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Reverb Effect Season 2, Episode 1: Transcript

Return to the audio for Reverb Effect season 2, episode 1.

Hayley Bowman: Let’s consider, for a moment, the space of a museum. You might picture grand, wide hallways with marble floors, your steps echoing as you walk. On your left and right, paintings from across the world hang in groupings, illuminated by tasteful, recessed lighting. Along one wall, a shiny glass case displays small objects of interest, perhaps arranged chronologically in a careful display. The quiet of the space is broken as children filter in, chatting excitedly, as a docent explains the significance of different objects to a school group on a field trip.

Not all museums are the same, but, generally speaking, museums put objects and artifacts on display for public consumption. It is because of museums that we can see, in person, the skeleton of a long-extinct triceratops, a work of art like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Museums make popular destinations for students, for travelers and tourists, connecting visitors to the past in interactive and engaging ways.

Relics of this past also reflect the other, darker sides of our history: handbooks dedicated to the burning of witches, a diagram of a ship designed to transport kidnapped and enslaved peoples from Africa to the Americas, a mountain of shoes from victims of the Holocaust. Museums represent a link between the past and our present, between the archive and the public. They tell the story of the past through words, images, objects, videos, and recordings. And considering how this story is told— not just what the story says— can reveal as much about ourselves in the present as it does about the triumphs and horrors of our history.

What can an exhibit tell us about the past? What do museums tell us about others, about peoples and places in other times and other parts of the world? And, most importantly, what do museums tell us about ourselves?

Welcome to Episode 1, Season 2, of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Hayley Bowman. In this episode, you’ll hear from Timnet Gedar, a PhD Candidate in the Department of History. Her dissertation, “Fikre Hagher: Political Thought, Violence, and the Decolonization of Eritrea, 1941-1961,” is an intellectual and political history of the “long decolonization” of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. In addition to the historical period of formal decolonization, she is also invested in contemporary movements to decolonize museums and other institutions.

Timnet Gedar: If you've seen the movie Black Panther, you may recall that tense scene between the film's antagonist, Killmonger, and a white curator. It began with Killmonger casually admiring artifacts at a museum when the curator of African Art approached him to answer some of his questions about the objects on display. When they arrived at Killmonger’s object of interest—a weapon that he would later steal—he corrected her received knowledge about the item. She said it was a seventh-century axe from Benin but he asserted that though it was found and taken from Benin, it was actually originally from Wakanda. She was taken aback by his claim about the item as well as his claim on the item, since he also told her that he would be taking the object “off her hands.” “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he asked. “Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”

While the nation of Wakanda and its artifacts may be fictional, Killmonger mentions a theft of artifacts from Benin by British soldiers that recalls a real-life event: the punitive expedition of 1897, when 1,200 British soldiers attacked, burned, and looted Benin City, which was then the capital of the independent Kingdom of Benin. 2,500 artifacts were either sold at auction, kept by individual members of the British Military, or accessioned to the British Museum in London.


When Killmonger asks, “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he invokes the central question in the contemporary movement to decolonize museums. This means challenging museums to learn and be transparent about how they came to possess certain artifacts but also to plan for restitution. A 2009 report by UNESCO estimates that a shocking 90-95% of tangible African heritage is found in museums outside of Africa.[1] How did African artifacts end up in European and North American museums? And how do we actually confront the painful answer to that question?

One place we might begin to look for answers is in Rome, Italy. This year, in 2020, Il Museo Coloniale (literally, The Colonial Museum) will reopen after an almost fifty-year hiatus. It was first opened to the public in 1923 by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and nearly all of its approximately 11,000 items are from Italy’s former colonies of Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and briefly, Ethiopia. Its history, however, began much earlier. It is a story that should trouble the way we think about its reopening in postcolonial Italy.

Shortly after Italy declared Eritrea its “firstborn” colony in 1891, a conference in Asmara marked the founding of a formal institute dedicated to its study.[2] Italian scientists, administrators, traders, and military personnel had already been involved in collecting information and appropriating land for decades, but it was the establishment of the Italian Colonial Institute that marked the increasing institutionalization of this production of knowledge and power.

