Zimbabwe: Museums in an alarming state (Abstract of presentation at the 2007 National Conference on Cultural property Protection)

Zimbabwe: Museums in an alarming state Abstract of presentation at the 2007 National Conference on Cultural property Protection August/September 2006 Ton Cremers of Museum Security Network performed a Security and Safety Audit that had its origins in growing concerns of the Trustees and Senior Management of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) with regard to the immediate and long term future of the collections of their organisation.   Over the last three years that organisation had suffered two major and a series of minor ‘insider’ thefts and the challenges of identifying the culprits and retrieving the stolen objects and specimens had proved an impossible challenge.   A sister organisation, the National Gallery (NGZ) too had major concerns about the security and safety of collections and in June of 2006 the Harare Gallery was the victim of a ‘grab and run’ robbery in their well known ethnographic gallery.   Both Parastatal organisations were keenly aware of their ageing infrastructure and buildings designed in an era when the security of collections was a ‘non issue’ and given their cordial relationship had decided to combine efforts and focus on the issue of the ‘national’ collections of both the NMMZ and the NGZ.  Both organisations also suffer from shrinking recurrent capital and recurrent budgets (in a hyperinflationary economy) and from the international isolation of Zimbabwe which has had a particularly negative effect on the funding of cultural projects especially large-scale infrastructure and development projects.   A project document was written by the NMMZ in consultation with the NGZ and developed in liaison with the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Harare.  Full thanks and acknowledgement must go to the long term vision and courage of the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Harare in seeing the importance of the need to act decisively and quickly in the issue of Zimbabwe’s national collections.  The observations and recommendations of the audit need to now be acted upon and this will entail commitment of both organisations (which is definitely there) and also the commitment of resources.  It cannot be emphasized enough that if the audit recommendations are not implemented without delay and over the next five years, the National Museums and the National Galleries will lose their wonderful, world-class collections as so many similar institutions in Africa have done.    From the period August 11 to September 5 2006 audit visits were made to 7 major museum sites of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and to the 3 National Galleries of Zimbabwe.   A workshop was held at the National Gallery Harare on September 5, 2006        for staff of both the NMMZ and NGZ involved in collections management and security.  This was an empowerment and capacity building workshop and was the first of its kind that had been held in the area of collections safety and security.  A request was also received by the Director of the National Archives of Zimbabwe for my assistance and given that the institution had already suffered a number of serious ‘insider’ thefts, an audit was also made of the National Archives.   This was carried out in my own personal time but given that the Archives are also a vital part of the national collections of Zimbabwe, this seemed the best course of action. With regard to the NMMZ the collections are vast (8 million objects and specimens) and geographically diverse.   The collections in the NMMZ museums are of national and international importance and deserve a much more secure and safe environment than the one presently available.  There is an acknowledged lack of expertise and capacity in how to secure collections and in specialist training for security staff.   Whilst the organisation has recently appointed 5 security officers for each region of the museum, they have not enough knowledge or experience in museum work or the security management of collections.   At an organisational level, an ongoing process of training, developing policies, procedures and processes is needed for regional security officers, tour guides and guards.   All the museums visited need an extensive upgrade of the structural security and a complete upgrade of the burglar alarm and fire detection systems.    The next step in this process is to work with the NMMZ and NGZ to phase the implementation of the recommendations of the audit report.    Most significantly neither organisation have disaster or emergency plans and there is an acknowledgement that there is a lack of in-house capacity to prepare such plans.  The security challenges with which the individual NMMZ museums and the National Galleries are confronted differ only marginally.    Whilst Zimbabwe is in the African context the responsibility of national cultural organisations in that country as custodians of the national collections is not different to the European or American context.   The challenges however in meeting those standards are greater and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that fact.  There is no doubt that the will and determination of both organisations to improve matters and prevent further theft and loss is unshakeable and firm.    

During the preparation of the audit report, the author played a role as intermediary between the NMMZ, NGZ and international law enforcement agencies and the collection stolen from the National Gallery in June 2006 was recovered in Poland and is now safety housed in the National Museum of Poland, Warsaw.   The planned repatriation of this collection will be an excellent platform on which to promote the good intentions of NGZ.


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