African Politics and Policy

Online Journal

Museums in Africa

by Kristina Bekenova

This May was marked for by efforts to preserve and promote African culture such as the “Proud and United Nation” in Botswana, the return of two Nok Terracotta sculptures to Nigeria, and the new appointments in Cameroonian Ministry of Culture. Moreover, 53 years ago, the month of May was declared by the Organization of African Unity as Month of Africa, and this year celebration was under the theme “Building a Better Africa and a Better World: for Peace and Friendship”.

International Museum Day (IMD), which was established by the International Council of Museums on 18th May 1977 “to raise awareness on how important museums are in the development of society”[1], was one of the most significant activities carried out in May. This year Museum Day celebrated “Museums and Cultural Landscapes”.

Celebrated in more than 100 countries, IMD did not bypass Africa, it is simply impossible …. the landscapes of Africa are perfect composition of natural beauty, rich wildlife, unique culture and fascinating people. On the online pages of African Politics and Policy we have already introduced to our readers some of the African wonders: the amazing Omo Valley (Ethiopia), the extraordinary Spiny Desert (Madagascar), the stunning Okavango Delta (Botswana) and others places that construct our unforgettable impression of Africa.

Taking into account the increasing role of museums in preserving not only cultural heritage inside the walls but outside their walls as well, this year theme of the IMD is very crucial for discussing the problems that African museums face in the conservation and management of the outstanding cultural and natural heritage of the African continent.

It is worth noting, that the development of museums in Africa, first seen as “white elephants staffed by eccentric colonialists” and in after-independence period as the prima cause of the debates[2], is now characterized by the increasing convergence of the processes going in both directions: bottom-up, and top-down.

Top-down direction is characterized by the African governments’ “revolutionary” holistic and culture-centered understanding of country’s development[3]. The sustainable development is considered inseparably with culture and nature preservation. Cultural policies are aimed to take reasonable steps in safeguarding their tangible and intangible heritage with a strong focus on “not-to-forget-our-own-history” – pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial – for the local as well for the international community. The forthcoming establishment of an Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Mauritius, of the Ethnographic Museum in Northern Malanje Province in Angola, of the Olduvai Museum in Tanzania, and of the Benin-City Museum in Nigeria are proper cases in point.

The departments of culture and tourism are very active in organizing special events, seminars and discussions to know the problems the regions meet (“Thinking Ahead” seminar to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the African World Heritage Fund; National Summit on Culture and Tourism in Nigeria; the workshops on Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage in Angola, etc.) and in modernizing already existing museums  in an effort to develop infrastructure and boost tourism: the National Museum at Onikan (Nigeria),

It is very encouraging to write about the bottom-up activities designed to preserve the community’s natural and cultural history by the efforts of grassroots. One of the best examples, in this respect, is represented by the Gunjur village Museum in The Gambia set up by Lamin M Bojang[4]. The museum follows not only traditional concept of collecting artefacts (masks, sculptures), but it also explores the concept of living in harmony with the surrounding landscapes — to protect and display the unique flora and fauna, to learn traditional medicine, and to become simultaneously a cultural and an eco-tourism destination.

As a rule, these museums are very small, and they are devoted to the national or tribal symbols of identity, and to their cultural and historical representation. For example, the Kankurang Museum in Janjabureh Village in The Gambia presents the traditional male and female masquerade costumes. The local communities are also interested in providing special training sessions to enhance the skills of people involved in art and museum management, like Rwanda Arts Initiative, Africalia, Chitungwiza Arts Center and the efforts of the National Museums themselves.

The museums in Africa highlight educational programs for children, run awareness-campaigns, and  promote historical, cultural and archaeological research.

Of course, the museums in Africa face the problem of insufficient funding to finance their programs (as case of Ghana illustrates), to train their staff, to purchase special technologies and equipment (as in the case of Tanzania), institutional and representational management, or on the people’s level – the issue of donation of the objects that are still considered as family inheritance, sacred and filled with spirituality of ancestors.

There are still much to do in this direction in Africa, but at the same time the awakening consciousness of the necessity to have special museum programs to preserve and promote the African-Self representation, its memory in our post-modern age, brings new understanding of heritage as “a privileged space in which the sense of loss and disruption can be contemplated and assessed and finally cured”[5]. And the mission of the museums, by displaying the objects and artifacts, is exactly that of engaging into a dialogue the gaze of the present and the voice of the past to tell the story of the future.





[2] Ekpo Eyo, “Conventional Museums and the Quest for Relevance in Africa”, History in Africa, vol. 21 (1994), p. 325

[3] Riccardo Pelizzo, “Editorial”, African Politics and Policy Newsletter, no.14, p.1

[4] Kristina Bekenova, “Gunjur Village Museum”, African Politics and Policy Newsletter, no. 13, p. 3

[5] Michael Rowlands and Ferdinand de Jong, “Reconsidering Heritage and Memory” in Reclaiming Heritage: Alternative Imaginaries of Memory in West Africa, ed. by F. de Jong. California: Left Coast Press (2009), p. 17.

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