A new museum dedicated to the art and culture of people of African descent opened in Dakar Thursday (6 December). It was the realization of a 1966 dream of Senegal’s founding president, Léopold Sédar Senghor to exhibit in one space the richness of Black civilizations and history.
Declaring the Museum of Black Civilizations (Musée des civilisations noires) open, Senegal’s President Macky Sall said: “Dear compatriots, dear neighbours of the Continent: seize this space, its exhibits and the works presented therein. Our Pan-African history and rich culture now have a place of choice in the heart of Dakar”.
Partly funded by the Chinese, the museum, built at the cost of $34m and which has a capacity to hold 18,000 exhibition pieces, hopes to ‘decolonise knowledge’ – and let people of African descent define a sense of identity.
The museum’s disc-like shape is modelled on the rounded walls of the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe. The museum has a pan-African focus with pieces from across Africa and the Caribbean; work of artists from Mali and Burkina Faso as well as from Cuba and Haiti being the first to be shown.
The Museum of Black Civilisations opens at a time of heated debate on the moral obligation of Western countries to return to the continent artworks stolen from Africa during the colonial era.
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“This museum is a step forward for us,” Amadou Moustapha Dieng, a Senegalese arts journalist, told the BBC on the significance of the Museum of Black Civilisations. “I know there are important relics which I’m not able to see unless I go abroad, but now [with] this space, we can get back the relics and Africans can come here now and see this was their history.”
The idea of establishing the museum dates back more than 50 years, to Senghor, who was also an accomplished poet.
Along with Martinican writer Aimé Césaire, Senghor was a creative force behind the philosophy of Négritude, which opposed the imposition of French culture on colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.
Senegal also opened the world’s largest monument to slavery and colonialism, the African Renaissance Monument, in 2010 and its leaders hope they will turn Dakar into “an intellectual and cultural capital of the Black world” with the opening of the Museum of Black Civilisations.