Much like other colonial powers, Italy collected information about the people in the territories it sought to subjugate. Collecting and creating this knowledge involved studying them, defining them, and even capturing them. The power inherent in producing knowledge about a people—whether that was through collecting artifacts or conducting ethnographic research or any other method—was deployed not only in controlling the colonies, but also in shaping an Italian national identity. That is why a particular kind of exhibition in Italy was so important. The work of anthropologists, scientists, and academics were just as central to the colonial project as were political negotiations and military conquest. Throughout Italy’s tenure as a colonial power, there had been no less than 23 colonial exhibitions throughout the country, each lasting from several weeks to several months.

Let’s home in on one of these exhibitions: Genoa in 1914. The Colonial Museum’s core collection was first displayed here in a vast open-air exhibit space.[3] It could almost be described as a small city in and of itself, with several different areas called pavilions that were designed to represent each colonized territory. Each pavilion displayed material that was seized during domination wars including the weapons of the peoples of Eritrea, Somalia, and what was then known as Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (now called Libya). For example, a cannon seized by the Italians at Ain Zara in 1911 during the invasion of Libya.[4] An Eritrean ascaro, or a member of the colonial trips, stood guard near the cannon.

And he was not the only person visitors encountered at the exhibition.

Along with artifacts, weapons, and other objects from north and east Africa, these exhibitions displayed people—men, women, and children. Human beings were forced to occupy recreated villages meant to represent their respective nations. They lived in bounded spaces on exhibit grounds, constructing small houses in their traditional manner, working to thatch roofs, making crafts, and doing other everyday tasks under the gaze of Italian visitors. The material life of colonized peoples was made into an exhibitionary existence, and their bodies into yet another artifact.

As Italian visitors leisurely wandered the exhibition, their encounter with colonized people was not designed to bring them closer to African peoples or make them more familiar with their varied customs. Rather, it was to emphasize their difference. To confirm their superiority in a racist taxonomy that depicted African peoples at the lowest level of a false evolutionary chain. To claim the docility and even willingness of the Other to be civilized by Italy and to justify colonial expansion. To participate in this gaze was to be invited to share in the colonizing mission of the state.

So, the objects from this exhibition in Genoa became the basis for The Colonial Museum’s collection but probably even more durable was the logic of this colonial gaze.

By the time he inaugurated The Colonial Museum in 1923, Benito Mussolini was looking to expand the influence of Italian fascism, especially overseas. The museum was one way to promote this agenda. The first director of the museum wrote that part of its purpose was to “inform the better half for the greater exploitation of the resources of the Colonies.”[5] So, the collection expanded to include commercial items as well, including a brand-name Italian coat made out of leopard fur from Somalia.[6] More items were seized from Ethiopia. A number of wagas—large, beautiful wooden carvings sometimes erected as memorial statues at grave sites by Konso people. Captain Marescotti Ruspoli looted these sacred objects during an exploratory expedition in the south west region of Ethiopia in 1927.[7] They are still a part of the collection today. This was neither the first nor the last time the collection would be expanded by looting. In fact, the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 brought such a wave of new objects that the museum closed in 1937 to inventory and reorganize its immense holdings.

The collection was then reinstalled in 1947 under the direction of new director Massimo Adolfo Vitale, who was the first to re-imagine the museum in a postcolonial Italy. Instead of being organized primarily geographically, it was now divided thematically. Subsets of the collection included prehistoric and archaeological, military-historical, commercial, and photographic materials, among others.

Voice-Actor Audio: It offers veterans and young people the opportunity to remember, almost in the recollection of a shrine, the Italians and Africans who gave blood and life in those lands to render the Motherland greater.[8]


Timnet Gedar: The exhibits organized to portray this romanticized memory of Italy’s colonial past remained intact, without any re-interpretation or re-installation, all the way up until the closing of the museum in 1971.

Remember when I mentioned the Italian Colonial Institute founded in Asmara? By the time The Colonial Museum closed its doors in 1971, this organization had changed its name to the Italo-African Institute and inherited the museum’s collection.[9] It inherited a collection that had been poorly conserved, and its own management of the artifacts was not much better. When the Institute pursued a project with the tens of thousands of photographs in the collection, one museum professional described the condition of the documents to be “appalling to say the least.”[10] In any case, the Institute was apparently busy in developing projects related to Italy’s international cooperation with African nations, while the objects that are evidence of its own history on the continent was virtually consigned to oblivion.

