Sierra Leone’s National Heritage


The term museum is from Ancient Greek, Mouseoin, which means “the place sacred to the muses.” According to Greek Mythology Mouseoin was the temple of muses, the nine goddesses that presided over poetry, songs, the arts, sciences and learning. In Greek Mythology the nine goddesses were the daughters of Zeus, the King of the gods and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Greeks believed that the muses lived on Mount Olympus with their leader, the god Apollo (American Association of Museums, 2000). In the 3rd century B.C. during the rule of the Ptolemy Dynasty, when the Greeks ruled over Ancient Egypt, Ptolemy 1 Soter founded an institution for literary and scientific study in Alexandria and called it a museum. With the revival of learning during the Renaissance in the 15th century A.D. Italian scholars kept their collections of historical materials in rooms called museums. The Renaissance nobles also had adorned their palaces with art, sculpture and collections of curiosities. It was much later that private collections passed to public ownership and were put on display. For example Pope Sixtus IV opened the Capitoline Museum to the public in 1447 and this was followed by Cesarini also in Rome. The first museum to be operated as a national institution was the British Museum in 1753 followed by the Palace of Louvre in Paris in 1793.Other famous museums are the Art Gallery in which the Mona Lisa is portrayed, the Metropolitan in New York, the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in Petersburg (Leningrad), and the Smithsonian in Washington (Sears, 2006).


‘There is always something new from Africa’ stated Pliny who lived from 23-79 A.D. This vast continent of Africa has some many firsts. The north of Africa is believed to be the cradle of civilization that is Ancient Egypt. It was in Ancient Egypt that the first museum came into existence. Further south are almost impassible barriers of desert and tropical forests, and beyond these, lies the greater part of Africa known to the Arabs as Bilad-as-Sudan, the land of the Black people. It was in this part of Africa in the Rift Valley in East Africa also known as Eastern Sudan that the oldest form of human life was discovered. The Western Sudan (West Africa) can boast of powerful ancient empires like Ghana, Songhai, Mali and Kanem Bornu.

Sierra Leone too has a very rich and diverse heritage. She has an abundant natural life; her archaeological sites date back to the Old Stone Age in Africa. Oral traditions date back to the time when the ancestors of current inhabitants settled in their respective areas. There is a great diversity of numerous secret societies with their associated cultural materials such as the Poro, Bondo, Gbagbani, Kofo, Regbainlay and Mathoma Secret Societies. There are also the old traditional arts and crafts monuments and relics which commemorate people and events long ago. This heritage has been built upon over the years by the works of sculptors, architects, painters, musicians, blacksmiths, goldsmiths and other creators of form and beauty. Up to 1957 Sierra Leone had no museum. The Monument and Relics Commission of 1st June 1947 provided the basis for the protection and preservation of ancient, historical and natural monuments, relics and other objects of archaeological, ethnographical (traditional Art ) and historical or other scientific interest as laid down by the Act. These historical relics were scattered all over the country collecting dust and mould in government ware houses, while her ethnographical treasures were being destroyed by weather wood-boring insects. In 1954, Sir Robert de Zouche Hall, a former Governor General challenged the Sierra Leone Society to create a National Museum for the country. This museum, according to the Governor, can contribute to the growth of national pride by collecting and preserving objects and making them available for contemplation and study. This challenge was taken up by M.C.F. Easmon and others with the formation of a Museum Sub-Committee (Cummings, 1996). The Old Cotton Tree Railway Station was acquired and rehabilitated, with the help of government, and was opened on the 10th December, 1957. The National Museum, according to Sir Maurice Dorman, was intended to collect, put in order and preserve the work of man’s hands that was fast disappearing from the lives of Sierra Leoneans. The National Museum, he added, ‘should be a place where the illiterate man can be inspired by the display of what is best in his culture, both in the past and present, there-by keeping a record of Sierra Leone for posterity.’


