“The real history of Africa, from the Iron Age, slavery, liberation struggle up to date, resides in the stories of the people who helped shape that history. But these stories, often transmitted in fragile oral form, are in danger of being swept away unless preserved and protected,” Ivor Ichokowitz has observed.
It is an observation that Institute of African Knowledge (Inastak) subscribes to, which is why it is building the Museum of African Liberation in Harare. Instak is working with UNESCO and the Government of Zimbabwe on the museum, which will document the history of the Africa’s liberation struggles.
Ambassador Kwame Muzawazi, the CEO of Instak, says the Museum of African Liberation is not just a building with relics and mementos, but was part of the broader objective to preserve African history, tell it objectively, and infuse a sense of pride in Africa and Africans. Instak – working with the African Union and the Government of Zimbabwe – was also behind the landmark publication of the first ever Africa Fact Book in 2020.
Ambassador Muzawazi says, “We have to understand that this project is coming when a lot has already been lost and forgotten. So what we are doing now is going back to our history and re-constructing certain things.
“In the next few weeks, we intend to put a very marquee here at the museum site and invite artists, painters, crafting people to put some of Africa’s historical facts into drawings. For some of our historic places and events, nobody took pictures back then, but we have artists who can go back into history artistically and re-create some events and places. Even in Europe they do that. In fact if you go to European churches, museums, it’s mostly recreations of things that happened long ago.”
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, museums worldwide are teetering, and some have closed, as the number of visitors remains low and virtual exhibitions fail to bring in the same kind of revenues as physical presentations.
Which may make it seem a bit of an odd time to be rolling out the Museum of African Liberation. Ambassador Muzawazi is aware of the risks. And he has a plan.
“We do not want our museum to see death, no matter what. We have learnt a lot of lessons from the COVID-19 situation. Most museums have closed because they cannot cater for their staff and maintenance anymore since exhibitions were their main source of income.
“These days museums … need value edition aspects. The reason many museums could not survive the COVID-19 pandemic, or the reason why most people do not know about some museums, is because they are dead buildings. What I mean to say is, the museums have not changed content; most of the stuff that was on display 20 years ago is the same stuff that is there now. And most museums rely on exhibitions only. The question is, who would be interested in visiting dead buildings? If crises like COVID-19 happens and there are no exhibitions, then what?
“The Museum of African Liberation is coming with a state-of-the-art hotel, conference centre, amusement park and a few other things, because we want it to attract as many people as possible. We want our people to keep in touch with our African history, but knowing that exhibiting that history alone will not attract many, we have decided to add value,” Ambassador Muzawazi explains.
The Museum of African Liberation is already being built on a hill just west of Harare’s CBD and opposite the National Heroes Acre. But Ambassador Muzawazi is not waiting for construction to be completed for the museum to start functioning. A mobile museum has already been rolled out.
Artifacts from across the continent have started being collected, and every African Union member with diplomatic representation to Zimbabwe has hoisted its flag at the museum site, in addition to planting a tree.
“We wanted to make sure the foundations were strong. The foundation is not just the bricks and concrete, but also the support and co-operation of our many partners, as well as properly planning for all processes. We have the support of all African nations. As you can see at the site, each flag there represents every country that has sent a representative to show support,” Ambassador Muzawazi says.
He continues: “We also have our friends from Europe who are showing support to the construction of this museum, and they are coming to put their flags as a symbol of support. Switzerland will be coming in next week to raise their flag, and they have asked for a piece of land to grow roses as a way of supporting and showing love to this project.”
Steve Biko Centre raises SADC flag high
The Steve Biko Centre in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province has been chosen to participate in the MuseumFutures Africa project along with five other museums.
The Steve Biko Centre is the only museum chosen from the SADC region.
The museum is dedicated to the legacy of anti-apartheid icon Stephen Bantu Biko, who died on September 12, 1977 after succumbing to injuries sustained from brutal torture by the police. He was instrumental in establishment of the Black Consciousness Movement and remains inspirational to millions today.
The MuseumFutures Africa is a Pan-African project established to support the conceptual development of museums throughout the continent. The programme is spearheaded by the Goethe-Institut and experts in the art and museums fields.
It was conceived after a series of Museum Conversations in 2019 as a means of mobilising museum-driven processes of innovation.
Archivist and assistant curator at the Steve Biko Centre Catherine Stratford said they were honoured to represent Southern Africa in the project.
“As we are a relatively new museum, the process of engaging with more experienced institutions will help us improve both our museum and our ways of thinking in the heritage sector. Connecting with other museums on the continent provides amazing opportunities and we are excited to participate in the process of rethinking African museums,” said Stratford.
The other participating institutions are the Musée Théodore Monod IFAN Université Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal), the Musée National of Conakry (Guinea), The National Museums of Kenya, Uganda Museum, and the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at Pan-Atlantic University (Nigeria).
IFAN was founded in 1936 and has established as one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for research in African culture.
The Musée National of Conakry houses a collection of objects that represent the country’s different ethnic groups.
The National Museums of Kenya brings together several institutions, sites and monuments spanning art, natural history and ethnological artifacts.
Uganda Museum is the country’s largest such institution and has a variety of different exhibitions that are inclined towards anthropology.
The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is dedicated to African arts and houses a large selection of works of art from Nigeria.
The six were chosen after an Africa-wide call for applications from museums that are characterised by their commitment to innovate and co-operate internationally.
“The MuseumFutures Africa project has come at the right time in the history of African museums. Museums in Africa are diverging from colonial museology to Africology in studying and presenting African histories and culture. This museum curriculum is expected to facilitate the ongoing transformation of African museums and the cultural sector by widening the platform of the museums through engagement with surrounding communities and inter-disciplinary engagement.
“Hence, the curriculum is structured to value the museum and community contributions to bring about desired change with new ideas, exhibitions, programmes and education packages that inspire a new generation of African experts and museums,” said the project co-ordinators.
On the steering committee are Rainer Hauswirth (Côte d’Ivoire); Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja (Namibia); Molemo Moiloa, Asma Diakité and Nadine Siegert (all South Africa); and Flower Manase (Tanzania).
“The museums are now working in pairs to exchange ideas and form a Pan-African network through monthly workshops until September 2021,” added the co-ordinators.