Colonial patterns, decolonial perspectives. Exhibition of African Art in the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw

Magdalena Wróblewska

Palavras-chave: ethnographic museum; decoloniality; colonial exhibition; African collection; Benin bronzes; Central Eastern Europe

Participação: presencial

The National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw has acquired in 2017 a collection of 28 Benin bronzes from a family of the Polish collector, geologist who used to work in Nigeria in 70’s and 80’s of the 20th century. To understand why and how this highly controversial and contested objects entered the collection of museum located in Warsaw, it is important to consider the colonial entanglements and postcolonial conditions of Central and Eastern European (CEE) non-imperial countries. Though different and less obvious than in case of Western empires, colonial involvements of this region had significant impact on cultural practices, including museums and collections, public as well as private ones.

In case of Poland, different aspects of colonialism were recently a subject of extensive studies in the field of history, revealing that it was not only the victim of neighboring empires expansion, but also aspired to participate in the global processes of colonization. Colonial attitudes typical for Western cultures were vital in Poland not only in Early Modern Era in politics towards Eastern Borderlands, but also during the partitions period, as well as after gaining independence in 1918 and after WWII. Apart from unrealized projects of territorial expansion in Africa, Poland like other CEE countries was involved in global, imperial and colonial power relations that reflected in politics and economy, but also in the area of culture, including museums and collections, where many patterns and stereotypes of defining and perceiving of „other”, „exotic” and „folk” cultures were transferred from imperial institutions.

Some of these patterns and stereotypes remain present in museums, though not recognized and addressed, as colonial entanglements of Poland were not analyzed in the research on museums and collecting practices. Problems of provenance and restitution, critical awareness of the past and cultural heritage, central in postcolonial debate on museums today, are relevant in case of many Polish museums and collections, but has been not fully addressed yet. Objects acquired in colonial and post- colonial countries in illegal way or in situation of unequal power balance, from unclear sources, are filling storage rooms and displays in museums and waiting for decolonial interpretation.

In case of the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, the permanent exhibition of objects from African collection reflects all the problems mentioned above. Benin bronzes, as well as many other objects with unclear provenance, are displayed without any critical comment or reflection, in the settings that reproduce the stereotypes from colonial past. In my paper I would like to reflect not only on colonial roots of the Museum’s collections and the modes of displaying of particular objects, but also on possible decolonial approaches towards them. I would like to discuss some perspectives emerging from recent research on Museum's collections and displays, including critical interventions in the exhibitions, new education programs and possible change of the collections’ development policy.


Magdalena Wróblewska is an art historian, assistant professor at the Faculty of „Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw. In 2015-2020 she was responsible for research activities in Museum of Warsaw, where she co-curated new main exhibition, „The Things of Warsaw” (2017). She has received several fellowships: Lieven Gevaert Centre for Photography, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (2010), Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max Planck Institute and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (2012-2014), Ruskin Library – Lancaster University (2014), Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (2015). Awarded with research grant by National Science Center in Poland (2012), and prize of the Polish Art Historians Association for her PhD dissertation on the genesis of photographic reproduction of artwork (2014). In 2018-2021 she has been investigator in research project „European Colonial Hertiage Modalities in Entangled Cities” (Horizon 2020), in a work package about city museums and collections. Author of publications on photography („Fotografie ruin. Ruiny fotografii. 1944–2014/ Photographs of Ruins. Ruins of Photographs, 1944-2014”, Warsaw 2014), and on colonialism and decolonization in the context of art and museums („Practicing Decoloniality in Museums: A Guide with Global Examples”, with Csilla Ariese, Amsterdam 2021; „Duality of Decolonizing: Artists’ Memory Activism in Warsaw'”, with Ł. Bukowiecki and J. Wawrzyniak, „Heritage & Society”, 2021).