The Sierra Leone National Museum covers three areas: Archaeology, History and Ethnography. In the area of Archaeology there are large steatite (soapstone) heads, the Maye Yafe or Chiefs’ devils. These are believed to bring good luck to Chiefs and bad luck to the common man. There are figures called Nomoli, which are an enigma and are of unknown antiquity. The curator believes that these figures date back to the Middle Stone Age. There is a large collection of poetry and potsherds and it is believed that some of the pots on display in the museum date back to B.C. days. There is also an abundance of Old Stone Age tools such as choppers, hand axes, and polished New Stone Age tools together with many steatite bored stones which were once used as currency and as digging stick weights. In the History area the most prominent item is the original Charter of Sierra Leone signed in 1799 by King George III by which the settlement became a British Colony. There are also models of the de Reuter Stone on which the Admiral engraved his name after sacking Bunce and Tasso Islands in 1664. Bunce Island was a depot from where slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean. There are effigies of the late Sir Milton Margai, the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone and Bai Bureh, the last warrior chief who fought the British from 1898-1902. There is also a host of materials drawn from the colonial period such as canon, staffs of chiefs, swords, medals, coins, photographs, paintings and documents. In the area of Ethnography (Traditional Art) there are fully dressed masquerading dancers e.g. Sowei of the Bondo Society, Goboi, the regalia of Chiefs, Secret Society paraphernalia, exquisite carved masks, carvings in human and animal form, indigenous musical instruments like the drums which are integral in African rituals in birth, initiation and death, textile, basketry and other crafts. The Sierra Leone National Museum has a magnificent collection of artifacts and is truly a store house of the nation’s cultural treasures (Sierra Leone National Museum Prospectus, 2013).


The Sierra Leone National Museum preserves the national heritage; it is a complex institution for research, education and culture. It is an instrument of mass education, which caters for the needs of literates and illiterates, both young and old. Children of school going age make up the largest public served by the National Museum through guided tours. Apart from school groups individual children visit the museum every day. The museum exhibits are relevant to the school syllabi more so in disciplines like History, Social Studies, Agricultural Science and Civics. Thus essay and poster competitions are run by the museum for children. Since Art is the most natural means of expression of people who can’t read and write the exhibits in the National Museum are so arranged that they can speak for themselves. The museum is an important research center. It is research that brings the museum to life and makes it much more than a repository of dead objects. As research center the National Museum is the only place in the country where someone can find such historical documents like the Sierra Leone Charter. Thus students from both higher and tertiary institutions as well as researchers (locally and internationally) make extensive use of museum material in writing their projects. Some of the topics widely researched on in the museum are the origins of St John’s Maroon Church, tourism as instrument of socioeconomic development, traditional schools in Sierra Leone during pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary times, interment rites of paramount chiefs among different ethnic groups in the country, and mining in pre-colonial Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone National Museum is not only established for elites and the scholarly community but also to provide a service for the general public. The basic purpose of the museum is to enable the public to know and appreciate under conditions of display the artifacts which the institution collects, preserves and protects. Entrance to the museum is free because it is not only a national museum but also part of an international agreement (International Council of Museum) to which the Sierra Leone National Museum is a signatory should. Sierra Leoneans are aware of the fact that the National Museum forms an integral part of the local culture. The specimens of the cultures represented in the museum are currently in use and people are conscious of their existence and functions. The museum though national also interests non-national public composed mostly of European, American and Asian nationals, most of these are ignorant of African culture in general and Sierra Leonean culture in particular. Paradoxically the museum has touched both an informed and quite largely illiterate as well as educated and totally uninitiated publics. The following are a few remarks from the Museum’s Visitors Book:

• It is spectacular, keep it up! (A Nigerian).

• We entered into African mysteries (An Italian).

• Very interesting! Very painful especially the slaves (An American).

• Most and the best experience in Local History).

• It goes a long way in preserving our cultural heritage (A Sierra Leonean).