From 1971 to the present day, the collection passed several hands of ownership, parts of it dispersed to other museums in Italy, and altogether neglected. From at least 2012, it was completely locked away, closed to the public and to researchers … Essentially forgotten. Hidden. Silent.

And this year, it will re-emerge. We’ve discussed the question of how and why objects became a part of The Colonial Museum’s collection. And now the question is: how do we confront this history? How will the Italian Colonial Museum reckon with the colonial violence through which it was built? Is this even possible?

Archival Audio: Clip of interview with museum director Filippo Gambari in Italian

Timnet Gedar: In this public interview, current museum director Filippo Gambari said, “The goal is not to recreate … a propaganda museum nor a collection of memorabilia but to do something unmatched by telling the relationship between civilizations and also offering immigrants the opportunity to get in touch with their culture.”[11]

On the face of it, the museum's new goals might sound noble. But interpreting this collection as a story celebrating immigration of African peoples to Italy? How could a collection with this history tell that story?

Interview Audio (Professor Emma Bond): In terms of academia, I think there’s been work going on both inside and outside Italy. I think one of the risks perhaps is that colonial studies are often being folded into postcolonial studies within Italian academic spaces. And I think that might give a sense, perhaps a false sense, that that story is finished. And I think that it's not a finished story. And I think that colonial and post-colonial are, in a sense, although related, I think they are two different kind of aspects. So I think we can see, kind of, historical work and cultural work going on, particularly in universities both in the UK and the US and, and, within some limited Italian contexts, that's really helping to diffuse knowledge. And I would, I would mention, for example, Stephanie Malia Hom’s recent book, Empires Mobius Strip, and I think she's done a really great job there of connecting back methods and strategies of empire, of colonialism with the kind of situations we see at the moment with, with the refugee crisis, with detainment camps and so on. So I think, I think there's really, really important work done. I think we just have to be attentive to the temporal specificities that still allow us to nuance our readings of both the past and the present.

Timnet Gedar: That was Dr. Emma Bond from the University of St. Andrews. She studies the transnational circulation of people, texts, and objects in postcolonial Italy.

This colonial museum is re-opening at a time when there are increasing demands for the repatriation of heritage items from European and North American museums back to their owners, like the Benin bronzes for example. Several European countries have embarked on efforts to acknowledge the violent and unethical acquisition of objects during the colonial period and to repatriate those items to their owners. French president Emmanuel Macron, for example, has commissioned a report toward a comprehensive heritage policy for former French colonies. In this context, the re-opening appears critically out of step.

And that’s not all. The Colonial museum is also reopening at a time when Italy is embroiled in a devastating immigration crisis. Tens of thousands of people are crossing the Mediterranean in dangerous journeys and washing up on Italy’s shores, both dead and alive.

Archival Audio (news clips): Every day at the moment, six people don’t make it-- almost 3,000 have drowned this year. But the total arrival figures are just astounding, now some half a million, and more as we know, are coming…. Turning overseas, about 100 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean off Libya, their boat capsized during the perilous journey from North Africa to a better life in Europe… The UN estimates more than 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya into Europe this year. Over 1,800 migrants have died in the attempt, twenty times more than the same period last year… At least 29 of the 106 people packed aboard an inflatable life raft perished in freezing temperatures as they tried to cross the Mediterranean… At least 40 refugees and migrants are feared dead, after a boat carrying dozens of people across the Mediterreanean en route to Europe capsized Tuesday morning off the coast of Libya.

Timnet Gedar: Crossing the Mediterranean Sea is one of the deadliest migration routes in the world and many of those attempting the crossing are from Italy’s former colonies.

