Sierra Leone’s National Heritage

INTRODUCTION

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).

ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SIERRA LEONE NATIONAL MUSEUM

‘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.’

MUSEUM COVERAGE

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).

ROLE OF THE MUSEUM

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.

MEMBERSHIP OF PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS

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.

CHALLENGES

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.