Africa in the World: Past and Present.
Past and Present
By Ben Burt
[pounds sterling]7.99 The British Museum
This lavishly illustrated slim volume challenges attitudes towards Africa by tracing Africa's contribution to world history, from ancient Egypt to the present. It explores Africa's role in the ancient Mediterranean, the medieval world of Islam and the trading world of Asia.
Africa's contribution to globalisation is examined through the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonisation. The resulting diaspora, establishing Africans in the Americas and Europe and Europeans and Asians in Africa, questions easy assumptions about 'Africa'.
Using objects with African associations, mainly from the British Museum, the author explores the major themes of Africa's history in the world in an attempt to create a digestible 'museum history' of Africa. That is, of course, a virtually impossible task. Yet the author is not afraid of addressing important and difficult questions.
This is not simply a book that glories in Africa's rich traditions, culture and artefacts. It points out that few museums in Britain have much to show on African culture or history from the Americas, and it asks what makes African art authentic recognising that Africans have been making artefacts for overseas export markets for centuries--often adapting their local styles for foreign tastes.
And the book raises many important political questions, not least why museums should continue to possess many African objects in their collections. It examines how Western museums acquired their African objects, and asks if they should continue to keep them. It then offers a list of some of the complications surrounding this debate. For example, if stolen artefacts are to be returned to the continent, should they go to national or local authorities or museums of countries that were created by the colonial powers, or to the heirs of those from which they were stolen?
Furthermore, Africa in the World poses two fundamental questions that are truly relevant to Africa's contemporary development. Firstly, compared to other past and present injustices in Africa's relationship with the West, how important is the theft of artefacts and how much can be achieved by returning them? And what about the stolen people whose slave labour enriched European countries, the stolen resources extorted under colonialism, and the debt repayments demanded from poor African countries by Western banks?