Interview Saskia Willaerts

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Discussions with Saskia Willaert

Saskia Willaert is a curator of the collection of African instruments at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. She is also responsible for the inventory of the instruments and the digital documentation of them. In 2016, we had two conversations with her about the details of that work.

With: Michael Murtaugh, Femke Snelting, Martino Morandi and Sam Muirhead.

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Saskia Willaert: For instance I have an article [...] about the history of the growth of the African instruments collection by the end of the 19th century and then by having systematized information the way we did I could easily find that each time that Henry Morton Stanley got further along the Congo river, more instruments from the inner Congo came in the museum.

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Saskia Willaert: It [The digital system] had a big impact. [...] now we can prove we are the owners of all the objects because we have picture and because we have systematic link between the inventory number and the physical place where the object is.

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Saskia Willaert: [...] the big importance of the African collections is that the agents of the museums [in Africa] provide the local name and sometimes the local builders which is never the case in western collections because we have no clue and we have long been taught that it's not interesting at all to have them.

Femke Snelting: Can you say something about that?

Saskia Willaert: It's a political thing in a way of course. It has been during centuries cultural objects have been taken away from Congo and Africa and have been put into Western collections, but to have the name of the object was not important because it was unpronounceable and the man who made it was even less important. It was just a decorative, beautiful, aesthetic thing in the best case but in most cases it was just an exotic thing.