In a 2016 article, Italian historian Giulia Barrera lamented the closing away of the colonial collection for so many years and cited the immigration crisis as a major reason to open the collection to researchers. She laments that Italy continues to shut away this collection at a time when African Studies is most needed. She wrote:

“Notions of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ have become weapons in a struggle over who, ultimately, is entitled to basic human rights in Europe. In this context, … African studies might play an important role in deconstructing stereotypes and helping understand the cultural background of persons who come to Europe either as refugees or as migrants and the causes for their migration … the increase in racist attitudes prompted several scholars to look back at the Italian colonial past to trace the roots of present-day attitudes toward Africans.”[12]

Interview Audio (Professor Emma Bond): So I think the museum as well, the museum, the Italo-Africano ‘Ilaria Alpi’ is going to be really critical for the next phase of revisiting and reevaluating Italy’s colonial past. And I don’t know how much work they've done with communities in Italy and what conversations they’ve had with museums and organizations in formerly colonized countries but I think both of those would, in my opinion, be crucial elements for its success. 

Timnet Gedar: Though I agree with Barrera, the relevance of the collection goes beyond its research potential. The history of the collection implicates researchers, past and present, in the dehumanizing relationship between Italy and its former colonies. It also raises ethical and moral questions about Italy’s continued possession of these items.

What does it mean for north and east African objects to be housed in beautiful, spacious halls, protected by glass and guards in Italy’s capital, but for North and East African people to be turned away at Italy’s southernmost shores?

I want to highlight a contradiction—or perhaps it is a continuity—in this history of the circulation of objects and people to and from Italy and northeast Africa. On the one hand, it seems contradictory for the Italian government to turn away Eritreans, Somalis, and Libyans while the objects collected from these three former colonies are given a home in Rome and a privileged platform for display. On the other hand, the colonial history of the exhibitionary complex that we’ve discussed shows how the contemporary dehumanization of migrants is alarmingly consistent with the past. The uneven historical power relations through which the museum gained its collections are still at play to this day.

A similar politics of containment is at work. Part of the logic of the colonial gaze was to contain the exotic and in doing so, demonstrate the power of the captor over the captive, both the captive object and the captive person, as we saw in the frequent colonial exhibitions. Today, the new colonial museum will still contain the same objects it did during the colonial period and separately, the people from whom these objects come are contained in the Mediterranean. One can envision the barriers to entry to what some have called “fortress Europe” at the southern shores of Italy. A glass ceiling to the North that contains the unwanted Others and their desperation at escaping that containment on display for the world to see. Aerial images of overcrowded boats are captured, distributed, and viewed by millions. Sometimes these images are of capsized boats and people flailing in the water, desperate to live. A tragic spectacle. The Italian government funds and trains Libyan coast guards to capture these boats before they reach Italy and turn them back to Libya. Meant as a deterrent for further migration, this has only meant more migrants being contained in Libya in appalling conditions, waiting to attempt the sea crossing again. In the context of this colonial relationship, the museum becomes a cemetery and the Mediterranean a watery grave.


So the question still remains, how will the new museum reckon with this colonial relationship? The way that historical museums as institutions tend to deal with traumatic memory is to treat it as something distant, securely in the past, and of another reality. This makes the continued presence of that trauma invisible, as well as the forces that continue to cause it. How does one exhibit a phenomenon that is still ongoing? As Christina Sharpe asks as part of her profound theory of wake work, “How does one, in the words so often used by such institutions, ‘come to terms with’ (which usually means move past) ongoing and quotidian atrocity?”[13]

The Italian government is, practically speaking, overwhelmed by a new influx of immigrants, yes, but their treatment of Eritreans and others who are born and raised in Italy, or whose families have lived there for generations, is not great either. Racist and xenophobic attitudes are far from new.

Interview Audio (Medhin Paolos): Italy has had an issue or issues with immigrations, with immigration forever, since the time of colonialism and probably before, since Italy was not even Italy yet and has had a problem with the idea ‘of the Other’ since forever, again. Particularly when we talk about immigrants of color.

Timnet Gedar: That was Medhin Paolos, an Eritrean-Italian activist and filmmaker from Milan, Italy who is currently a research scholar at Harvard University

Medhin Paolos: And all of this is also reflected in, is reflected by the Italian law, which has used [_?_] as a primary criteria to grant citizenship. So that means that in a nutshell, that means that children of immigrants born in Italy are not automatically recognized as Italian citizens. that right there is a form of institutional exclusion. And when you focus on the experience of immigrants from ex-Italian colonies, meaning Somalia, Eritrea, Libya, this law becomes even more inadequate considering the deep-rooted histories that Italy has with these countries. And considering that there are still quite a few descendants of Italians and that are also Somali or Eritreans or Ethiopians that are still fighting to be recognized by Italy to this day.

