Allen Bassing, They Handed Me A Crowbar

by Pablo von Frankenberg |

The colonial style South African Museum, Capetown (erected in 1897)

The colonial style South African Museum, Capetown (erected in 1897)

In 1959, Allen Bassing and his wife decided to travel the world. Starting off in Paris with a Citroën 2CV, their journey continued for the next 15 years and took them to numerous countries in Europe and Africa. One of the Bassings’ early stops was London. Every Saturday they went to the flea market on Portobello Road to stroll through the booths, buying what they liked. This was Bassing‘s start as collector. He was interested mainly in graphic material from Oceania and Africa that was offered on the street: “We didn‘t know anything about these things, we guessed at them truly aesthetically. So we were taking them to the British Museum to get documentation. After a while a museum staff member said, you seem to be so enthusiastic about this, how would you like to work here?”

Trained as a market analyst, Bassing then helped the British Museum to reinstall its collection, which was transferred to the countryside because of the danger of the British Museum being bombed during World War II. Bassing was hired in 1961, when most of the exhibits were still stored in countless transport cases: “They handed me a crowbar and with the curators we went down to the second level and opened up these boxes.“ In so doing, he learned the museum business from scratch.

In 1964, the UNESCO Nubia Campaign began. It was one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering at that time. With the help of an international team of stonecutters and engineers the Great Temple of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt was dismantled, carved up and moved to another site – like many other Nubian monuments the construction of Aswan Dam, completed in 1970, would have set the 3,000-year old temple underwater. When Bassing heard about this campaign he decided to leave for North Africa: “I told my wife, let‘s quit our jobs and hitch-hike down there. So we did it and saw it there and I said why don‘t we just keep going? So we went to Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania.” In Tanzania Bassing worked at the National Museum in Dar es Salaam. It was the transition period between colonization and independency. The colonial powers left and didn‘t care much about what they left behind. When Bassing started working at the National Museum it was still named Museum of King George V. although the exhibits predominantly were from Tanzania. Bassing‘s job was to create ways to entice the population to go and visit what was formerly an institution by and for the colonial rulers, and alien to them. Then he went to Cape Town and gave advice to the South-African Museum on conservation matters.

Back again in the U.S. for a short visit, Allen was approached by the Peace Corps to support their work as a museologist. Coming home permanently after volunteering for the Peace Corps (which brought him once again to Africa), Bassing worked for the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C., a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. During his time as a curator at the Smithsonian he was hired as a consultant for several museums in Barbados, Bolivia, Malaysia, Guinea and other places. He was not only one of the first international museum consultants but he also worked in places where consultants and big museum expansions failed to gain ground in Africa and South America.

Being asked how he would describe the ideal museum in light of his vast experience, his answer is simple: “Where? Every country is different. What I might do in South America compared to what I was supposed to do in sub-Saharan Africa might be very different. There is no all-encompassing way of saying ‘this is it.’” The museum is thus an institution found on nearly every continent in the world, but remains as multifaceted as the places they reside. This aim, in Bassing‘s view, is to be achieved not only by the museum itself but also by the architects designing it. By that, he is referring to his experience in colonial and post-colonial Africa. People there didn‘t feel the museums were built for them as they were designed in a colonial style completely unsympathetic to local conditions. Bassing notes this tendency even in today‘s museum architecture.

To reach a more site-specific museum architecture that relates to the perception and needs of the local population Bassing claims, “Always bring the architects out there, and not just for an overnight visit. Take them around the country, introduce them to people who they can talk to. Let them talk to the people in the ministry of culture to get a sense of the country itself. This is very important. Because otherwise you will put up something which is alien.” One might think of this as the standard approach of a museum architecture project, but it is not. Museum architects often work internationally and spend only a short amount of time on the ground where their design is realized instead of in their studios to master their other assignments. Museums usually don‘t have enough funds to pay the architectural team for vast field excursions. As Bassing alludes to, the idea of a universal ideal museum does not exist, yet what does exist, are people striving for the ideal museum. Something that may be far more powerful.

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Allen Bassing received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Union Graduate School, Antioch College. While serving as a museum consultant and curator in diverse countries he also worked as a market and social research consultant for multinational corporations in Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Cape Town. He has received three Fulbright scholarships and numerous awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, National Foundation for the Arts, U.S. Information Agency, U.S. Peace Corps, British Council, UNESCO, Smithsonian Institution, Governments of Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana.

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