The Sierra Leone National Museum is an exhibition and communication center. It provides contact with real objects. It disseminates information about Sierra Leonean Art. Art pieces are themselves documents which are eloquent. From naturalistic figures held in the museum people can learn about the dress of the time. A sculptured piece reveals a little more than the person portrayed. For instance a carved warrior or hunter in the museum shows the type of weapon used at the time. The museum steers clear of ethnic distribution in the country of its objects. It aims at representing rather than pointing out local peculiarities. For example Rhythmic Arts (musical instruments), Occupations (fishing gear, basketry and pottery), cultural objects (insignia of Chiefs and bride money), and Women’s Activities (ornaments, combs and cooking utensils)) are portrayed in the museum. The reason being that both urban and rural visitors are anxious to see their ways of life reflected in the “Ancestral Home,” which is the museum. As local visitors go round the museum they search attentively for utensils, tools, weapons or familiar faces and are usually delighted or sometimes complaint to staff when these are absent. In brief the Museum plays a very important part at national and international levels. It helps the public to appreciate articles illustrating history. As repository of the national heritage it helps people to find the elements of their past and to acquire new spiritual wealth. The Museum renews in Sierra Leoneans a sense of belonging to a particularly civilization and stimulates in them the spirit of national pride and cohesion which are essential ingredients in nation building.


The Sierra Leone National Museum is a member of several professional bodies both at home and overseas. It has been a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) since 1964. The Museum is also a member of the Organization for Museums, Monuments and Sites in Africa (OMMSA), the cultural arm of the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), currently African Union(AU ). The Museum is represented in the Arts Education Association of Sierra Leone, which in the past organized Art Festivals in schools and colleges; it is also represented in the Public Archives Commission and the Sierra Leone Association of Librarians, Archivists and Information Professionals(SLAALIP).

The Sierra Leone National Museum continues to enjoy cordial relationship with UNESCO which has assisted in staff training and supply of equipment; the West African Museums Program in Dakar(WAMP),which has conducted several workshops on conservation and preservation of artifacts. Foreign Missions too have contributed immensely to the development of the museum. For example the Federal Republic of Germany in Sierra Leone erected an extension of the museum as a bicentenary gift. The French Embassy in Sierra Leone through the French Cooperation Technical Department rehabilitated the Old Cotton Tree Museum Building. The United States of America, through the Department of the United States Information Services has on several occasions invited the curator to visit the USA which has resulted to close links with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Museum of African Art in Washington, Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The U S Embassy was also instrumental in the twinning relationship with the Museum of Coastal History, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Through these links the Museum was supplied with the results of Indiana-American research projects, pamphlets, calendars of coming events, posters and future exhibitions. The twinning with the Museum of Coastal History, St Simons Island, Georgia, USA has led to the investigation of the “Trans-Atlantic Linkage-the Sierra Leone and the Gullah/Geechee Connection.” There has been a series of exchange visits between curators and the Great Spring Lecture was delivered at Fort Frederica, St Simon Island in 1995. In the same year a joint exhibition and a symposium was held on the “Trans-Atlantic Linkage” in Georgia.


One of the primary concerns of the Sierra Leone National Museum is how to combat the theft and illicit exportation of cultural artifacts. The Government of Sierra Leone has formulated a comprehensive national policy with statutes as contained in the Monuments and Relics Ordinance of 1947. The Ordinance provides for the preservation of ancient, historical and natural monuments, relics and other objects of historical, ethnographical and scientific interest. Any person who desires to export from the country any ethnographical item must submit it to the National Museum; a license will be issued which should be shown to customs officers at the point of departure. If an intended item for exportation has cultural, historical or archaeological value it will be retained in the country as part of the national heritage. Anyone found violating any of the regulations is liable to criminal prosecution under the provision of the Ordinance. If found guilty the person concerned will have to pay a fine of two hundred pounds sterling. In default of payment, the person will serve a prison sentence not exceeding six months. However, in spite of the efforts made by the Museum to protect cultural property smuggling of artifacts continues. It is disturbing to note that in Sierra Leone educated and intelligent persons purchase, sell and export protected cultural materials just for the sake of business promotion. What is more Sierra Leone has porous borders which people use to advantage in smuggling cultural materials out of the country with impunity.

