography 26: 3–13. October Gallery ([n.d. 2012]) ‘Gérard Quenum: Dolls never die’, 20 September – 27 October 2012, The October Gallery, London. Available at [accessed 22 September 2012] Swinney, G. N. (2013) ‘Towards an Historical Geography of a ‘National’ Museum: The Industrial Museum of Scotland, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art and the Royal Scottish Museum, 1854-1939’. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh. Available at


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