In anticipation of Namibian Heritage Week, the University of Namibia recently hosted a major three day Conference to consider `The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage’. The Conference was organized in collaboration with the Museums Association of Namibia and the University of Basel of Switzerland.
The Conference was divided into twelve sessions with the topics including the meaning of heritage in a Namibian context, the debate around collaboration and the possible repatriation of artifacts from collections abroad, the role of public art in contemporary society and the challenges to providing suitable training to support capacity-building in the heritage sector.
The Conference started with over a hundred participants being welcomed by Prof Frednard Gideon, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dr Bennett Kangumu, the Chairperson of the National Heritage Council of Namibia.
Prof Gideon emphasized the fact that the Conference was one of the fruits of an official partnership that UNAM had forged with the University of Basel. He praised the Carl Schlettwein Stiftung (Foundation), the main sponsor of the Conference, for its consistent support for the development of Namibian research and noted that over fifty Namibians had already obtained postgraduate qualifications thanks to scholarships provided by the Foundation.
Dr Kangumu argued that `cultural heritage’ should not be viewed as, simply, part of Namibia’s tourism package, but that it lies at the heart of economic development in Namibia. Dr Kangumu’s argument was later taken up in presentations by Mr Elliot Mowa and by Dr Angel Tordisillas who spoke about the ways in which the Oranjemund Shipwreck and the National Maritime Museum (being developed at Lüderitz) can be magnets for economic growth in the towns.
The Conference involved a diverse range of contributors with 58 people participating in twelve panels and lots of time being provided for discussions from the floor. In addition to the presentation of forty papers, there was also a panel discussion on training and a book launch (of The Genocidal Gaze). The Conference was only advertised through the networks of the three organizing institutions, but generated tremendous interest.
Whilst the original budget catered for ninety participants it was eventually stretched to enable 120 people to participate and Mr Diddy Muifi, the Conference Organiser (from the Museums Association of Namibia) said that he is sure that, if it had been possible, many more people would have attended.
One of the central features of the Conference was that it encouraged the breaking of boundaries. Dr Sem Shikongo and PaPa Shikongeni opened the Conference with an appeal that the Conference should draw on traditional belief systems and not just be an intellectual exercise. They argued that drawing on African roots would help participants to `re-think’ their sense of identity. Axaro Thaniseb spoke about the way in which the Government’s new Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy had been developed through a consultative process.
Catherine Cole, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Association of Museums introduced the discussion of the ways in which museums, whose collections were often entangled with colonial history, could be refashioned for the twenty-first century.
The theme was taken up in the second session which included discussion about the statue of the Curt von Françoise in Windhoek, the Swakopmund Museum, the `Witbooi Bible’ in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart and the ways in which art might be used to ask new questions about museum collections. Issues about the ways in which, what was termed as the `Namibian Diaspora’.
Discussions about the ways in which Namibian museums and communities might engage in dialogue with collections in museums and archives abroad was developed in presentations dealing with collections in Berlin, Bremen, Frankfurt in Germany, Basel and Berne in Switzerland and Vienna in Austria.
The engagement with cultural heritage covered a wide range of topics. For example, Hertha Bukasa, the Culture Officer for Otjozondjupa Region spoke about the skills in making the traditional `Herero dress’, whilst Moses Mberiria gave a presentation on the significance of hairstyles. Ms Lovisa Nampala and Ms Nehoa Kautondokwa made an appeal for the preservation of the Oompampa (traditional graves) of the Aakwaniilwa (Kings) of the Ovambo Kingdoms of the north, using the Kingdom of Ondonga as an example.
An important fringe event to the Conference was provided by Dr Marion Wallace, the author of `The History of Namibia’ and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Southern African Studies. She provided UNAM staff and other local researchers with advice and tips on how to get published in academic journals.
The Conference also sought to break barriers by engaging the Namibian art sector with the museum community. Presenters supported the idea of the Museum of Namibian Music as a way of discussing, celebrating and preserving our `intangible’ musical heritage. For example, there was a presentation by Ms Welhemina Suro Ganuses and Dr Sian Sullivan about the fading tradition of flute music amongst the community of Sesfontein. Whilst `Baby’ Doeseb spoke about the cultural influence of South African music on Namibian popular music.
Dialogue between the participants was the core aim of the Conference and a braai organized by UNAM history students provided a great opportunity for this. Participants were also entertained by a stunning performance of capoeira dancing (the roots of which lie in the `play fighting’ traditionally performed by communities in northern Namibia and southern Angola.
In the final panel Ms Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja performed a powerful and passionate speech that accused museums and heritage institutions of being instruments of oppression. He, metaphorically, argued that museums should be blown up to create a space for new forms of cultural expression that would be more tolerant of diversity and freedom of speech. Ms Ndeenda Shivute demonstrated the way in which public art can be used to stimulate public debate about contemporary issues, whilst Ms Nikhita Winkler argued for the importance of dance and culture in society. The Conference closed with a bang, not a whimper, and left the participants buzzing with energy and inspired to continue their engagement with the heritage sector with its multiple possibilities.