What does it mean to decolonize heritage? In addition to rethinking narratives presented in heritage, such an effort also includes changing management practices. Nyanza District, Rwanda, a "cultural and historical hub," boasts of many heritage resources, from museums to culturally significant natural sites to built structures. But even as these are being developed into tourist destinations, local residents do not feel they benefit from heritage development or that they have a meaningful connection to heritage sites. This gap between communities and their heritage is, in part, a legacy of colonial modes of heritage management in Rwanda that proceed from the top down.
Using research with community members and heritage professionals, we examine the possibilities for decolonizing heritage management in Nyanza. Based on interviews with local leaders, we suggest that transferring responsibility for heritage to communities, as community members, scholars, and heritage professionals have advocated in other contexts, would help to change this situation of alienation and failure to benefit. More broadly, we argue that this approach serves the Rwandan attempt to decolonize the nation by rooting out vestiges of colonial practices and creating "Rwandan solutions to Rwandan problems." This indicates not only that heritage management can be decolonized in Rwanda, but that communities have in fact already identified ways in which changes to management can be aligned with the greater national priority of decolonization, offering a promising roadmap for change.
In 2020, Rwanda museums started a 10-year project of Decolonising Museums, in collaboration with Royal Museum for Central Africa. The Ethnographic Museum is the first museum that opened to the public in September 1989 following a relocation from its previous premises in 1956, as the collection was ever-growing and increasingly varied since first acquisitions done from 1946. The collections were collected mostly by Belgian and Rwandan researchers; the narratives were done with colonial perspective that distorts Rwandan history.
Why decolonizing conservation practices?
For centuries and centuries, most of the ethnographic collections were part of Rwandans’ life, they were used, cared for and repaired by Rwandans. With their new environment “Museum”, and new “narratives and European conservation practices” made most of Rwandans feel uncomfortable and not welcomed.
Decolonizing conservation practices has the purpose of rethinking the narratives where everyone’s story can be told and make our museum more open, engaging and inclusive; a place where our community will be encouraged to share their experience, traditional skills in conservation and creativity. To Achieve this, Rwanda Museums is willing to involve everyone from outside and inside the museum to make sure that every voice is heard.