Curators hope to wake up Africa’s sleepy museums
By Alistair Thomson
DAKAR, Nov 12 (Reuters) – Shaded from the searing sun by the grand portico of Dakar’s Museum of African Arts, a security guard sleeps on a chair as a solitary visitor wanders in — a scene African museum experts hope to consign to history.
“Since the end of the colonial period we have seen the development of national museums … but we haven’t seen any further development of those major collections that were put together at the beginning of the independence era,” said Nii Quarcoopome, chairman of the West African Museums Programme.
“Many of them are in a terrible state of inertia,” he told Reuters in an interview during the organisation’s 25th birthday celebrations held in the Senegalese capital over the past week.
Inside the African Arts Museum, known by its French acronym IFAN, three people sitting chatting in the main hall glance up in surprise at the visitor.
Two of them hurry to the payment desk, remembering the 2,000 CFA franc ($4.50) entrance fee correctly at the second attempt.
“Many people here today?” asks the visitor.
“No,” replies a white-clad woman, proffering a ticket.
“Am I the first?”
IFAN boasts village scenes complete with life-size figures sporting the garish masks and extravagant costumes used in traditional ceremonies by tribes across West Africa.
But it is a far cry from the moving, talking models or computer animations that have drawn millions of visitors to big hi-tech museums in developed countries in recent years.
“We are way behind when it comes to being interactive. We also have to think innovatively about how to do these things, because we don’t always need the computer to handle things for us. We can use local resources,” said Quarcoopome, a Ghanaian.
At the nearby Armed Forces Museum, visitors can view a rare “Tirailleur Senegalais,” a double-barrelled gun named after the African infantry units from French colonies who died in their thousands fighting for France around the world, from the freezing trenches of World War One to battles in Indochina.
In another room hangs the flag that draped the coffin of Senegal’s founding poet-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor.
There is little by way of interactive exhibits although the $2 entry fee includes a serving Senegalese soldier to guide occasional visitors through the dingy rooms and dark corridors.
Abandoned in a courtyard under a washing line stands a large bronze of 19th century French colonial governor Louis Faidherbe, who was given the Senegalese name “Ndiaye” in recognition of his interest in local culture and command of the Wolof language.
“The concept of museums as repositories for relics and historical artefacts is essentially foreign to most sub-Saharan African peoples,” Quarcoopome said.
“Most communities in Africa are themselves living traditions. They live the traditions, and so to put an important historical artefact in a glass case with beautiful light on it in the same way that we see in many Western museums is something that they have yet to embrace fully,” he said.
Senegal had announced plans to build a big new military museum for education and research, but 10 years on little has happened.
Museums are a low priority for African government budgets, but they could help economic development, Quarcoopome said.
“West Africa is becoming more and more interested in developing tourism as an important area of their economies and I personally don’t see how you can possibly talk about tourism development without developing your museums,” he said. (Additional reporting by Normand Blouin; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)
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