Further the public service that the National Museum plays warrants public expenditure, especially if standards are to be maintained. Sadly government grants to the museum are meagre and this poses another challenge for the running of the museum. Often salaries paid to staff are not only discouraging often but delayed in payment. In 2014 for instance so much salary backlog was owed staff that staff struck and the museum ceased to operate for a while. Besides the National Museum does not have branches in the provinces but only centered in the capital city, Freetown. Staff are limited in number and ill-motivated. Hardly are they engaged in capacity building due to lack of funds. This has led to massive staff turn-over. More over working in the museum is not well regarded nation-wide. Most people view it as a job for school drop outs. Thus young people do not like pursuing museology as a career. Also staff do not embark on massive public education on the importance of the museum in society. Little wonder why school going children form the largest number of visitors to the museum as opposed to government functionaries and key stake holders in the country. Even the line ministry, the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the Museum is under does not seem to understand its importance in nation building. The Ministry priorities its activities and supporting the museum is not a priority. Thus in time of economic stringency the museum is a prone area to swindle funds (Sierra Leone National Museum Prospectus, 2013). If therefore government wants the National Museum to continue playing an ever increasing role in national development there is every need for government functionaries to give second thought on how best they can support it to meet this goal. Where the challenges faced by management are addressed the museum too can help generate the much needed foreign exchange in addition to its preservation of the national heritage.

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What is Heritage Interpretation?

What is Interpretation?

Many people have heard the word interpretation. Yet, this word may have a wide range of meanings for people based on their background, training, or experience in the interpretive profession. However, we feel that the best definition of interpretation is the one developed by a task force of Interpretation Canada which set out to develop the definition that would be used within Canada (1976). That definition has been picked up over the past 17 years by many other organizations, and is the one most often taught in university courses in interpretation. This definition is: “Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artifacts, landscapes and sites.” – Interpretation Canada.

It should be stressed that interpretive communications is not simply presenting information, but a specific communication strategy that is used to translate that information for people, from the technical language of the expert, to the everyday language of the visitor.

Where do the basic strategies, techniques and principles of Interpretive Communications come from?

It is important to remember that the communication process of interpretation did not spontaneously appear one day. Interpretation (the profession, and the techniques and approaches) are a wonderful mix from communication principles from many other professions. Interpreters should have a basic working knowledge of each of these to include:

  • Journalism
  • Marketing
  • Psychology
  • Non-formal and adult education theory and presentations
  • Business management and finance
  • Recreation and tourism planning/principles Media planning/design principles

In reality, we see the use of interpretive techniques and principles every time we see an advertisement in a magazine or on television.

Understanding the Audience

One of the key areas of knowledge that interpreters must have to be effective in their presentations is an understanding of how visitors learn and remember information in a recreational learning environment. A recreational learning experience is one where the person has self-selected to attend or participate in a program for “fun”. The “learning” that occurs is viewed as fun as well. Anyone that has a hobby, such as coin collecting, model making, studying aspects of history, bird watching, etc. is involved with recreational learning. We learn because we want to, and the process of learning and discovery gives us pleasure.

Information, Environmental Education and Interpretation – what’s the difference?

I am often asked what, if any, are the differences between the three; information, environmental education, and interpretation. Information presented to visitors is just that, straight facts, figures and dates. A field guide to birds provides “information” about the bird species, but usually no interpretation. But all interpretation contains information. Interpretation is not what you say to visitors, but rather the way you say it to them. Environmental Education (either the formal education process, or the hopeful result of a program or exhibit), can be presented in either an informational “instructional” approach or using an interpretive approach. Remember, interpretation is a communication process. If the process works in presenting and translating the information about the environment in a way that is meaningful for the audience, then environmental “education” occurs. I believe that true “education” occurs if the recipient of the communication:

  1. receives the message
  2. understands the message
  3. will actually remember the message
  4. possibly USE the information in some way.

I have seen many formal environmental education programs where very little “education” occurred. Participants were presented information, remembered parts of the information, but probably really didn’t understand the answers that they were giving back to their teachers. I have also seen teachers in formal classroom environmental education programs use “interpretive” techniques that left their students inspired, motivated, and excited about learning more. Interpretation is not topic or resource specific. The interpretive communication process can be used for interpreting anything, any subject. If the interpretive communication is effective, then “education” can occur about that subject. Interpretation is a objective driven, and market (audience) focused process that looks for results (the accomplishment of stated objectives). It uses marketing and advertising techniques, journalism strategies, and a host of other material integrate communication strategies to form our Interpretive Communications Strategy. Interpretation is also fun – a recreational learning experience. What is the Interpretive Communication Process?

