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Indigenous museums: the necessary decolonisation in Japan and the emergence in Brazil

by Richard Meckien - published Jun 02, 2023 01:10 PM - - last modified Jun 16, 2023 04:45 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Parque e Museu Nacional Ainu Upopoy
Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park in Hokkaido, northern Japan

The appreciation that Japanese culture has given to an alleged ethnic homogeneity of its population for centuries is well known. However, this conception has weakened in this century, especially since 2013, when Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics (held in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). The government's intention became to present a new Japan to the world, in tune with the emphasis on diversity and inclusion that permeates many societies today.

One of the ways that the Japanese government found for this purpose was to promote a growing appreciation of the Ainu culture. The indigenous people from the North of the country currently number 13,000 individuals according to official data. The contingent must be much larger if one considers the people who have refused to recognize themselves as Ainu due to rejection.

With policies that value the culture of these people, they are now trying to redefine themselves. This is the opinion of sociologist Mariko Murata, a professor at the Department of Sociology at Kansai University. "Museums can be a space for carrying out this redefinition process. Nonetheless, they are very colonial, which makes us think about how we can decolonise them."

Mariko Murata - 29/5/23
Sociologist Mariko Murata (Kansai University)

On May 29, Murata spoke at the seminar Decolonising Museums and Exhibitions on the Indigenous Ainu in Japan, organized by IEA's Research Group Fórum Permanente: Cultural System Between Public and Private and the Olavo Setubal Chair of Art, Culture, and Science.

As part of the governmental action to value Ainu culture the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park was inaugurated in Hokkaido in 2020. However, despite the importance of the initiative, there were many criticisms about the way the museum was structured and presented the Ainu culture, according to the sociologist.

Murata explained that the Japanese central government began taking land from the Ainu in the 19th century. The Matsumae clan, which had been responsible for the northern border of Japan since the end of the 16th century, forbade them to engage in trade on their own. "In the following period, the government created a land reconnaissance agency. In 1863, the island was named Hokkaido, and this marks the beginning of the policy of Ainu assimilation."

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ainu were even shown at industrial exhibitions, said the researcher. "After World War II, they were ignored as if they did not exist, and their culture was practically extinct. Only in 2008 did the government recognize them as an indigenous people of Japan."

Exposição permanente do Museu e Parque Ainu Nacional Upopoy
Permanent exhibition at the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park

With the choice of Tokyo for the last editions of the Olympics and Paralympics, Ainu culture suddenly came to the fore. "The government wanted to make their culture a symbol of Japan's diversity, something important for tourism and global political relations," said the Murata.

According to her, when the Upopoy was inaugurated, there were about 20 small museums with collections established by the Ainu or formed by researchers, governments, or traders. The Ainu had also previously engaged in tourist activities for income.

Murata reported that an Ainu leadership created a museum in 1973, donating the building and objects to the municipality a few years later. In 1991, a new museum was built next to the old one, but on land sacred to the Ainu. The creator of the ancient museum sued the government but lost the case. However, this defeat had a positive side, as it meant that the court legally recognized that it rejected the Ainu culture, which was the same as recognizing that Japan was not ethnically unitary and that there were indigenous people in the country.

Museu Nacional Ainu Upopoy - Lareira digital
Fireplace simulation: the use of too many digital resources is criticized

In 1984, the Ainu built a museum which was improved and now forms part of Upopoy. There is a memorial there and it remains as Ainu land. A good part of the collection consists of objects returned by universities. The facilities are similar to what the museum used to be, but now properly preserved, according to Murata.

In addition to objects and records from the ethnic group's past, the Upopoy also shows how the Ainu live today: their activities as fishermen, traders, cooks, forest explorers, among other aspects. The biggest criticism of how the museum presents the Ainu culture lies in the controversial narrative, said the researcher. "The Ainu are agraphers. The panels are in Japanese and four other languages. The pronoun 'we' is used, as in 'our land.' Using 'we' for an exhibition does not explain everything, such as the case of the relationship with the colonisers and the process of colonisation. In Japanese, this is even more difficult, as we rarely use the subject in a sentence, so it sounds odd."

Murata said that new types of exhibitions avoid representing the Ainu culture as pre-modern, showing people in their current lives and with an excess of digital resources. "One of the criticisms is that the museum ignores the tragic history of the Ainu over the last 150 years. Their culture is explained from the Japanese point of view and, moreover, ignores the spirituality of the people. When talking about the risk of their extinction, is it not the museum's obligation to talk about who is to blame?," she questioned.

Ponto de Cultura: Memorial Museu Indígena Kanindé de Aratuba
Kanindé Indigenous Museum Memorial in Aratuba (Ceará, Brazil)

However, despite all the critical comments, the situation raised by Upopoy has sparked a discussion that had never happened before, said Murata. "The decolonisation of museums in Japan is a controversial issue. We are starting to create this space to think of Japan as non-homogeneous".

For her, Japan needs to recognize its diversity, which includes Koreans, Okinawans, Ainu, and immigrants who went there to work, like Brazilians. "Foreigners are 2% of the population, a number that should increase. Diversity is crucial for a country like Japan to continue to exist," she pointed out.

Decolonisation in Brazil

The meeting also opened space for the Brazilian reality regarding decolonisation, with presentations on museums created by indigenous peoples and on the Emanoel Araújo Afro Brasil Museu. The indigenous participants were: Kaingang shaman assistant Susilene Elias de Melo, one of the persons in charge of the Worikg Museum, created from the collection of her grandmother, Jandira Ubelino, of the Vanuíre Indigenous Land in the municipality of Arco-Íris (São Paulo), and Suzenalson da Silva Santos, a doctoral student in social history at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) and coordinator of the Kanindé Indigenous Museum Memorial, located in Aratuba (Ceará).

