“Before independence in 1962, the Uganda Museum, like other colonial establishments, enjoyed the Colonial Office patronage. External and sometimes internal funding was possible and a lot of activity in the Uganda Museum development dates to the period between 1953 and 1972. During this period a lot of collections, especially ethnographic collections were made and the Uganda Museum became renowned for its collections of musical instruments in the whole of Eastern and Central Africa. During the same period, archaeological research was undertaken and in addition to the fame which Makerere University acquired during the same period, the Uganda Museum became world famous for its natural and cultural heritage research and collections.”- Dr. Ephraim R. Kamuhagire, former Commissioner for Antiquities and Museums and current Senior Presidential Advisor on Cultural Matters.
The rosy picture above was before the government passed the 1977 decree which abolished the semi-autonomous status of the Museum and amalgamated it with all its antiquities to form a government funded Department of Antiquities and Museums.
When I visited the museum, I was impressed by how ancient yet well preserved it looked. The building is old enough to be falling apart but looks like it will hold for many decades to come. This is due to Ernst May, the German architect who designed it. In East Africa, he built mainly for the leading classes, such as the Aga Khan in Dar es Salaam in 1947. He was a leading architect and planner in the 1920′s and was most experienced in the building of housing units. Hence he was known for buildings that would last.
The museum itself does not smell moldy and the staff keep it clean. It is divided into sections depicting old European and African history. There is a model of the first mass-produced car made by Ford. Also displayed are ancient headdresses and weapons used by our tribal ancestors. One wall is dedicated to pictures representing the Olympic Games from the beginning of time in Athens, Greece. Most entertaining is the display of musical instruments which visitors are invited to sit down and play. As I played, I was transported to a time when this music was part and parcel of life and not relegated to a few traditional troupes and die-hards.
In a move that shocked many Ugandans, on January 14 of this year, the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry in an advertisement in the New Vision newspaper, called for bids to finance and design a 60-story building at the site where Uganda’s Mational Museum is currently located.
On March 9th 2011, four civil society groups filed a suit at the High Court in Kampala, seeking an order to stop the government and its agents from demolishing the museum.
Jeff Wadulo, Executive Director of Jenga Africa, one of the groups, contended that the museum houses artifacts of national historic importance, most of which are delicate in nature and may not survive removal to any place for keeping for 30 years – the period of time it would take to complete the proposed construction of the East African Trade Center. Court records show that the government intends to re-settle the Museum on two floors of the new building upon completion.
In response, Trade Minister Kahinda Otafiire was quoted as saying that civil society organisations and politicians that are against the demolition of the Uganda Museum are backward and the museum “must go”. His permanent secretary, Julius Onen, also said there was no need for cultural activists and politicians to worry about the proposed development.
“What makes up a museum is not the building but the content. We shall preserve and transfer whatever is inside the old building to the new one when completed,” he said.
Onen said there was need to demolish the old building because its current state does not guarantee the safety of the historic belongings housed there. The proposed 60-story building would take 30 years to be completed and would cost over 760 billion shillings.
As government tussles it out with civil society organizations, it seems that the country has forgotten about the mysterious ‘theft’ of the Uganda Museum’s land title deed in April 2010. To date, it has not been revealed whether the thieves were apprehended or how, without a land title, any sort of action can be taken regarding the site that is now the Uganda Museum.
“The Museum was specifically designed to fulfill architectural requirements to ensure preservation and proper housing. It would be difficult to house the objects inside it in any other building,” said Katrin Peters- Klaphake, a curator who has worked at the German Historical Museum, and is currently working at the Makerere University Art Gallery. She explained that the museum itself is a historical monument and demolishing it would be a loss to Uganda, to say the least.
“A museum needs to be an open and easily accessible building which is not the case if it was to get two floors in a high-rise that also houses a ministry and therefore requires certain security standards,” she explained. “Furthermore, the colonial architecture is part of the history, which raises a vivid discussion. Should past rules be erased or kept?”
Many Ugandans will agree that the museum may be a little run-down but it remains, both in itself and in its contents, an iconic part of our national heritage.
It was founded in 1908, and is the oldest museum in East Africa. It was designed by Ernst May and is most noted for its musical instruments, largely the work of Dr. Klaus Wachsmann who was curator from 1947 to 1957.
“There is no doubt about the value of the collection in expert circles,” emphasized Peters-Klaphake. “It is not safe to risk it in any long time storage which would be inevitable in the case of moving to a new building with long construction time.”
However, as arguments for the recognition and appreciation of cultural heritage fly back and forth, one fact is not being suitably addressed. The museum is a very dull place. Many youngsters today may not even be able to direct a tourist to it. Sheila Tumwesigye, a graduate of Social Sciences can attest to this.
“It is embarassing, but I have never been to the museum in my life.” She admitted. “I’ve been to the Ndere Center several times, but I think that is because it is marketed. No one talks about the museum. It is not advertised and it’s not considered a fun place to be.”
For all her ignorance however, she wants the museum to stay put. “I like to know that it’s there, you know?” she continued. “One day I’d like to go and think about all the people that have been there since it was first built. I don’t want to wait until I’m 50 for this skyscraper to be built.” Peters-Klaphake compares the preservation of culture to the preservation of wildlife.
“The Uganda Wildlife Authority has made remarkable progress in protecting and promoting wildlife, which is best supported by the importance of tourism to Uganda’s development,” she said. “However, the museum does not have the strengths that wildlife has to ensure its own preservation because it can’t create a comparable amount of income.”
It is imperative therefore, that the preservation of culture is valued over commercialisation by injecting a little more life into the Uganda museum. In 1959, it received an estimated 630 visitors every week. Oh, for the glories of the past.
Uganda does not suffer alone. According to a paper written by Dr. Ephraim R. Kamuhagire, a former commissioner for Antiquities and Museums, by the 21st century, museums in Africa had become depositaries of peoples’ cultures whose displays were characterized by “don’t touch” labels. The objects on displays were mystical pieces staring at the on-lookers which created ghostly impressions on their minds to the extent that rather than being attractions which would be visited, museums became places which would be avoided. For example, the Uganda Museum used to be referred to as “the house of fetishes and ghosts”.
The incorporation of the Department of Antiquities and Museums into the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry in 1977 was purposely to develop and promote the cultural tourism product in the tourism industry.
According to Dr.Kamuhangire’s study, the challenge museums in Africa have faced since the 20th century is lack of funding. Kamuhangire argues that museums work better if they are autonomous or private rather than public institutions heavily dependent on government and subvention for their operation.
Due to inadequate funding, the Uganda Museum has lost its place as the best museum in East and Central African region. In 1994, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) prepared a Report for the Government providing priorities for improvement and development of the museum.
To bring the cultural experience closer to the people is important for the museum. Currently it is a rich source of history but lacking in entertainment. As mentioned earlier, the musical section is still the most popular in the museum, whereby visitors are invited to play on the instruments. It would not be a bad idea to transform the museum into a house of culture, with events and readings taking place there.
Granted, society is evolving at a rapid pace. Ugandans leave their villages to seek greener pastures in the city and, over time, lose their roots and traditions. Once in a while however, it is soothing to pay a visit to the museum and relax. Lively or not, it is difficult to walk in and stroll out in less than forty minutes because there is a lot to see, and a lovely green compound to relax in.
by Lindsey Kukunda