Forget history! An argument for letting dead traditions lie

I've been taking a course in ethnology to pad out my musicology Master's. The other day we were at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm, a horrid relic of colonialism, and the director of the museum gave a little speech about how his museum had saved artefacts from Congo the knowledge of which otherwise would have been lost. Now, the people of Congo were able to reclaim their lost heritage.

I baulked at this. I'm fairly sure I was the only one in the room to do so, but I thought it was a damned presumptuous statement to make. So at Q&A time, I asked the director: "How can something of which no trace remains in Congo be considered Congolese heritage? Who are they inheriting from?". I got a shrug-off answer, but I think the question is relevant: is it the task of European academics to teach Africans what their culture really is?

The last horn comb maker in Stockholm, Albert Wilhelm Holm, died in 1942. A traditional skill that had been practised in Stockholm for hundreds of years was now known only through descriptions. At the same ethnology course, now on a visit to Skansen, the guide asked whether it was a good idea to try to revive the craft, to train someone in the intricate horn-carving skills necessary. Everyone thought so, again except me. I feel like a traitor and a loser for not wanting our cultural history to be continued and preserved.

Except it's not my cultural history at all, just like the Congolese artifacts don't belong to me. My ancestors were never horn comb makers, and even if they would have been I'm now in a completely different social stratum from them. So who am I to say what today's working class should or shouldn't preserve?

Every grouping has things it remembers collectively and things it choses to forget, archives and anarchives if you will. The conspicuous gaps of the latter are an important part of what forms a culture, as any French post-structuralist would tell you. Are we rich, educated academic elites supposed to go around filling them in, based on our own values? Aren't we ignoring the wishes and culture of the working class Swedes and the Congolese if we do?

Yes, yes. I realise there are plenty of reasons for taking the opposite view to the one stated above. In the case of Congo, the obvious objection is that the loss of knowledge is a direct result of the horrendous European-led genocide there, and that we're helping setting things right. But posing an argument like this is a useful reminder, at least to me, that as an academic my vision of the world isn't always going to be the most interesting or relevant one, and that my universal access to knowledge is an illusion and a potentially harmful one at that.

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