Sandra Mara Salles spoke on behalf of the Afro Brasil Museum. A parallel theme to the meeting, but also involving ethnic issues, was the presentation on Japanese-Brazilian visual artists given by semiotician Michiko Okano, from the School of Philosophy, Languages, and Human Sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

Suzenalson da Silva Santos
Suzenalson da Silva Santos

During his speech, Suzenalson da Silva Santos said that there was a movement in the 1990s for the rebirth of indigenous cultures in Ceará: "There was an appropriation of a format from the colonisers, the so-called museum, and spaces called museums began to emerge."

In 1995, his father Sotero, chief and master of Kanindé culture, created a small space to show the history of his people in society. "Other stages and actions of the process were born from this initiative," he said.

"We did not have a school when the museum was created. We were one of the peoples to conquer schools very late, only in 2006. The museum presents objects in the context that universities have called decolonisation, another perspective to talk about this indigenous movement."

According to him, the implementation of the museum brought a lot of training to the community, covering several generations, from master Sotero to the youngest members, formed in the perspective of heritage education and living with the master. "The museum's activities relate to indigenous education. It is located next to the school and is part of the school curriculum," he said.

Museu Worikg

From the top: headdresses, ceramics, and dance performance at the Worikg Museum in the Vanuíre Indigenous Land (São Paulo, Brazil)

Santos stated that the museum's relationships with other indigenous peoples have grown: "In 2014, a network of memory and museology was created, engaging indigenous communities from all states of the country. They are spaces, points of culture, and houses of memory. In Ceará alone there are 17 locations. At the last meeting of the network there were representatives of 32 initiatives from various parts of Brazil."

He highlighted that these initiatives have been organized autonomously or in partnership with various actors, such as universities. He added that there are villages that work with community tourism.

According to Santos, the emergence of indigenous museums does not only mean an effort for self-affirmation but also a movement to build the communities' own memory in dynamic processes following the peculiarities of each people.

Susilene Elias de Melo
Susilene Elias de Melo

Susilene Elias de Melo said that the desire to build a museum to record the Kaingang culture was born in 2015 as a wish of her grandmother Jandira Ubelina, a shaman who died the following year. "We were left with the need to put the museum on its feet, as she wanted. In 2017, we held the first exhibition at the Worikg Museum,” she reported.

Now, Melo continues the work with her mother, the new shaman, of which she is an assistant just as her mother was to her grandmother. "Singing, dancing, eating... I learned everything from both of them," she said.

The museum stays open year-round and has several school visits per week. "We do not have much help. We took a little from here, a little from there," said Melo.

For a long time, the Kaingang culture in the Tupã region "was dormant, even to protect our territory," she said. "It was common to say that the Kaingang were extinct. We are firm and strong in the center-west of the state of São Paulo. We are a living museum."

In Tupã there is the Índia Vanuíre Historical and Pedagogical Museum, owned by the state government, dedicated to the memory of the indigenous peoples of western São Paulo. Melo said she had no complaints about the museum, Worikg's partner. "If we have our museum today, it was because of my mother's trip to the Tupã museum. She wanted to know why non-indigenous people talk so much about indigenous people." She also mentioned a partnership with USP's Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE).

The museum is not just about material culture. There is a spiritual side, as a place of healing and empowerment, she said. "People think they are going to see a museum like the one in the city. But the museum is the territory, it is everything you experience. I am a museum, my mother is a museum. There is a bonfire inside the museum and the visit includes singing, dancing, and walking on the trail. We are also building our clay house."

Museu Afro Brasil Emanoel Araújo
Emanoel Araújo Afro Brasil Museum

According to the executive director of the Emanoel Araújo Afro Brasil Museum, the institution is experiencing a moment of transition with a new reflection on the formation of the collection and on the cultural program.

Sandra Salles recalled that the museum was created from the private collection of artist, curator, and cultural manager Emanoel Araújo, who founded it in 2004 and stayed for 18 years as its director and curator. His name was added to the institution's original name after his death in 2022

The museum contains items related to religiosity of African origin and popular Catholicism, objects from work and life on farms, sculptures, paintings, among other items. The collection includes photographs and information about black people from different areas of arts and knowledge.

For Salles, the museum is decolonial in its narrative construction and perspective by talking about unofficial history. "However, being the narrative of a single man, its creator and leader, it is necessary to make room for other voices to be heard as a decolonial practice," she said.

Sandra Mara Salles - 2021
Sandra Mara Salles

"Since last year, the museum has been trying to build a network of Afro-Brazilian collections, to connect with other spaces, including private collections, in order to have another vision of its own collection," she said.

An example of these connections is the dialogue initiated in 2018 with Quilombo de São Pedro, in the Ribeira Valley (São Paulo), with the aim of creating a memory center to promote tourism and cultural practices. The local residents also participate in the Afro Brasil Museum, as in the case of the exhibition Roça É Vida, which will open on June 24, curated jointly with a working group from the Quilombo.

The museological plan is being rethought with the participation of all the institution's professionals, said Salles. There will be external participation in this discussion, with conversation circles and working groups. "We are going to send invitations to different sectors of society to participate in this, so that they can say which museum they want. I think this is the moment for the black movement to participate in redefining the museum's model," she added.

Photos (from the top): 1, 3, and 4 - Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park; 2 - Leonor Calasans/IEA-USP; 5 - Kanindé Indigenous Museum Memorial; 6 - personal archive of Susenalson da Silva Santos; 7 - Worikg Museum; 8 - Índia Vanuíre Historical and Pedagogical Museum; 9 - Emanoel Araújo Afro Brasil Museum; 10 - IEA-USP.