The Multiple Lives of Objects: Museum, Memory, and Modernity in the Cameroon Grassfields
The Grassfields region of Cameroon is home to many museums. In a region that is known for its prolific, well studied, vibrant arts and cultures, museums have been a part of the cultural landscape for nearly one hundred years. This dissertation seeks to address questions about constructing heritage and how that heritage transforms objects, is understood by different communities, and is used by people in power through the lens of four recently constructed museums in the region: the Mankon Museum, Baham Museum, Babungo Museum, and Bafut Palace Museum. First, this dissertation will address how these museums are used to construct heritage and, keeping in mind that heritage is the utilization of the past for the needs of the present, specific examples will be examined to understand how heritage fulfills the agendas of those involved in the funding, organization, and ownership of the museums. An understanding of how the museums are utilized with regard to heritage leads into a discussion of how the museums are consequently perceived by a variety of constituencies. With an emphasis on local visitors, this dissertation attempts to delve into the range of perceptions expressed by Cameroonian residents of the regions where museums exist, and some of the driving factors behind these opinions. As the act of utilizing cultural objects to create heritage narratives has a clear impact on the way that locals view their own material culture, this dissertation also examines the effects that this process has on the objects themselves. Finally, as institutions that have the ability to mold heritage and history, impacting the ways in which locals understand their own culture and the way that objects take on entirely new roles in the museum, Grassfields palaces have come to understand that museums have great potential to act as arbiters of change. Consequently, this dissertation also addresses the ways in which museums are being used towards political ends in the region; sometimes they function as tools to further the political aspirations of local kingdoms, at other times they become weapons in regional power struggles. Museums in the Grassfields are powerful objects in and of themselves - they have the ability to shape history and influence local politics. By examining their places within their local communities we can start to garner a better understanding of the place of monarchy, modernity, and memory in the lives of local Grassfields populations.