The communication process used to “interpret” information is based on Tilden’s Interpretive Principles (Tilden, 1954). Tilden’s basic communication principles are also the ones you will find in every first year marketing or advertising text book on successful communication with your market (audience). First, the communication must Provoke curiosity, attention and interest in the audience. If you can’t get their attention, they won’t even stop at an exhibit, want to attend a program, or pay attention during programs. In planning the strategy as to how to provoke attention, the interpreter has to consider the answer to the question:Why would a visitor want to know this information? The answer to that questions ends up being the graphic, photo, or statement that gets the audiences attention. Continuing with the answer to the question Why would a visitor want to know this? the interpretation communication must find a way to relate the message to the every day life of the visitors. In advertising, it’s the answer to the question “why do you need this product or service?”. This part of the communication gives people reasons to continue with the exhibits, programs, or media – gives them a reason to pay attention and want to learn/learn more. The final part of the process is Revelation. Tilden says that we should reveal the ending or answer of the communication through a unique or unusual perspective of viewpoint. Save the answer to last. The reveal tells the visitor why the message was important for them, or how they can benefit from the information that was interpreted to them. Strive for message unity is another principle for interpretation. It means that when we plan or design our program, service, or media, that we use the right colors, costumes, music, designs, etc. to support the presentation of the message. Think of message unity as the stage setting and props for a theatrical presentation. Address the whole. This final principles means that all interpretation should address some main point or theme – “the big picture” of what is important about the park, historic site, tourism site, etc. that the visitor is at. The main theme is best illustrated by your answer to the question “if a visitor spends time going to programs, looking at exhibits, etc. while they are visiting my site, by the time they are ready to go back home if they only remember or learned one thing about why our site is so special, that one thing better be__________________________! The answer to this question is “the whole.” An example of such a theme might be “We are using state of the art land restoration techniques to improve this site for people and for wildlife.”

In short hand, we can summarize the basic principles of interpretation as:

  • Provoke
  • Relate
  • Reveal
  • Address the Whole
  • Strive for Message Unity
  • In addition, interpreters must ask two questions to help them plan and design their interpretive program, media or service.

    1. Why would the visitor want to know that? If you can’s answer this question, you are going to have trouble “marketing” the program or service. We don’t want to be in the business of giving answers to questions no one is asking.
    2. How do you want the visitor to use the information you are interpreting to them? If you don’t want visitors to use the information you are interpreting, then why are giving it to them?

    There are not any “right or wrong” answers to these questions. It does help the interpreter focus on interpretive something relevant to the visitors.


    This brief paper has focused on the basic presentation of what is interpretation. Interpretive Communication principles have evolved from a variety of other communication professions. The basic principles of what makes a presentation interpretive vs information is not so much on what you say, but rather how you say it. For the communication to be interpretive, it must Provoke, Relate, Reveal, Have Message Unity, and Address the Whole. The model of interpretation shows how the total communication process works, and becomes the basis for developing a philosophy and strategy for Interpretive Planning. To find out more bout Heritage Interpretation visit:

    Education, Healthcare and Energy Independence

    This current administration is piling on trillions of dollars in debt onto our already weakened economy while trying to convince us this is the proper way to reach its objectives of improving our education system, providing affordable healthcare and energy independence, not to mention turning around the economy. Don’t get me wrong, I am also for improving education, affordable healthcare and energy independence but the way this administration is trying to reach these objectives is like giving a hungry person a chicken sandwich without deboning the chicken first. When they bite into the sandwich and chip a tooth they are left with more dental bills than the sandwich was worth.

    Better education, affordable healthcare and energy independence all sound great but are they worth the debt that we are piling up now? What good will it do anyone if we accumulate more debt in the process of achieving these objectives than these programs are worth? I would like to see this administration set priorities with a clear explanation of how the priorities were established and how they intend to achieve them. If our economic downfall was a direct result from toxic loans where individuals accumulated more mortgage debt than they could repay, then how does this administration intend to turn the economy around and reach its objectives by this same principle, that is, accumulate more debt that you can repay?