Timnet Gedar: The museum director stated that part of the goal of the reopened colonial museum would be to offer immigrants the opportunity to get in touch with their culture.

The Colonial Museum, then, is being imagined as a space for cultural encounter and exchange. Culture, in this sense, is abstracted from the historical forces that brought the museum’s collection into being. The power and the violence that not only brought it into being but continues to shape the relationships between Italy and the communities represented in the collection. The past is not past. The past is present.

Interview Audio (Medhin Paolos): So for me, when we talk about decolonizing museums, really, I cringe a little bit. On one hand, I want a way forward but I want a way forward without skipping steps. I want a way forward that doesn't, it's not just the same dish of pasta with a different sauce. I need for us as a country, and I mean Italy, to tackle what colonialism has been, what still is to this day, and what damage it has done to Italian culture and to Eritrean, to Ethiopian, Somali, Libyan cultures. And I want for all the possible links to be made. I want for people to understand why people migrate in the ways they do. It’s simply not balanced and it will never be if we don't literally destroy, decompose, whatever we want to call it, what it is, and rebuild something completely different. But people have to be OK with losing some power and give it to somebody else.


Timnet Gedar: If we return to that museum scene in the movie Black Panther, we see that Killmonger was asking valid and important questions. How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? But instead of considering the questions, or trying to answer them, the curator simply asked him to leave. Neither she nor her museum were prepared to answer that question. But they were prepared to remove anyone who dared to ask. Perhaps because they were not prepared to be held accountable to the questions of history

Lest we think these confrontations are only played out on screen, or in abstracted academic discussions about decolonization, the current global uprising against anti-Black racism proves otherwise. Activists from around the world, especially in recent months, continue to push museums and local governments in Europe and North America to account for their seeming disregard for their racist pasts. Monuments from Richmond, Virginia to Milan, Italy are being defaced and reclaimed. Other monuments, from Birmingham, Alabama to Bristol, England are being torn down by protestors.

Museums themselves can be seen as types of monuments. As such, they have also become sites for protest. Individuals in England, France, and the Netherlands have staged museum actions over the past few months, physically removing African heritage objects from museums and walking away with them while reciting European acts of colonial theft. Though these individuals were all stopped and arrested, their actions continue to force a reckoning that is centuries in the making.

[1] Alain Godonou’s address made at the “UNESCO forum on Memory and Universality”, February 5, 2007, in: Witness to History: A Compendium of Documents and Writings on the Return of Cultural Objects, Ed. Lyndel V. Prott, Paris: UNESCO, 2009, p. 61

[2] Giulia Barrera, “The Unhappy End of the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (IsIAO) and the Uncertain Future of its Holdings,” Critical Interventions, 10:1 (2016): 71-80.

[3] Ibid, 73.

[4] Student 11368225, “Investigating the Reinstallation of the Museo Coloniale di Roma: A Microcosm of Italian Colonial Memory,” (Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2018), 31.

[5] Quoted in Sean Anderson, Modern Architecture and its Representation in Colonial Eritrea: An In-visible Colony, 1890-1941 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015), 215.

[6] Student 11368225, “Investigating the Reinstallation of the Museo Coloniale di Roma: A Microcosm of Italian Colonial Memory,” (Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2018), 39.

[7] Ibid, 36.

[8] Quoted in Francesca Gandolfo, Il Museo Coloniale di Roma (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2014), 474.

[9] Giulia Barrera, “The Unhappy End of the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (IsIAO) and the Uncertain Future of its Holdings,” Critical Interventions, 10:1 (2016): 72.

[10] Student 11368225, “Investigating the Reinstallation of the Museo Coloniale di Roma: A Microcosm of Italian Colonial Memory,” (Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2018), 46.

[11] Flavia Amabile, “Riapre il Museo Coloniale, il gioiello di Mussolini,” La Stampa. June 1, 2019, (Accessed January 20, 2020).

[12] Giulia Barrera, “The Unhappy End of the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (IsIAO) and the Uncertain Future of its Holdings,” Critical Interventions, 10:1 (2016): 77.

[13] Christina Sharpe, In the wake: On blackness and being, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).