Thinking about Museums in African countries…

Most museums in Africa were established in the colonial era using the European model, which Lorna Abungu (2005:151) claims catered to the upper classes and encouraged them to “marvel at exotic artefacts belonging to the indigenous peoples of the particular country.” Although African museums went through a nationalization period after independence, whereby indigenous1 Africans were hired as staff and employees of institutions and brought a different perspective to many of the exhibits, African museums still face numerous challenges, ranging from inadequate government funding to low visitor turnout to high staff turnover. One of the biggest challenges they face, according to a report from an AFRICOM conference,2 is how to present Africa’s rich cultural heritage and history to the world while ensuring that museums meet the needs of the local community.

The National Museum of Kenya

In contrast to the focus on international tourists exemplified by some Rwandan museums and memorials, an example of an African museum that has a larger focus on local communities is the National Museum of Kenya, which is promoted by AFRICOM due to this more local focus. Even so, this museum, like many others in Africa is hindered in its outreach by financial, technological, and other constraints. The National Museum of Kenya has a partnership with the Smithsonian, which funds study trips to the Smithsonian to keep staff members updated on the latest museum technologies. However, there are still problems with the lack of equitable access to the Internet for many Africans and the lack of funding for the creation and maintenance of museum websites (Abungu, Monda, et al 1999). While financial constraints affect museums all over the world, those in African countries tend to be even severely affected due to lack of funding and reliable technological infrastructure. Use of computers can be unreliable and slow.

This poses a challenge for museums, such as the National Museum of Kenya to make their website accessible to locals. Funding in general is lacking in educational institutions, such as universities and national museums. Many museum professionals have left, seeking employment either in South Africa or outside the continent, where they are better compensated for their skills. In a visit to Songo Mnara in Tanzania, Chapurukha Kusimba (1996:166) observes the impact of a struggling economy on the local museums. She noticed that “many junior museum staff were dealing with the rising inflation by skipping lunch and walking to and from work to their residences.” Museum staff members were so demoralized that when they were supposed to clear the site, they would set it on fire (Kusimba 1996:166). The director of the Moto Moto museum in Zambia echoes similar sentiments. “How many of the key museum personnel have access to computers and how many of them have the capacity to utilise the technology? What is the cost of human resource capacity building? There is abundant information on the Internet but what percentage of our population has access to it? Indeed, we must keep pace with the world but our funding levels are too low. How do we resolve this paradox?”

A partial solution to this paradox is for museums and donors to direct more of the limited funding that is available to serving local needs. The National Museum of Kenya and its project in working with street children exemplifies the significance of social responsibility among museums. The program caters to local needs by bringing street children into the museum, having them participate in various fun activities and giving them a guided tour of the exhibitions. Children also participate in workshops with local artists and gain skills such as photography. The museum then puts their photographs and artworks on display and raises public awareness of the issue and generates interest and dialogue about solving the social problem. Although the program is not enough to solve the street children issue, the National Museum of Kenya has reached out to the community and opened up dialogue about creating social change. Also, as Fredrick Karnaja Miram (2003) notes, some of the street children benefited from the experience by selling their artwork on the streets.

According to AFRICOM, there are over 20 museums in Kenya. There are less then ten in Zambia and around ten in Tanzania. There are six genocide museums in Rwanda, but AFRICOM only lists one museum in the entire country. With so few museums in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, they must serve multiple purposes, first and foremost, meeting the needs of local communities. As Abungu concludes, “[African museums] must be places of social interaction that teach tolerance and acceptance in the face of increased globalization and cultural diversity. Not only are African museums learning more from local communities but they are also reaching out to encourage the participation of these local communities in the museums and its activities.” (Abungu 2005:154). Although Rwandan genocide memorials help boost tourism for the country, their prioritization of international community needs over local ones may seriously hamper or slow down reconciliation efforts in the future. In contrast, the National Museum of Kenya has launched initiatives that includes the needs of multiple groups of people, most importantly, locals. In Kenya and Rwanda, where museums and memorials are scarce and underfunded, and social problems of poverty impede awareness of and access to museums, museums can serve as sites that bring the local and international community together to promote social change.

2 AFRICOM is a non-profit organization formed since 1999 under the auspices of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), based in Africa and run by Africans, to promote a professional network of museums on the continent. Once a year, the NGO hosts a three-day conference to conduct workshops, presentations, discussions and meetings on challenges facing African museums and potential solutions.

Abungu, Lorna, Lawrence Monda and George Ombachi.

2005. “Museums and Communities in Africa: Facing the New Challenges” Public Archaeology. 4: 151-154.

1999. “Connectivity, Collaboration, and Culture: Challenges of African Museums on the Web.” National Museum of Kenya, Kenya.

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