    Improving Education

    Our current public education system is a government ran education system where the government dictates which public school, according to school district, a student has to attend. If our current school system is in disarray then it is a direct result of government intervention. How do we expect to see an improvement in our education system by allowing the government to have greater control over our education system? In order to mandate so called improvements the government is going to want greater control.

    I have often heard that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. If a government ran education system resulted in a poor quality of education for our children then how do we expect more government involvement to improve the system? I for one would like to see the government completely removed from running our education system and let parents make decisions regarding their children’s education. If parents make the decision of which school their children will attend then schools will have to raise their education standards to parent’s standards and not the governments.

    If we take the tax dollars that we are currently spending on education and give it to parents then parents are going to place their children where they feel their children will get the best education. The schools that are providing a better education will attract more parents and these schools will have more funds to pay teachers. Schools can then pay teachers according to performance levels and quality of the entire education system will improve. Parents have this freedom with child care and college and yet in between these years our government somehow knows what is best for our children.

    Affordable Healthcare

    As I was preparing this article I heard a report on the radio about how the health care industry was going to have layoffs due to losses from investments. What caught my attention was the statement that layoffs were due to losses from investments. I thought the healthcare industry was in business to provide healthcare and not manage investment portfolios. Why is it then that layoffs are driven by investment losses and not from losses resulting from rising unemployment?

    It has been widely reported that skyrocketing healthcare costs are a direct result of paying for the uninsured and yet staffing requirements are driven from investment values. Which brings me to another point that caught my attention, while the rest of the country has been struggling with economic turmoil the healthcare industry apparently has an investment portfolio that is strong enough that it takes until the spring of 2009 before its value effects significant layoffs.

    The healthcare industry has claimed that high costs are related to the number of uninsured as if everyone without healthcare insurance is a burden to the healthcare industry. If I own a store I may have to increase my prices to cover the losses from theft. It would not be ethical of me to increase my prices based on the number of people who enter my store that don’t have enough money to pay and not base it on the actual losses from stealing.

    What is the bottom line for conducting business in the healthcare industry. The formula is a simple one. Revenues minus costs equals profits or losses. If you make enough money to manage an investment portfolio then you are making a profit. If our government wants to get involved with controlling health care costs then why can’t it investigate the actual cost structure for the health care industry and quit feeding us information about the number of people that are uninsured. When the government finds occurrences of overcharging then heavy fines will get everyone’s attention.

    Energy Independence

    Our country depends heavily on foreign oil and if our nation were energy independent then the money that we are paying to have oil shipped into our country could remain in our economy. This disparity of paying foreign nations to provide the majority of our oil has been coined the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world and yet our nation still does not have a plan in place to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

    Our politicians are grid locked in a debate as to whether drilling for our own oil is the answer. We are told that if we started drilling now that it would take several years before any of the natural resources would be available for public consumption. Some politicians tell us that we need renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, but it will also take years to reach this objective. In the meantime our nation still needs energy to conduct day to day activities.

    Drilling now may not be the comprehensive answer to solving our energy independence problem just as building the blue ridge parkway did not solve future mass transit problems. The construction of the blue ridge parkway did provide immediate jobs though and our nation was in desperate need of jobs during the great depression. Drilling now will provide immediate construction jobs to erect platform rigs. These platform rigs will need construction materials which will provide manufacturing jobs and these materials will need to be delivered to the construction sites which will provide transportation jobs.

    We may not be able to drill our way to energy independence but we can drill our way to immediate job creation and shouldn’t job creation be a priority in a struggling economy. Our automobiles of the future may indeed be powered by renewable energy and our current automobiles will subsequently become antiques. These antiques will however be part of our heritage and if we want to preserve our heritage then we will want a way to fuel these antiques. Who knows? The drilling that we start today may be the energy requirements that we need to preserve our heritage of tomorrow without dependence to foreign oil.